By Ansharah Shakil, August 6 2023—
Singer-songwriter Aysanabee took the Canadian music world by storm with his debut album Watin, becoming the first Indigenous artist to top the Alternative Radio chart in 2023 with his single “Nomads.” Aysanabee was a frequent presence at this year’s Calgary Folk Musical Festival. He performed a concert at the mainstage on July 27 and partook in several sessions on July 29 and July 30.
In an interview with the Gauntlet, Aysanabee shared his love for being able to perform at Folk Fest to share the stage with people he has idolized and looked up to and to see how his audience reacts to his music.
“My agent was like, my favourite thing about your show is that first time you sing,” he said. “People see you walk up with your guitar and think you’re just an acoustic guitar guy [until] you sing. I didn’t know what she was talking about till we played Mariposa Festival and Mavis Staples played [for] 15,000 people. They ask me to play after, and you see 15,000 people leaving and I’m like alright, that’s fair. I sing that first note, and then you see 10,000 people turn around and walk back, and that was probably the coolest experience I’ve had.”
Aysanabee’s music is not easily classified into a genre, but his voice is certainly worthy of stopping and turning in place. It’s no wonder that he performed at Folk Fest this year. Like any folk artist, he connects to whoever listens to him through his storytelling. He wrings emotion from his audience, and immortalizes a kind of feeling and a moment in time through his gut-wrenching vocals and the multi-instrumental, gorgeously produced backdrop of his songs.
His latest release “Somebody Else” is instantly captivating, with rock-infused music and staggering lyrics and vocals. His album Watin was written during the pandemic, based on a series of conversations Aysanabee had with his grandfather, a residential school survivor, and it includes interludes with excerpts of his grandfather speaking.
Watin is his grandfather’s first name. Aysanabee is his family name, one he would later reclaim. Aysanabee is Oji-Cree, Sucker Clan of Sandy Lake, but he was named Evan Pang by his mother so that he could avoid Indigenous racism in his northwestern Ontario community.
“The thing I hoped to accomplish [with this album] was to share this family story,” Aysanabee said. “For me, it was always supposed to be a little time capsule that says hey, this is my grandfather, this is who he was, and he was here. What it’s become is beyond me […] I wasn’t expecting it to get to where it got to, so I have so much gratitude.”
While “Nomads” is a breakout hit from Watin — and it remains easy to see why — Aysanabee named the moving and melodic Long Gone as a personal recommendation to learn what the album is about.
“Long Gone is the closest to what I was trying to do with the album, which is to tell my grandfather’s story in the first person,” he said. “My grandfather met my grandmother in residential school and that’s where they fell in love and that’s what this song is about, finding light in this dark place.”
As for his performances at Folk Fest, Aysanabee thinks of his connection to his audience as something that is up to them.
“When you do things outside of your comfort zone it’s an incredible feeling, to get the feedback and response from people and share something personal and vulnerable and have it reach people,” Aysanabee said on performing. “[But] I don’t go in with expectations. For me, I think if you’re making art, you’re not going there trying to look to take from people, you’re looking to give to people and what they take from it is up to them, and I’m glad people are responding well.”
Listen to Watin on streaming services including Spotify and learn more about Aysanabee and his upcoming performances here.