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Oji-Cree singer Aysanabee shares stories of family and love in breathtaking music

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Tucked away in a hot Toronto studio, Oji-Cree singer-songwriter Aysanabee sings the opening lyrics of “River” from his debut album “Watin”: “Take what you need, leave what you can , oh, she said to me and took my hand. “

“I’ve been dreaming of doing this for as long as I can remember,” he told W5 in an interview as part of a special documentary about his meteoric rise on the music scene.

2023 has been an eventful year for Aysanabee. “Watin” was shortlisted for a Polaris Prize, his song “Nomads” reached #1 on the Canadian music charts, and he has performed his music to masses of fans in countless music halls around the world.

Last year, Aysanabee received a Juno nomination for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. He was nominated again in the same category for the 2024 Junos, as well as for Songwriter of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year.

“It was like London, Ontario, Spain, Sarnia, Ontario, all in the same week,” he said. “Last year we liked 184 shows.”

His music also marked Wab Kinew’s historic victory last year as Manitoba’s first First Nations premier. “This is a big victory for all of us in Manitoba,” Kinew said in his speech.

“I haven’t really had time to stop and think about it,” Aysanabee said.

“It’s surreal and I’ve tried to let go of the tunnel vision to kind of be in the moment and really figure things out,” he said. “There were some really special moments.”

Aysanabee now lives in Toronto. Yet even when he’s not on the road, he says he’s busy writing and recording new music.

Lana Gay is a host on Indie 88 in Toronto. She first heard Aysanabee when he stopped by the radio station for a live session.

“Hearing those voices through the wall… not knowing it was him in our other studio, and thinking, ‘Who is that?’ Gay remembers.

“He sounds just as good on record as he does in the studio, as well as on stage,” she added, “and his voice is really punchy. It’s very powerful.”

She says she likes the songs both as indie rock tracks that stick with you and as tools to share the story of “Canada’s great shame.”

“Watin” is named after Aysanabee’s grandfather and the songs are largely based on conversations they had on the phone.

Watin, who was in a long-term care home in Thunder Bay at the time, told Aysanabee about his time at the residential school.

“His health was deteriorating and so he was losing all these memories,” Aysanabee said.

He recorded stories about Watin growing up in Sandy Lake First Nation, a six-hour flight north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Aysanabee also lived there until she was four years old.

“I think, like a lot of other people, I’ve always had a hard time reconnecting with their roots because I left Rez when I was four years old,” Aysanabee said, adding that Watin was his “last direct connection to our history and our family and our history.”

Watin was taken at age eight to the McIntosh residential school near Kenora, Ontario, and renamed Walter.

“I didn’t know everything he had been through,” Aysanabee said.

He says these stories were also a source of inspiration when he discovered his grandfather’s resilience. Watin would also meet the love of his life during his time at the school.

“I think that’s one of the main things that got him and my grandmother through,” he said. “They met and fell in love.”

He says the conversations also helped him on the path to his own self-discovery, which included reclaiming his last name, “Aysanabee,” after going by Evan Pang until recently.

Aysanabee has also worked as a journalist and video editor. He worked as a digital content editor at CTVNews.ca until March 2022. He is no longer with the company.

Watch W5’s documentary ‘Aysanabee’ Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV

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