“I’m a pop singer,” Tara Williamson says, but “I don’t feel like I have to give myself a genre. I’ve never felt that pressure from the Indigenous community.” She identifies strongly as an Indigenous person, and is comfortable being seen as an Indigenous musician. But her new album, Songs to Keep Us Warm, “is about engaging with the mainstream outside of Indian country.”
Her original idea for the album, in fact, was to break into a very specific scene: the Broken Social Scene scene, via producer Dave Newfeld. But they had really different ideas, and she felt she was losing control of the sessions. She walked away, keeping only “Stormstayed” from those sessions.
Having given up on Newfeld, Tara wanted to work with Daniel Ledwell, but he was booked solid, so he recommended Jim Bryson. Working with Jim at his home studio in Stittsville, near Ottawa, “was awesome,” she says. “It was what I wanted.” Together they recorded the rest of the songs on the album.
It’s nowhere near a conventional pop record, but the warmth and ease of its airy production and the sweeping bluesy updraft of Tara’s vocal melodies and meditative, music-box-esque chordal piano patterns, give her songs an easy approachability.
Her previous albums, produced by James McKenty and Kinnie Starr, were very consciously learning experiences. She wanted to learn the process, to hear how her songs sounded in a recording context, and experiment and learn. While she was happy with the attention she got, her intention was never to “blow up an audience.” With the new album, she does.
Most of the songs, which are distinctly less jazz-inflected than her previous work, are new, having been written over the winter of 2014, but some have been around for a while, like the ode to Tara’s home region, “The Prairies,” which she asked Jim to help her re-work for Songs to Keep Us Warm.
She’s also working with Tomson Highway on a musical about missing and murdered Indigenous women. The play, which is still under construction, will be a resolutely non-tragic treatment, in which “the darkness is implied” but it’s mostly “sort of crass and hilarious.” The key is that the play is for Indigenous people, who don’t need to be reminded of the need to mourn. “It’s going to be a fun night,” she says. “You won’t have to weep.”
“It’s really important to me,” she says, “to write something about a serious topic that isn’t triggering and has an insider perspective.” Making this kind of Indigenous art—art by and for Indigenous people that doesn’t put the settler audience at the centre—is easier now because of the cultural legacy of Idle No More. “There’s visible presence” for Indigenous artists and intellectuals.
Tara is from Swan Lake, Manitoba, a small community that’s really two communities: a reserve on one side and a town on the other. Tara lived on the town side, raised by her parents and kookum (grandmother), attending feasts and ceremonies, and later, when she moved to Winnipeg to go to high school, by her aunties in the city.
She’s a classically trained musician, with Grade 8 piano and Grade 10 voice, and all the theory that goes with it. The only musical person in her family, she was identified as a talent by a Grade 7 music teacher, and the family “cobbled together enough money to send me to choirs and vocal lessons.”
Her plan was to be classical or jazz musician professionally. She moved to Montreal and attended the conservatory at McGill University for a while, but soon dropped out because “it turns out it wasn’t fun.” She was playing a lot with jazz musicians at the time, and realized she was learning more from playing. “I like to play with musicians that are better than me,” she says. “I find it a little bit scary – but it’s where I learn the most.”
She returned to the prairies to go to school, studying Social Work at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, then enrolled in the Law and Indigenous Governance combined program at University of Victoria. A serious student, she played some music but not a lot. After a short stint in Toronto, she and her then-partner moved to Peterborough when he got a job here in 2010.
She had lived here for a short time in 2005, working at the New Canadians Centre when it was on Sherbrooke Street. She fell in love with the town, the quaintness of all the red brick, which you don’t see on the prairies.
Peterborough’s interesting, she says, because there are a lot of Indigenous people here who are not Mississauga Nishnaabeg—who aren’t indigenous to this territory—in prominent positions. In other places, those lines are more clearly drawn, but there’s a fluidity and hospitality to the community here.
“They’re gracious hosts, because they’re used to it having other Indigenous people in their territory,” in large part because of Trent University, Tara says. “But they’re ready for you to leave, because they’re used to that too.”
Tara Williamson releases Songs to Keep Us Warm at The Garnet on November 26 (more info).
Songs to Keep Us Warm, and the rest of Tara Williamson’s music, is available for purchase on iTunes.
All images courtesy the artist.