20 Questions With: Christa Couture
From tearjerkers to foot-stompers and everything in between, Christa Couture’s catalog consists of music – and stories – for every emotion.
Fitting, considering the self-proclaimed cyborg has already experienced more than most people do in a lifetime. At 13, Couture’s battle with bone cancer claimed her left leg; perhaps hardest of all, she lost two children in separate circumstances, one a day after birth and the other at 14 months.
Yet through it all, whether it’s writing tunes or decking out her prosthesis with floral upholstery fabric, she has managed to transform her heartbreak into beautiful art.
Raised in Edmonton by a folk-singing mother and a father who performed traditional Cree music, Couture emerged on Canada’s folk scene with 2005’s Fell Out Of Oz. In 2008, she won Best Folk Acoustic Album at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards for The Wedding Singer and the Undertaker, and has since released The Living Record (2012) and Long Time Leaving (2016). Much like Couture’s personal journey, her music is tinged with tragedy, sadness and loss. But also resilience, spirit and hope. Regardless of tone or topic, her highly-acclaimed albums are always brimming with abounding emotion, brilliant songwriting and stunning vocals.
In addition to her music, Couture dabbles in non-fiction writing, works as an associate producer for CBC and keeps her finger on the pulse of the Indigenous music scene as project manager with Revolutions Per Minute.
We recently caught up with Christa to talk about music, optimism and more. See what she had to say in the interview below.
You grew up in a musical family. Did you immediately take to it, or was it more of an “acquired taste”? Which instrument did you start with?
I can’t remember a time in my childhood without music, so it was simply built-in. My traditional name is Sanibe – it means “Singing Woman,” and the elder who gave it to me said, “She’s going to talk a lot, and she’s going to sing a lot.” Voice was my first instrument and I also can’t remember when I started writing songs; I just always have. Other than voice, there was violin, which I detested, and then piano, which I adored but was undisciplined with studying.
How would you describe your sound, and has it changed over time?
I always use the word folk for my music, in the sense of storytelling being at its core. Genre-wise it has explored — if not changed — over the years, dipping its toes into a bit of pop, a bit of cabaret, a bit of country. I think my singing voice, in earlier years, was derivative or at least revealing of influences at the time, namely Ani Difranco and Tori Amos, but that has definitely changed. It took time for me to relax into my own voice.
What’s the first album you ever bought?
Tiffany, Hold an Old Friend’s Hand. On cassette. Her debut album the year before had of course been the hit and in my budding awareness of pop culture, I just missed the mark!
What are you listening to these days?
This week I am listening to Tara Williamson’s new album, Songs to Keep Us Warm. I love it. I also picked up Magic Fire this week by the Stray Birds, and my favourite albums of the year so far have otherwise been Love Waves by Veda Hilled, See Us Through by Michelle Willis, and For Evelyn by Hannah Georgas.
Let’s chat a bit about your latest album. Long Time Leaving is kind of a departure from your past work – more upbeat and fun. Happy even. Was this a conscious artistic decision, or more a reflection of where you were at when you were writing it?
It was a conscious artistic choice when it came time to choose which songs to record. I wanted to have fun recording and performing the songs; I wanted to make an album that didn’t make me cry! Goodness knows I love a good cry-along album. But I’ve put my heart on the line so much in my previous work that this time I decided to keep things a little closer to the surface and to not dig or reveal too deep. There’s still sad stories woven in there, but at least aurally it’s something that sounds different overall.
Tell us a bit about the recording of the album. What was it like working in Nashville, and with Steve Dawson? How did the experience compare to your previous albums?
I had made my third album (The Living Record in 2012) with Steve in Vancouver, and since then he had moved to Nashville. I knew I wanted to work with him again and the chance to do so in his new studio down there was brilliant. I love working with Steve — he holds a high standard in all that he does, yet he isn’t inflexible, and by the time we were into making a second album together, our rapport just became easier. I was star struck the first time around, I must admit, and so I was more relaxed with this album. Steve loves what he does and he’s fantastic at it. Compared to my previous albums, I was just more relaxed overall. I realized I’m the person these albums matter to most, so I figured out how to better slow down and enjoy each step as much as I could.
The video for That Little Part of My Heart is brilliant! Where did the idea come from?
The idea and the video was totally the work of director Sean Springer and his producing partner Maryanne Macdonald. They pulled that off on less than a shoestring, and almost entirely creative wits. I adore what they did. The idea ultimately came down to relationships and an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” point in time.
Do you prefer writing or performing? Why?
I don’t think I could choose a preference between writing and performing; they are such different experiences. Writing is so personal, vulnerable, even messy sometimes. Performing is outward, it’s making a connection. I enjoy and am nurtured by both.
Tell us a bit about your non-fiction writing. How does the process differ from your songwriting, and what do you like to write about?
I write personal essays and in many ways that doesn’t differ much from my songwriting, as the songwriting is also quite autobiographical. It’s just a different format. Songs, when they come, they feel like gifts. They tap into a creative space in a way that I can’t force, and in a way that feels like I gain insight into my experiences. In non-fiction writing, it’s not that I don’t have moments of inspiration, but I can draw it out more easily. It’s more in-depth and more analytical. Certainly more edited. But ultimately, what I like to write about are my experiences, the ones I want to share and the ones I’m working to understand.
RPM recently launched a concert series and a record label. Tell us a bit about what’s going on there.
Bringing music into a physical space simply made sense as the next step for us! RPM has been part of such an incredible community online, and makes so many connections for artists and fans and ears and hearts in that space, but of course music is also so physical. We wanted to bring people together, to bring our audience together, and new audiences together, actually in a room to feel and listen and dance together in person. The response has been exceptional, and greater than we expected.
The label side is very much run by my colleague Jarrett Martineau, though of course it’s intrinsic with RPM overall. The artists on the roster so far are Mob Bounce, Exquisite Ghost, Ziibiwan, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The response there has also been incredible. These are brilliant artists making really exciting work. And an all Indig label — in the artists we represent, and in the people running it — was so needed on Turtle Island.
Despite the success of artists like A Tribe Called Red, and recent Polaris recognition for Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tanya Tagaq, the majority of Indigenous artists are still on the fringe of the national music scene. Why do you think that is, and do you think it will ever change?
It’s complicated. Or it isn’t. I mean, why are Indigenous artists on the fringe? Racism. And then there is the issue of access to resources to create, develop, produce, distribute, and grow — a lot of systemic barriers are in place along the way. Yes, I think it will change. It continues to change, we can see that, even though it can feel so slow and hard we are all doing that work together.
What’s the highlight of your professional life to date?
There have been so many rewarding moments! Playing the Winnipeg Folk Festival — that had been a dream for so long. Playing the Sendesaal in Bremen (Germany), a dream that both formed and realized itself very quickly a few years ago. I think that’s one of the most magical nights I’ve had, and I’ve been blessed with my share of magical moments. Hearing Tom Power introduce one of my songs on CBC. Actually, all CBC airplay and appearances — I’m such a big CBC fangirl that anytime I get to go to one of the studios across the country I swoon.
Describe yourself in three words.
Sanguine. Strong. Sonorous.
From common experiences like divorce to more personal hardships like fighting cancer and losing two children, you’ve faced your share of challenges. Do you think being an artist has affected the way you’ve dealt with these experiences? If so, for better or worse?
It’s hard to say because I haven’t known a different experience. I certainly have been very grateful to have artistic expression as an outlet — banging on a piano is very cathartic! And from there, I find ways to fine tune and share my story. Grief, especially, can be a very lonely feeling. Being an artist has been a way I can talk about those experiences, express myself, and connect with others. Music has the power to offer reprieve.
How do you balance writing autobiographical content with sharing too much? Or is there such a thing as sharing too much?
I totally think there is sharing too much, and with each album I spend time choosing what songs, what stories, to include. Because I have been open with many of my personal experiences, I think some people think I’m an open book. I’m actually carefully edited in what I make public, in hopes of creating something both artful and relatable.
You know firsthand the ability music has to connect, even heal. What do you hope people take from listening to your albums or attending your shows?
I hope people feel less alone. I hope people feel touched. I hope with the new album people feel like they can sing along!
You’ve openly spoken about the effect your new prosthesis has had on your life. Tell us a bit about the transition, both physiologically and emotionally.
I’ve been an amputee for 25 years and I thought I had plateaued as far as how I moved physically in the world. But two years ago, I got a new kind of knee, a microprocessor knee. It introduced a new way of moving, new capacity, new comfort, in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. This coincided with getting a new cosmetics for the prosthetic — after years of keeping it hidden, I got a custom floral cover and decided to celebrate rather than hide this part of myself. The new aesthetic combined with the new ability translated into feeling so much more comfortable with my disability. Empowered by it, really. This also probably as to do with being in my 30s — just settling into my own skin, real and prosthetic (laughs).
We’ve never met, but I would describe you as being optimistic without being delusional or naïve. What is it that gives you hope?
I am an optimistic person, it’s true. And I’ve certainly lived with hopelessness. But when I feel hope, it comes from knowing that everything changes.
Does this optimism and positivity come naturally to you? Or is it a conscious effort?
I have an innate optimism, something planted it in there a long time ago. But I don’t have a rosy perspective — I just try very much to see things as they are, and own my own shit really. I make an effort to do that. And as much as there is genuine sorrow in the world, there is genuine joy, we see it every day! And, nothing lasts. I make an effort to stay present. That part doesn’t come as naturally as optimism.
What’s coming up for you? What are your hopes, goals and expectations for 2017?
In 2017 I hope to stay in one place. I’ll be releasing a new music video and some remixes of the single, but otherwise my creative energy is going into writing a longform non-fiction piece right now. I want to wake up in my own bed every day for awhile, and be part of my community in Toronto. I’m also working at CBC Digital for the next year and looking forward to contributing there as well. So lots of writing. Lots of words. Less travel! More stability and slow Sundays are on the horizon.