This Winnipeg-bred, Toronto-based, and Obama-approved singer fashions a soul/trip-hop hybrid reflective of her mixed Irish/native-Canadian heritage.
Who: Iskwé is a powerful young artist on the rise. Hailing from Winnipeg and now based in Toronto, iskwé (pronounced iss-kway) was raised in an arts-loving family by parents of Irish and Cree/Dene backgrounds, and proudly pulls from both of these cultures—as well as a love of hip-hop and training in classical piano and voice—for the soulful, beat-bumping sounds she creates.
“My music is live and full of emotion, unsuspecting and sincere,” she explains by email. “Performances are stripped down and raw, exposing darker sides through bottom-heavy bass lines mixing jazz-style vocals with dub-style beats.”
What: In the 10 years that she has been writing and recording originals, iskwé has travelled restlessly between cities—Toronto, New York, Los Angeles—to develop her sound. Work on an earlier EP, released under an English name that iskwé no longer makes public, was more educational than it was satisfying.
“I started off having a difficult time finding my place in music, because I was really adamant about fitting into a specific genre,” iskwé acknowledges. “I was told I had a soulful voice, and that I should be a soul/R&B artist, so that’s what I did.
“My first EP had a solid neo-soul vibe to it, and it just didn’t fit me. It wasn’t a true reflection of me. I moved to the United States, lived half-and-half between L.A. and N.Y.C., took a crash course in the music industry, and finally found some comfort in allowing myself the freedom I needed as a writer to express and just be me. I quickly found comfort in ‘dark and painful,’ and began creating the album I’m soon to release.”
Iskwé’s evolution has been tied to the stage as much as it has been studios. She’s performed in dozens of North American cities, in loads of different contexts and communities. From touring the U.S. with infamous N.Y.C. erotic-poetry collective Freak Nasty to playing the Canadian Aboriginal Festival in Toronto, the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, and various other music fests, iskwé has connected with large audiences. She was even invited to perform at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, for the Native Nations Uniting for Change Gala.
“I was so honoured to be a part of that, in any way possible, and it will definitely be something I remember until the end of time,” she says.
Over the past four years, iskwé’s focus has been on making the self-titled debut album she will release come November, on indie label Songstar. A collection of originals—other than a cover of The Bluetones’ “Slack Jaw”—the album was written by iskwé with her “genius producer” Musashi and friend Miku Graham, “a brilliant vocalist and songwriter.”
Musicians contributing to the album’s blend of soul, R&B, trip-hop, hip-hop, and pop include Musashi (production, keys, bass, guitar), Jesse Bear (guitar, production), Maya Killtron (violin, vocals), Donna Grantis (lead guitar), Mike Ferfolia (bass), and Michael Shand (keys).
“The music community here in Toronto is pretty fierce!” iskwé enthuses. “I’ve lived and worked in L.A. and N.Y.C.’s music scenes and, without bias, I kept coming back to T.O. to work with these guys because they were just that good.”
The album will also feature appearances by H.A.P.H. of Da Ranjahz and M1 from Dead Prez, the latter of whom adds great vocals to the standout track “Recycle.” a standout track.
“M1 has been an inspiration for a long time, so it was freakin’ rad to be able to work with him. He’s a pretty political dude and, aside from feeling the track, he was interested in the indigenous folks here in Canada.
“It was refreshing because he really felt for us, and saw the many parallels between native people and black Americans, so the conversations were always interesting. I’m always happy to talk with people about my culture, especially when the understanding and education has been limited.”
The album’s creation was not without some bumps along the way, one of the biggest being the experience of working with “this mad scientist–type producer in L.A.,” who, while talented, was “totally off in real life.”
“He was so interesting to work with, because you really never knew what was going to surface in a session,” iskwé says. ”But he was also a challenge and a very strong part of my crash course in the industry. A huge lesson to share with all new recording artists: Never, ever leave your studio session without the separated files from that day’s work!”
Iskwé continues to face legal woes related to the unnamed producer’s “song hoarding.”
“It’s been a lot of hard work, and still is, but when I hear the final cuts on tracks that I’ve written and produced, the sense of ease and accomplishment outweighs any of the crap I’ve had to go through in the process. With this record, I feel a freedom I’ve never felt before in music and performance.”
Why: Fresh from participating in the week long Diverse As This Land—Voice Intensive Workshop held at The Banff Centre specifically for indigenous singers, iskwé is feeling increased confidence in her chops.
“I’m classically trained as a vocalist, but it was great to be able to go spend a week in the woods working out kinks in technique for a fresh batch of ears. It really pushes you to be humble, and allow yourself room to make mistakes in front of strangers.”
She’s also been buoyed by the response to her album’s lead single, “Wandering,” which first reached ears by its inclusion on HipHopCanada’s Who’s Got Next 2012 compilation CD. The acoustic guitar-laden trip-pop tune is a solid showcase of iskwé’s strong vocals and fresh approach to contemporary soul.
“Wandering” was also just shortlisted by native music industry leaders as a nominee in the Single of the Year category of the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. The public can now choose their favourites, with online voting open until Sept. 3. Winners will be announced Nov. 2.
What’s Next: With her album release just months away, iskwé’s is currently locking down tour dates, which will be announced via her website and Facebook page.
She also aims to facilitate more workshops for young native artists interested in music and the arts. Under The Manifesto umbrella, she recently produced a two-part workshops series dubbed Origins: Breaking Beats & Boundaries and hosted a related event where Aboriginal MCs competed for a chance to win a paid performance gig at this year’s Manifesto festival.
When & Where: Iskwé performs a free show at Harbourfront Centre’s WestJet stage this Saturday (Aug. 18) at 8 p.m., as part of the Planet IndigenUS Festival. New Zealand dub ‘n; bass band Rhombus follows at 9:30 p.m.
Rocking the stage with a three-piece band, iskwé will highlight songs from her coming album, a few of which are now featured on her Soundcloud page.
Fun fact: “I learned how to swim before I learned how to walk, and was going off diving boards at the public pool by the time I was two. And I’m an Aquarius.”