Liner Notes is a close up look at a great new album you may have missed. This time, Anishinaabe artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson discusses the warmth and strength in her new album f(l)ight.
Resistance is part of everyday life for Indigenous people in Canada. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the celebrated Anishinaabe writer and musician, describes her experience in this country as one where there's always a target on her back. But the Indigenous are too often portrayed as a tragedy, she says. On f(l)ight, her second album, she embodies and communicates their incredible power instead.
Collaborating with an absolutely rockstar ensemble of Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians — Nick Ferrio (The Burning Hell), Ansley Simpson, Cris Derksen, producers Jonas Bonnetta (Evening Hymns) and James Bunton (Ohbijou, Light Fires) — Simpson has created a moving collection of story-songs. Told softly, almost whispered, each radiates strength and warmth. Hers is a voice, gentle though it might be, that cannot be ignored.
We spoke with Simpson about her second album: the characters she invokes, the rich history she engages, her sense of truth, her sense of hope, and the wisdom she finds in a whisper.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's f(l)ight is available now on RPM Records.
Chart Attack: Let's begin by untangling the double name of the album, f(l)ight. What is it that you're fighting against? What is it that you're illuminating?
If you look at how Indigenous women are represented in the media, there are stereotypes and stories that get played out over and over again. I was thinking about how my body and my body of work can be an intervention. How can I show a different story?
And then we have all these beautiful gifts that bring such warmth and such light. So I wanted to have a balance or weave those two together. The word "fight" and the word "light" combined then speaks to a flight out of the current situation and towards a present and eventually a future that looks different.
It seems to me the album says something about the wisdom of a quiet voice. Things are described as "whispered" and spoken "softly." Can you tell me about that idea?
Sound engineers love that. They're always like, "Can you maybe talk a little louder?" Well, first and foremost, it comes from my own culture and from our elders. In Anishinaabe culture, we are very quiet and soft-spoken and, especially this older generation, they don't chit-chat for the sake of chit-chatting. I wanted that aesthetic in my work because it feels really natural to me and I wanted to gesture towards that.
There's also another layer. The non-Indigenous influences on this album are people like John K. Samson who have this gentleness about their work that makes it really profound. Lee Maracle also told me, "when you're writing about the fight part or when you're writing about really difficult things, try to do that in a gentle and beautiful way." So I wanted that aesthetic.
Initially, during my first album, Islands of Decolonial Love, I was getting positioned as a spoken word artist, but people would say, "that's not really spoken word because you're almost whispering." So I wanted that gentle storytelling, almost like the stories were being whispered to you in an intimate way.
Right, there's a tenderness, but also a confidence in the way it's delivered.
That's good to hear.
I was hoping you could tell me about a few of the characters you appeal to on the record. The deer in "Road Salt" being one of the first we come across...
There's a deer character in "Road Salt" that's addicted to road salt. I wanted to take that story about the deer going back and licking the road and risking its life every time to feed this addiction and use it to illuminate the relationship the deer has with aandeg. Aandeg is the crow. In Anishinaabe stories and Dene stories and a lot of hunting stories, there's a lot of stories between these two characters. I wanted to gesture to that a little, but I wanted to create this relationship where the crow is caretaking for the deer and saying, 'I'm going to be here, year after year, watching and witnessing and being with you, no matter what. You're more than this. you're more than licking the road." I used that more literal narrative to illuminate the relationship.
And tell me about the canoe from "How To Steal A Canoe."
That starts with another literal narrative. I was in the warehouse of the Canadian Canoe Museum. I'd been invited into that space by an elder from Curve Lake who'd been invited there to welcome a canoe back to our territory that had been taken a very long time ago. We were thinking together about how you might welcome a canoe back. I was asking a lot of questions about canoes and what they mean to Anishinaabe people and how we took care of them and what we would do at the end. I was wandering through this warehouse of canoes and I was singing to them and I was praying to them and I was thinking about all of the knowledge and the labour and the relationships that these canoes were a part of. So that became the spine of the piece.
Part of my process, then, is to layer conceptual and metaphorical meaning on that. That's a process that storytellers do within Anishinaabe traditions. It starts out being about how to steal a canoe, but on a deeper level, it's more about how to exist as an Anishinaabe person in Canada and how to take care of the things that are important to us.
Photo by: Red Works Photography
There's sense of inner strength you can find in a lot of the places on the album. Characters are fortifying themselves somehow against hardship. Was that a theme you were thinking about?
I was thinking about what my intervention is in the world and how I want to come at it. I feel like, if you look at how Indigenous women are represented in the media, there are stereotypes and certain stories that get played out over and over again. I was thinking about how my body and my body of work can be an intervention. How can I show a different story? When I step onto the stage and up to the mic — whether it's in the studio or on the stage — I want to come at it from a grounded place of power. I want to share with the audience what I am. Coming at it from a place of strength and from a place of love, but also from a place of truth-telling at the same time was the intervention I was trying to make.
And for some of these characters, we learn about what inspires their inner strength, like in "These Two."
There's this resistance that's been a thread in my life: fighting against settler colonialism, fighting to maintain a connection to our homelands and our language, fighting not to be erased in Canadian society.
Tell me about "Laughing Heart." You've managed to adapt a poem by the abusive curmudgeon Bukowski. What did you find in his words?
There was hope in that song. He's speaking to someone who's in a very desperate, hopeless, overwhelming situation and he's saying, "hang on, there's light, grow the light." And he's not doing it in a judgey way; he's doing it in a way I found comforting. Sometimes in this work, in this life, you get pushed into these depressed states. Oftentimes, I think, for Indigenous people, that kind of anger and that kind of sadness is actually the correct emotional response. Some pretty bad things are happening. I wanted to speak to somebody who was in that state. I found this poem resonated with me.
A lot of the times, people have heard of him in my community. They know the work. I wanted to recast it — take it away from the misogyny and the violence and the racism that embodied and surrounded him and put it in a different way. It's edited very minorly. I worried a lot about the optics. Why am I holding up this person when there are amazing Indigenous writers and poets who are doing similar thing? Should I be celebrating this guy? I wanted to take ahold of things and recast it in a way that was more ethical and meaningful to me.
"Under Your Always Light" is referred to as a love song and a battle cry. Can you tell me about that tension?
That song is an interesting story because I wrote in the North in Dene territory and we recorded just my voice. Then, Jonas and James went away to write the music. It was the last song we did. I'd always been asked to write about missing and murdered Indigenous women and I found that artistically really difficult to do because it's so emotionally loaded. It's something everyone in our community has some experience with. Indigenous women in particular are used to having that target on our backs. I wanted to write something that, for me, spoke back to that narrative of putting me in the position of a victim and a tragedy. I wanted to come at it from this place of power. So I recorded the vocals and they came back with this dance song.
The first time I heard it, I was like, "My god, you guys. You missed it. You didn't get what I wanted to communicate. I don't want a happy dance song." Jonas was like, "This song is about you and this song is about your victories and this is one of the most personal pieces on the record and you should be a celebration." When he said that, I realized, "Oh, it is a victory. It is a success." Listening a second time, I saw that it was beautiful and amazing and powerful. I was grateful for his vision around it.
He read a love song in the battle cry?
He read a love song in the battle cry. I was so punchy and kicky and focused on the battle cry and he saw the celebration in me before I saw it. It was a wonderful reframing.
Can you tell me about writing a song like "I Am Grafitti" in the era of Truth and Reconciliation?
I wrote that song on the day the TRC recommendations were coming out. I was trying to process my emotional reaction to that because I felt like once again Indigenous people were being presented as this historic tragedy. I was unsure, as always, if the recommendations would be implemented, if they were enough. I was thinking of Rebecca Belmore, the Anishinaabe performance artist, and an intervention she'd done in Peterborough, where she'd taken milk and painted three Xs on the side of our grocery store and then there was another person there hosing them off, erasing them at the same time. That work encapsulated my feelings that day. And that came out in the poem.
How do you see the act of writing for music as different than writing poetry or prose itself? Do you?
It's very different and when I did Decolonial Love, I didn't fully understand the difference. The economy is different. The music provides multiple voices and its own narrative. The different instruments have their own narrative arc. When you combine that with words, the audience is taken on an emotional journey. I think the audience connects with music so emotionally, so the writing, when you're writing with music, has to be pared back to take that into consideration.
Also, in performance, the audience will hear the song and the poetry one time. They can't stop the recording or google things. Whereas with poetry, when you're reading from a book, you're on your own time and you have a set of tools to figure out what the writer was intending. In a performance, I want the audience to be able to connect with the work and get something out of it the first time. I want to have it written in a way so that the more time they spend with it, the more the meaning deepens. Less has to be more. That's true of poetry in general, but when writing with music, it's another order of magnitude down.
Thinking of the instruments as their own voices is something I got from doing this. And I think I first got that from the cello. The register is often in the same vocal range as my voice. You can't compete with it. You have to work with it. You have to weave it together.
You have to have a conversation?
And that's why I love doing this — it's a conversation between the words and the musical elements.