20 Questions With: Digawolf

With fewer than 2,500 remaining speakers, the Tlicho language is officially endangered. Thankfully, a little rock band out of Canada’s Northwest Territories is on a mission to preserve it.

Made up of front man Jesse James Gon (aka Diga), drummer David Dowe and bassist Mel Sabourin, Digawolf has been delivering its trademark blend of traditional and contemporary music since 2010. Touching on everything from family and relationships to nature and Tlicho culture, Diga’s songwriting gives listeners a glimpse of authentic Northern living – complete with lyrics in his native tongue.

And while the band is based in the tiny town of Behchoko (located about 80 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife), their success has been anything but regional. In addition to opening for the likes of Sam Roberts and the White Stripes, Digawolf has garnered nominations from The Junos, the Western Canadian Music Awards, the Canadian Folk Music Awards and the Indigenous Music Awards. Earlier this year, they participated in Canadian Music Week in Toronto and are currently in Europe. Later this summer, the band will head to Iqaluit for the Alianait Arts Festival, and hit up their local festival, Folk on the Rocks, in Yellowknife.

We recently interviewed front man Diga about technology, language and more. Here’s what he had to say.

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How would you describe Digawolf’s sound?

Jimmie Hendrix, Roy Buchanan and Leonard Cohen hanging out jamming.

Who are some of the group’s musical influences? Have they changed over time?

My favourite guitarist is Roy Buchanan, my favourite artists are Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. They are my top three musicians that I still enjoy to this day.

Where does your musical inspiration come from?

I had five older brothers who are musicians. Originally, I wanted to become a painter, an artist, and never really wanted to become a musician. A long time ago, my brother David Gon was releasing his second album and let me listen to it. It really inspired me to pursue music. My brothers continue to influence my development in music to this day.

Some Indigenous artists choose to embrace their culture, while others completely ignore it. Others fall somewhere in between. Tell us a bit about your roots, and the role they play in both your day-to-day life and your music in particular.

I grew up in Behchoko, NT, and I grew up speaking my language. My father and my mother instilled the language since I was born, and spoke my language as long as I can remember. It was only when I turned nine that I really started speaking English. Years later, after southern school, I still hung on to Tlicho, and it’s still a huge part of my life. I still try hard to learn as much as I can with help from family and friends, and to try to maintain a strong connection.

Language is a huge factor; I feel like through music I am able to try to preserve it. Anybody who can preserve their language through different forms of media is doing something worthwhile.dsc_9779

Most people haven’t had the opportunity to venture as far north as Behchoko. Tell us a bit about growing up and living there.

It is a remote northern community, the capital of the Tlicho Nation. Just like anyone else’s hometown, it has a sense of familiarity for me. And, if you do visit, I helped make all of the Tlicho road signs.

What’s the current music scene like in the Northwest Territories, and how has it changed over time?

The economy has a lot to do with it. The music venues have shut down over the years, there are less open mics, less opportunities, especially in the far North. I think there is a lot of talent in the NWT, more than people might realize, but we don’t necessarily have the established industry to support those artists.

Yet, in some ways it has changed for the better over time. Technology has allowed a lot of Northern musicians to record themselves at home. It has really allowed people to cost effectively do their own projects locally. We are starting to see more and more really amazing projects coming out of the North. And social media makes it easier than ever to promote your projects globally.

Speaking of social media, technology has come a long way in the past few years. What effect do you think that’s had on Digawolf in particular, and all musicians from remote areas in general?

It has made the industry more accessible to the North. We are able to take care of the business we need to easily from home. All the same, sometimes it is about being on stage, in front of presenters, and that hasn’t become any cheaper or easier. We still work hard for those opportunities.

While social media is a great tool for artists, particularly remote artists, you need to know how to use it, and use it well. Luckily for us, we have a great manager (Jesse Reid). We call her Ms. Epstein. (laughs)

Do you think it’s more difficult for Indigenous artists to break into mainstream music? 

Yes and no. There are some very talented Indigenous artists who are being recognized worldwide, whether it be throat singing, or singing in their language. It may all depend on what your goal is, and on the people you have around you, the team. And yes, it is hard for some, if you are trying to be something you are not. I think the most important element that will get you to that level is the quality of the music. Tanya Tagaq, a Tribe Called Red and Kashtin all have two things in common: great music and conviction.

For my music and my language, there is a population of roughly 2,200 people speaking Tlicho, and it is harder to break into the mainstream when you have those limitations. The English population will not understand what I am singing about, so in some ways it is harder to break through. But that isn’t really my focus.

Tell us a bit more about your fusion of Tlicho and English. Why do you choose to incorporate both languages in your music, and how do you decide when to do it?

I usually have a story that I want to tell. Sometimes those stories are best conveyed in one language. It depends on the story. If it makes more sense in English, then I keep it in English. If it makes more sense in Tlicho, I translate it into Tlicho. The music around it also sort of dictates whether it is going to be English or Tlicho, depending on the feel of the music. It’s like painting with audio.

How has your sound evolved between Distant Morning Star (2009) and Great Northern Man (2015)?

I really wanted to explore more in the instrumental parts, and off-time guitar work, bass lines, etc. I’m experimenting a lot with feedback and strange sounds. But mostly, the language, the Tlicho language; I wanted to pursue my language even further through music, and I wanted to try to make the language as much a part of the album as possible.

Do you prefer songwriting or performing? Why?

Sometimes it is both, sometimes neither. For example, I don’t like songwriting, because it wakes me up at night, because I have an idea, a line, or a song. It drives you crazy. It doesn’t pay the bills, and it keeps you up at night.

The same goes with performing. Sometimes I don’t like it when the atmosphere isn’t right, the equipment isn’t working, and the sound on stage is off, or trying to find a groove when it just doesn’t happen.

And then I love both, because it is satisfying at the end of the day when you have a song that you have written, and you have a chance to perform when everything seems right, everything lines up, and you’ve enjoyed playing with your band mates.

You were recently nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award and a Western Canadian Music Award, to go along with your 2010 Juno nomination and some love from the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards (2003 and 2005). What does the recognition mean to you, and what’s the band’s greatest accomplishment to date?

Well, the nominations, first and foremost, are our award. But, the greatest accomplishment is the people that we have met along the way. Having a strong team around us with awesome friendships, and learning together, traveling together. It’s more like a family than a band.

What has been your biggest struggle or challenge, either personally or professionally?

It is the sacrifices that you make for music. I’ve been homeless, quit my job, moved to cities far from my home, sacrificed relationships, have been broke half the time. You just have to make it work. All the same, we now have a strong team surrounding us, people who believe in the music and what we do. I’m grateful, and I don’t regret a thing.

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What do you hope to accomplish through your music? What do you hope people take from it?

To inspire. To inspire the next generation to preserve more languages, and use the language that they have. Through all sorts of medium, not only music, but art, video, whatever you have.

What do you do when you’re not making music?

I work on my solo projects under the name Diga. I pursue other forms of art: cartooning, drawing, and writing poetry. I also just opened a production company, Naka Productions, and my aim is to help other Northern artists launch their careers. As a band, we all have other projects we are actively working on. I think it is a good thing if everyone is creatively stimulated in their own lives, and then we come together as a team and make it happen for Digawolf.

What’s something that might surprise people about Digawolf?

That I’m a huge Star Trek fan.

How do you define success?

I don’t like the word success; it feels like the end of the road. I like the whole idea of seeing it as achieving your next goal. It never ends.

What can people expect from a Digawolf performance?

The obvious would be hearing the Tlicho language, with drums, bass and guitar.

Usually, when we are playing in front of a first-time audience, the response is always surprise … we kind of come out of nowhere. People aren’t used to my gruff voice, I am no Justin Timberlake, and the guitar work usually gets positive feedback. I know that the band and I have an awesome time on stage playing together, working off each other’s vibe.

What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up for you in the next year?

Currently, I am working on a solo project. Exploring sound and music under the name Diga. I am heading to Denmark in May to work on a new recording project with Jan de Vroede, an amazing musician and producer! We are recording new music on location in an old barn, hoping to pick up a lot of interesting sounds from the atmosphere and creaky floorboards. We have some pretty amazing musicians lined up to work on it, and it is going to be pretty interesting to see what comes out of it.

We have a bunch of festival tour dates throughout Canada this summer, as well. Overall, the plan is to head more frequently to Ontario, Quebec and over to Europe. This coming September, I am planning on going to audio engineering school in Ottawa for a year, but that isn’t going to stop my touring; if anything, it might be a little easier while I’m down there!

Is there anything else you want our audience to know about you?

I have a speech impediment, so if you meet me and I’m staring at you, it is not because I am rude, but because I am trying to find a word that doesn’t have the letter D in it. Too bad the band is called Digawolf …

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