Behind the Beats: Iskwé

Since dropping her self-titled debut album in 2013, Iskwé has taken hustle to a whole new level.

On top of writing new music, she’s managed to attend university, tease us with singles and tour extensively. In the last year alone, she’s performed for Swedish royalty, played Aboriginal Day Live in Edmonton and opened up at the Calgary International Film Fest. In September, she won the Western Canadian Music Award for Electronic/Dance Artist of the Year at BreakOut West.

On Nov. 3, Iskwé will start the next chapter of her career with the release of The Fight Within. Touching on everything from environmental protection and MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) to love and relationships, she again manages to blend her Irish/Indigenous roots with poignant lyrics for an album as timely as it is powerful.

We recently caught up with Iskwé to talk all things music. Here’s what she had to say about touring, her creative process and more.

We’ve been listening to Soldier non-stop since it dropped. Tell us a bit about the inspiration for the song and the message you’re hoping to send with it.

This song was a co-write between myself and my bandmate, Melissa Bandura. It focuses on the treatment of our earth with regards to pipelines and tar sands, drilling for oil – how we, as humans, battle ourselves, each other and the planet we all share. I’d say the general message I’d like to share with this song is to consider beyond just the individual self – the planet is not everlasting; it requires care and kind treatment.

For anyone familiar with your work, it’s hard to label your music as any particular genre. How would you describe your sound, and who are some of your influences?

Oh jeez! (Laughs) Even I have a hard time sorting out the genre. I’d say it’s a blend of all my favourite sounds – electronic, trip-hop, classical, alternative, rock, pop. My influences have always been folks who push limits and boundaries. Artists like Bjork, David Bowie, Erykah Badu, Florence and the Machine – risk takers who blend all sorts of lines.

Who are you listening to right now?

My favourite at the moment, and has been for a few years now, is Banks. I love how bass-y and bottom-heavy her music is, combined with her gorgeous lyrics and vocals. Her note selection really inspires me – she floats around so wonderfully.

You’re currently in the midst of a three-month, 15+ city tour. What are the best and worst parts about being on the road?

My favourite part is festival season, when I’m out and running into friends playing the same festivals and meeting new artists. It’s always such a great way to learn new music and grow as an artist, watching other performers and just being around creative folks. There are actually certain bands that I only run into at festivals, so it’s nice to have catch-up time backstage.

My least favourite part is the early-morning flights. I’ll often need to leave my house at 4 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. plane. Ugh, the worst! I also really miss being away from my home and my family – that never gets easier.

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

I’m actually attending the University of Toronto, chipping away at my degree. And by chipping, I mean chipping (laughs) … it feels like it’s going to take an eternity! But my degree focuses on political theory with minors in Indigenous and Celtic studies. Figured it best to build on the platform for which I’m always running my mouth (the history and politics impacting Indigenous people).

You just won the Western Canadian Music Award for Electronic/Dance Artist of the Year; Lido Pimienta just won the Polaris. Awards like these aren’t exclusively for Indigenous artists, they’re mainstream. What does that tell you about the future for Indigenous musicians in Canada?

I think it’s so awesome that Lido won the Polaris. For Indigenous women to have won three of the past four Polaris awards is huge, especially considering not one had been awarded to an Indigenous person prior to Tanya Tagaq (2014). I think we are in the midst of change. I think we still have a long way to go, but I think that someone has finally heard us banging at the front door and has realized we aren’t going anywhere. And of course, I was so excited to be a part of this with the WCMA win. What an honour!

Speaking to other Indigenous artists, there seems to be this balancing act between wanting to honour their culture and not wanting to be defined solely by their Indigeneity. Is it difficult to stay true to your roots without being labeled an “Indigenous” artist?

I can’t speak to other peoples’ experience, but for myself it has been tricky at times. I’d say that being present in your art and making choices and decisions based on your value system is what can help prevent being pigeonholed. There are folks who will forever view artists who are Indigenous as “Indigenous artists,” as though the two couldn’t possibly be thought of separately. However, there’s also a lot of strength and power in being an Indigenous artist – our stories and experiences are unique to us. I’d say it all comes down to the individual situation and how it makes someone feel. If they feel their art takes precedence over the inclusion of culture in their title, then that’s what it should be. If someone feels the two go hand-in-hand, again, then that’s what it should be. But it’s up to the artist, not anyone else, to make that decision.

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To follow up on that thought, do you think there’s a correlation between being an “Indigenous” artist and mainstream success?

Ah! See, that’s trickier because this is where we start to lose the “control” of how we are received by others. Access and opportunity are huge factors in our communities. I think it’s possible for Indigenous artists to be mainstream artists, but I definitely think it’s been an uphill climb that has taken pioneers like Buffy (Sainte-Marie), Tanya (Tagaq) and A Tribe Called Red to really help smash down some of the barriers we’ve been up against for so long.

Backing things up a bit, you auditioned for a certain national singing competition in 2003. What was that like, and what did you learn from it?

Ugh (laughs). Yes, I did. I’m starting to worry somehow this story will haunt me forever! Canadian Idol was definitely an interesting experience. It was my first time auditioning for anything, so the mental preparations were definitely not anything I was suited for at the time. But! I made it through a few of the behind-the-scenes rounds, eventually making it to the TV judge round. I got up there, decided it was a great idea to sing Whitney Houston and belted out the tune – with a crack in my voice when I reached for the highest note. I acknowledged my error, thanked the judges and walked out before anything could happen (laughs).

We got to see a bit of your creative process at work in Season 1 of DD Studio Sessions (Give Me Some Room). How does an idea you have evolve into a song?

Honestly, the process feels different each time. There are times where something just seems to fall out of the sky, through my pen and onto the paper. Other times I feel like I can’t find words for the life of me, even though the music is ready and I’m totally feeling the direction. I try to just not force the song, but more play around with it as best I can. If nothing is coming out, I’ll walk away for a bit and try again later.

It took you seven years to release your first album, and it will be about four for this next one. Is there any pressure – internal or external – to get new music out faster?

These bad boys seem to take forever! In all fairness though, this new record has been ready and waiting to be released for over a year, just sitting in my back pocket. There is so much that goes into the release of an album that it’s not just about the music – about who and how we will reach people once it’s ready to go. I really put my soul into this album, so I wanted to make sure each step of the release process was done the best way possible.

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You often talk about not rushing projects and enjoying the process. What other piece of advice would you give aspiring artists?

Take your time and love each step – even the super hard and terrible ones. They make for good stories later on, especially when you look back and see that you made it out OK.

What’s coming up for you in the next few months?

We head back out on the road this week, for a couple months, to promote the new album. I’m really excited with this round, as they’re mostly club dates – so a very different vibe than how we normally tour. Smaller venues with intimate crowds. I’m really excited to dive into this project with folks!

Iskwe’s new album, The Fight Within, drops on Nov. 3. It will be available for pre-sale Oct. 13.

This post originally appeared as a guest contribution for Stingray Music. Stingray recently announced a content partnership with APTN and First Peoples Radio Inc. to promote Aboriginal music from Canada. Check out their Aboriginal Music From Canada – Contemporary channel and their Aboriginal Music From Canada – Retro channel.

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