Behind the Beats: Mimi O’Bonsawin

From the senseless violence to the natural disasters to the Hollywood assault scandals and everything in between, it’s easy – and potentially accurate – to declare 2017 the worst year ever. But through it all, Mimi O’Bonsawin chooses to focus on the positive.

Guided by her selfless spirit, happy-go-lucky personality and supernatural sense of optimism, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter simply can’t help it. The fact that she’s living the life she always dreamed of doesn’t hurt either.

Since graduating from high school, Mimi’s released a pair of studio albums, performed at Midem in France, opened for the likes of Buffy Sainte-Marie and launched a songwriting program for students. And at only 23, she’s just getting started.

We recently caught up with Mimi to talk all things music. Here’s what she had to say about staying true to her roots, seeing life through a creative lens and much, much more.

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First things first. Why are you so damn happy all the time?! 

(Laughs) This is such a beautiful question. Thank you for the compliment. I think that when someone is doing what they were sent to here to do, they are happy. When they are making use of the gifts they have been given, they are happy. When their spirit is fulfilled and satisfied, they have this glow. I love seeing this in other people. I love seeing passion and love in people’s lives.

So that being said, I’ve never imagined myself doing anything other than music, and the fact that I get to … I’m the happiest person on the planet. From my fingers to my toes, I feel right. Before I could even put words together, I would sing and dance and put on a show. There was never a doubt in the minds of my parents that I would always be their “weird artist daughter.” So I guess I could thank my mom and dad for letting me be exactly who I was meant to be, and all the people who support and nurture me. I just have so much love in my heart for all the people in my life and I’m so grateful for every breath I take. This journey brings me so much joy.

In a past interview, you told us your musical influences are always changing. What are you listening to these days?

Right now I’m on a huge Xavier Rudd binge. I can’t stop! I love the way he writes with such courage, and his singing and playing is so raw and earthy. I had never heard his music until recently and I think I’m in love (laughs). I’m also listening to a lot of Nahko Bear. He’s a great poet and a cousin Indigenous artist. I love what he’s doing and would love to open for him one day.

Of course, my major influences like Bob Marley, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Robbie Robertson never go away, but I do this thing where I only listen to one artist for like three months, then move on. I’m definitely on Xavier Rudd planet right now, just recovering from yet another Robbie Robertson phase.

You grew up in Sudbury but moved to Toronto after high school. Tell us a bit about the current music scene there, and where’s your favorite place to play? 

I’ve been living in Toronto for five years now. It was a struggle for me at first because I came from a place where the sense of community was very strong. I felt like I couldn’t have this in a big city like Toronto, and I was lonely. It took me a while, but I finally found my people. I’ve built myself a community of people that I love and learn so much from. I surround myself with people that are so insanely talented, giving, nurturing and wise. The Toronto music scene is sosmall. It feels like a family. Everybody works together, plays on each other’s albums, shares the stage, supports one another … it’s beautiful. I’ve met and worked with so many great humans here.

My fave room is The Burdock. I’ve played there a few times now, and the sound is amazing. It has a really chill vibe and it’s a great space for a concert because it’s conducive to listening and interacting. Plus, they give you soup in the green room (laughs). Toronto has so many great venues. One I used to love, but is now closed, was Musideum. It was a small space, it only fit like 30 people, and it was jam-packed with instruments from all over the world. It felt great in there. But little places like that are always popping up.

A few years ago you opened for the one and only Buffy Sainte-Marie. Tell us a bit about that experience. 

Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of my biggest influences. I have listened to all of her songs, I have gone to her concerts and cried my eyes out front stage, and I aspire to have a long and successful career like hers. She radiates energy and strength and she is such an inspiration, so of course, opening for her was like a dream come true.

It was an acoustic show, so I played with my drummer and percussionist Dave Patel. The sound was perfect, the audience was amazing – I even got them to sing along – and I had a full 30 minutes to play. I’m usually happy on stage, but this was special because my idol was backstage. Watching her do her thing from the sidelines was the highlight of my night, though. I learned so much that evening about what it means to be a songwriter and a performer. She pulled out songs from way back when she was my age. She was a rock star. Oh man, that was such an honor.

You have both French-Canadian and Abenakis roots. Speak a bit to your heritage and the role it plays in your songwriting. 

I used to have a management team who would tell me to “Not play the Native card,” because I wouldn’t have a career there. They said to stay away from the French music thing as well. That never made any sense to me. Separating who I am from my art is not possible. I now have the confidence to be who I am in music, and in life; I pride myself on being the exact same person in both worlds. That has given me so much confidence on stage and in my creative process. No more having someone tell me what to wear, what to say and how to be. I’m me all the time and I write from that place. My journey into my culture has inspired me and continues to fuel that fire. My experience of being a Francophone and Abenakis woman is where my songs come from, because that is where I come from.

About four years passed between your self-titled debut album, Mimi, and your second album, Connected. What did you learn in between albums, and how has your sound changed over time?

Let’s just say I’ve done a lot of soul-searching in these past few years. My first album was my first experience in the music business. I’ve learned so much since then. Some hard lessons, but they have brought me so much. I would initially say that I’m a different person now, but the truth is, I’m not. I’ve just grown a lot – not physically because I’m still only five-foot-one (laughs). When I was younger and creating my first album I had goals for myself. I wanted to be someone who would live her culture and integrate it into every aspect of my life, I wanted to be someone who was comfortable on a stage and had the confidence to be exactly who she was, I wanted to be someone who had confidence in her creating, to trust my gut and not second guess myself, and I wanted to surround myself with people that I could learn from and that I love. I am so proud to say that I’ve achieved those goals for myself, and that is where my second album comes from. I’ve never felt so connected to who I am and where I come from.

I think that people who choose to see life through creative lenses are people who are always changing, growing, creating, constantly reinventing. When you make art, it’s difficult to stay stagnant. We do this because we have to.

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When you’re not gigging or making music, you do some great work in the community. Tell us a bit about your workshops and what they entail. 

So I tour a series of workshops called Rhythm and Rhyme, offered in both French and English, with youngsters from Grades 4 to 12. I’ve recently been asked to bring this workshop to a few conferences where I do this with adults too. It’s super fun to bring out the child in them!

Rhythm and Rhyme is a discussion of the healing powers of music, as it is our human language. It speaks to the three bodies and a discussion of music as an empowering means of expression. Afterwards, we move into a human music experience, where we play around with voices, sounds and vibration, and together we all benefit from the healing properties of expressing ourselves with song. We explore storytelling, as it is the narrative of our existence and the source of all inspiration for a creative expression. Students are introduced to song by creating in different forms and are brought to have conversations about identity, empathy and creativity.

I’m often asked to include an Indigenous perspective to the workshops where I speak about what it means to be Indigenous today, how we can come together and fight against racism and stereotypes, and bring the students to have uncomfortable conversations about Canadian history and its impact on our current society.

I get so much energy, inspiration and light from doing these workshops. Connecting with people through music has always been my passion. Whether I get to do that on a stage or in a classroom, I’m good with it. And from a more selfish perspective, it fuels my personal creative expressions.

We recently featured you on the second season of DD Studio Sessions. Tell us a bit about that experience and working at Noble Street Studios. 

I recorded my second album at Noble Street Studios, but when we went in there with the Digital Drum crew it was totally different. Ian De Souza (bass) and I walked in with only an idea. We had a vision but nothing rehearsed or overly-prepared. Just lyrics and a melody, and together with engineer Alex Krotz and the crew at Noble Street, we got to create some magic. It was so spiritual and beautiful. I had never recorded something like that: where you do it all in one day, just a few takes and capture the song fresh. It inspired me to record like this again, and I’m in the midst of planning that all out. It was such a soul-satisfying experience; it’s hard for me to put it into words.

Coming into the session, all you had was a rough demo of Moonrise recorded on your iPhone. How did the finished track compare to the idea you had in your head going in? 

It grew and blossomed into this beautiful thing I couldn’t have imagined. That’s the beauty of collaboration and working with professionals who can bring ideas to the table. It grows beyond what your skill set or imagination is, but still stays true to its original concept. The sounds Alex and Ian brought to the table were just mind-blowing. It all worked with the initial vision I had, but made it that much more. I loved working with them.

A new year is right around the corner. What does 2018 have in store for you?

I haven’t officially announced this yet, but I’m way too excited to hold it in. In January, I’m headed to Mexico to write and create from a new place. This is a challenge for me because I always write in my writing room, but I think challenging our comfort zones is necessary in order to continue to create something new, fresh and positive.

Then, I’m taking those songs – and the ones I’ve been writing over this past year – to India, where my band and I will tour for a month. We’ll be playing music from my newest album and new songs, hitting up a studio to do some recording and planting the seed for the following year. I want to make connections while I’m there, gain a ton of experience, and play on an international stage. Right now, I’m booking some gigs in the U.S. for spring and applying for festivals across Canada. So when I come back from India, my calendar will be full of touring at home.

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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