20 Questions With: Mimi O’Bonsawin
Growing up in Sudbury, Ont., Mimi O’Bonsawin didn’t like the idea of standing out. Today, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I was so insulted when in Grade 8 I got the ‘most unique’ award,” recalls the Toronto-based singer/songwriter. “But I embrace that now. I’ve always been, and always will be, a little eccentric.”
That very eccentricity – along with killer vocals, refreshingly honest lyrics and a palpable passion for life – makes Mimi impossible to ignore. Whether she’s spreading inspiration or speaking out against injustices, she uses music as a way to not only share her stories, but to honour her roots (she is French-Canadian and Abénakis) and connect with others.
And at only 22, she’s just getting started.
Since graduating high school, Mimi’s released a full-length studio album, performed at Midem in France, opened for the likes of Buffy Sainte-Marie and launched a songwriting program for students. For the past year, she’s been hard at work on her second album and a series of music videos.
To mark the Oct. 18 release of the album’s first single, How Long, we recently reached out to Mimi. Here’s what she had to say about Bob Marley, her upcoming album and more.
How did you get involved with music?
Before I could even speak, I would perform for my family. My first official gig was when I was six or seven and I sang the national anthem at a hockey game. Music has always been a part of me, but I decided to make this my life right out of high school.
Who are some of your musical influences, and have they changed over time?
My influences are always changing. As I grow older and experience more of life, I relate to different songs and artists. My main influences are Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ben Harper, Bill Withers, Donavon Frankenreiter, and John Butler Trio.
How would you describe your sound?
The best way I can describe my sound is organic and honest; I just do what feels right to me. I’m lucky to be working with a producer and a band that nurtures that. I like sounds that feel raw, woody, and natural. I’ve heard the term “rootsy,” but even that doesn’t fully describe my art.
Your songs and videos are refreshingly fun, happy and light-hearted. Is this a conscious decision artistically, or more a reflection of your personality?
I simply love people. I think that is naturally reflected in my writing. When I’m writing, I don’t have specific goals, previsions, or restraints; I just let whatever comes flow onto the paper. Sometimes, I write certain songs for myself. My song Brave, I would say, is a message I needed to write for myself at that specific time of my life. The seed is planted when I get the idea, then it grows and becomes something more with the help of my band and producer.
For this upcoming album, I wrote songs from my heart, and some of them aren’t so light and bubbly. They are all honest representations of what I believe and where my heart is, although there definitely are happy songs. I think it’s just who I am as a person and an artist. I drive a tie-dye car for goodness sake.
Tell us a bit about your debut album in 2014 … how it came together, what it was like making it, the general sound and feel of the album.
My 2014 album was my first-ever experience recording. I learned so much about myself, and what I want to do musically. My producer at the time and I spent a lot of time writing and creating. I would say it represents who I was in 2014. It was pretty eclectic, ranging from reggae and blues to jazz and roots. Looking back at it now, it makes sense because I was still figuring out what I loved and was exposing myself to all kinds of music. I still do that, but I would say I have a little more of a focus genre-wise. Making that album was a great learning experience and obviously I enjoyed it because I’m doing it all over again.
What specifically did you learn from the experience? And how did the success of that album live up to your expectations?
Since it was my first experience in the music business, I didn’t know what to expect. The amount of support I received was unimaginable, especially during the CD release concert in Sudbury (sold-out crowd at 380 seats). I would say that since November of 2014, my life has changed a lot — but completely for the better. When I was a kid I used to fantasize about hearing my song on the radio and imagining people singing along to my music. The first time I heard my song play on the radio, I cried. It’s been a dream come true. I’ve gained a lot of experience since 2014. I love learning and I’ve surrounded myself with people that I admire and that I can learn from.
The video for your new single drops Oct. 18. Tell us a bit about How Long.
How Long was the last song written for the album. I had been working on all the songs for over a year. When finally I was arranging and organizing the album with my producer Thomas McKay, we looked at each other and decided there needed to be one more song about my passion for justice. I went home and looked at a poem I had written previously and it became a song that night. It was one of those songs that happens in one shot. It just flowed and came out and the vision was already there. I went back to the studio the next day, presented the song, and he loved it. This song was different for me too. I was holding back on writing a song about my social, political and environmental views, but I think it came out at the right time; I needed to say this. Thomas also encouraged me to say what I really wanted to say. This is a very honest song for me — it was out of my comfort zone but I’m so happy with the outcome, it feels good.
How Long is an observation on the world we live in, it’s a question for everyone, including myself. I think we all have responsibilities and we need to look at those seriously before it’s too late. We have a responsibility to take care of the earth, and each other.
Compared with your first album, how has your sound changed?
I’m very excited about this new album and this new single because I think I’ve grown and changed a lot as an artist, a person, and this new music is where I am now. It’s very different from my first record. My producer and I spent a lot of time talking about what I love about the music, and he achieved on focusing the genre a bit more. He wanted to “create the world of Mimi,” and I think he succeeded. I love everything about this record. We stayed honest to the songs and worked hard to make them the best they could be. My live band is also the band on the album. That was really important to me because they have been with me since these new songs were just babies. My bandmates are my brothers and sisters, and that vibe was a big part of the sound I wanted.
The sounds are different than the last record. We captured warm, natural, woody sounds. Lots of percussion, lots of vocals and lots of space — I love space. For my performance on this album, Thomas McKay was extremely nurturing and gave me all the freedom I needed. It felt good.
Some indigenous artists embrace their culture, while others completely ignore it or fall somewhere in between. Tell us a bit about your roots, and the role they play in your day-to-day life and your music in particular.
I was previously told by managers and agents to not get caught up in the Native music world. Which sounded quite off to me, seeing as it’s a big part of my identity. I was always told I shouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as an indigenous artist because it wasn’t the career I wanted, but that is so far from the truth. My culture is something I have weaved into every aspect of my life. I grew up in a French household and knew not too much about my Abénakis roots. When I began to learn more and more about the teachings, the culture, and the history, it started to explain so many things and I am so grateful for that. I am so proud to be both French and Abénakis; naturally it is an ingredient in my music as well. I feel like the more I learned about my roots (both French and Abénakis), the more I knew about myself and the flame inside my soul turned into wildfire. The mere thought of controlling that fire to me is absurd. This is who I am and what I believe in; what I experience and the stories I want to share are all part of the picture. I refuse to hide my roots, I embrace them. In fact, I am inspired by them.
I knew I had met the right producer when I met Tom because he instantly, without hesitation, embraced my cultures and knew that it was going to be a big part of this record. My bandmates, too. During our concerts, I bring out my drum, do some chanting, or sing in French. They accept that it’s part of my art.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
I’ve gotten to experience some of the most beautiful things in these past couple of years. I do consider myself a baby in this industry, but it makes me excited because these past couple years are just the beginning. Performing in Cannes France for Midem was so exciting, and opening for Buffy Sainte-Marie this summer was a dream come true — she’s one of my idols. One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received was having a Grade 4 class at Metropolitan Andrei Catholic School sing my song Brave to me. I walked in the class and before we started the workshop, they surprised me by performing my song to me, impossible not to cry. But even more inspiring was when we asked a student how it made him feel to sing this song. He said that he had a lot of bad days, and that people often teased him. But when he sang this song, it gave him courage and let him know that he could be who he wanted to be. Being able to connect with people is my greatest achievement.
What has been your biggest struggle or challenge, either personally or professionally?
I couldn’t name one specific thing. Everyone has their own personal struggles; that’s what makes us so special, that’s what makes us human. We all have to face different things in our lives, and we can use that to learn from each other. I have this song I perform live called March On. The verses are told in the first person, and they are stories about people facing something hard, and surviving because of their courage and their tenacity. Their will to survive. The chorus is a call and response: “When it’s hard to find your way, be brave. Let your journey make you strong, march on.”
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I do music every day, it’s my full-time job, but I do give myself some down time. I make jewelry and I started painting. I love creating stuff, exploring and being outdoors.
There’s a ton of musicians out there. What makes Mimi O’Bonsawin different?
I’ve always been very different from most people and I think because the artist me and the everyday me is the same person. I bring my ‘uniqueness’ into all aspects of my life, including my art. I don’t have extensive music training and I don’t know much theory. I just trust my gut and my ears. So sometimes I come out with things that don’t really “make sense,” but they make sense to my ears. For example, I write with a guitalele that is in an open-A tuning. So I write songs and find chords that match what I hear in my heart and then I leave it up to my bandmates to put names to it.
When it comes to songwriting, I feel like I have a very unique perspective. Being a mixed heritage woman, I know that I see the word in a different way than most people and I write from that place.
As a musician, how do you define success?
Success to me is creating music that people can relate to. To me, Bob Marley is successful not because he had a good career in music, but because he touched so many lives with his music, his stories and his message. His music is timeless. I think when you write and create from an honest place and it’s real, it will always be relevant. That is my goal in my career — to create something that will stand the test of time and will always speak to people and touch their souls.
You’re relatively young yourself, but what advice would you give to young singer/songwriters trying to make it in the music industry?
Follow your heart. Honestly, I am lucky that I have supportive parents. They raised me to chase after my dreams and to be happy with who I am. If you want to make music and your heart is screaming, then you have to give it your all. No regrets! It takes a lot of work, dedication, and passion. If your heart wants it, do it. Dreams are a wonderful gift if you use them.
Tell us a bit about your Rhythm & Rhyme workshop.
My good friend and project partner for Rhythm and Rhyme, Stephen Hurley, and I had been bouncing around ideas for about a year before it became something. I love his passion for education and music. We found each other and clicked right away. He’s the one that planted the seed of bringing songwriting workshops to schools. But as we started doing them, they became much more than just songwriting. They became more about empowerment through songwriting, storytelling and music creating. It’s been so rewarding and inspiring to have discussions and musical explorations with young people. I start every session by asking the students, “What is something you love about yourself?” You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is to hear their answers. I have become very passionate about these workshops, I love doing them.
Do you prefer songwriting or performing? Why?
Songwriting and performing are two different animals. There is also the Studio Animal. Songwriting starts off being very personal — I lock myself in my writing room and explore. For every five songs I write, there might be one that has potential. Once I work it out a bit more, I bring it to my band and I get ready to perform it. So I love songwriting because it’s an expression, I can do and say and make whatever I want.
I love performing, I’m not quite sure why. I’ve always loved performing; I call it my happy place. My favorite performances are intimate songwriter-type settings like house concerts. A place where people can engage in an interactive environment. I love when people all sing along together; it makes my heart melt. I love being able to share stories and to connect with an audience. We go on a journey together. We cry, we laugh, and we dance. I honestly feel like I receive way more than I give when I perform. It took a lot of work but I have always gravitated towards the stage. And I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have songwriting. They are both the same I suppose.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Touring and making more albums! I hope to expand Rhythm and Rhyme to bring more workshops to more young people, but making music is going to be my life — that is all I see. I can’t tell you where I’ll be or what I’ll be writing about, but I know that I’ll be doing something I love.
What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up for you in the next year?
My new album is two weeks away from being done, and coming to the world in 2017. I’m going to be performing lots this next year, and working with the guys at The Trenches Media Inc. on some new creative videos. Not only music videos but other creative stuff. I also never stop writing songs for another album. I am going to stay creative.
Is there anything else you want our audience to know about you?
I would just like to say that it takes a community to raise a child. This upcoming album is my new baby, and I would not have been able to do it without the beautiful community of people that have made this project a reality. I’m so grateful to those people and I’m so grateful to be able to make music. What a wonderful journey this is.
To connect with Mimi, check out her social media channels below: