Aysanabee’s long, winding and wild road to the JUNOs | Music | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Oji-Cree singer-songwriter Aysanabee is nominated for three JUNO awards in 2024. He performs at Halifax's Light House Arts Centre on Mar. 21, 2024.

Aysanabee’s long, winding and wild road to the JUNOs

The Sandy Lake First Nation singer-songwriter escaped death before he went full-time into music. And now he’s everywhere, all at once.

Aysanabee was snowshoeing across a river in below-40-degree weather when he broke through the ice. He was working in the far reaches of Northern Ontario at the time. His job was to stake claims on land that could be mined. The then-teenaged musician would travel by bush plane and snowmobile with an axe. It was lonesome work, but it paid. And he could bring his guitar along for the wee hours of the night.

On this fateful February trek, he was by himself. The water started to pull at his snowshoes and pants. He could hear the crackle of the ice.

“I stuck my axe into the ice and pulled myself across,” Aysanabee told the Halifax crowd at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium on Nov. 12, 2023. “I knew if I went under, I was too weighed down to swim. And I wasn’t sure I’d be able to punch my way through the ice.”

Amid the prayers for survival and the desperate fight to reach safety—he was still a long snowshoe trek away from camp—Aysanabee made a resolution: If he lived, he would “do something different” with his life.

“I was promising to myself and a higher power that if I got through that moment, I would go play music.”

He survived. And the music? That’s going pretty well for Aysanabee these days. This Thursday, Mar. 21, he joins Grammy winner Allison Russell for a show at the Light House Arts Centre (tickets are still available), and on Sunday, Mar. 24, he’ll perform at the JUNO Awards in Halifax—where he’s up for a trio of awards, including “Songwriter of the Year” and “Alternative Album of the Year.”

“You know, it’s kind of crazy,” Aysanabee says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “I’ve always been writing songs and playing music and shouting into a mic and spilling my guts… [but] the music business and trying to make a sustainable career? That’s something completely new.”

It won’t be for long.

From Kaministiquia to the JUNOs

The younger of two brothers, born Evan Pang, Aysanabee spent much of his childhood in Kaministiquia, Ont.—about a half-hour’s drive from Thunder Bay. “Pang” is a given name. His mother’s maiden name is Aysanabee, but she thought the former would be easier at school than if he was recognized and stereotyped for being Indigenous. (His family is Oji-Cree, part of the Sucker Clan of Sandy Lake First Nation.)

click to enlarge Aysanabee’s long, winding and wild road to the JUNOs
Anna Allen (via Aysanabee / Instagram @_aysanabee_)
Aysanabee's album 'Watin' earned him a spot on the Polaris Prize shortlist.

In Kaministiquia, they lived in an off-grid trailer.

“We had big plans to renovate it, but could just never catch a break. We were pretty much always broke,” he tells The Coast.

When Aysanabee wasn’t running around in the woods or riding his BMX bike, he would play his older brother’s guitar—“just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how to write songs,” he adds. His brother had left the guitar behind after moving out. He also imparted upon a pre-teen Aysanabee an appreciation for Bob Marley.

“We lived off-grid, there was no electricity, so we had a generator on at night,” he told CBC Music in December. “I’d put on [Marley’s] CD that had a really big impact on me—because that’s when I started writing songs. I started writing reggae music because of that album.

“When I was 15, I moved into [Thunder Bay] and … we started this reggae band. People are always like, ‘Where did you get that tone? Your voice?’ Bob Marley had a pretty big impact on the sound that I had developed.”

click to enlarge Aysanabee’s long, winding and wild road to the JUNOs
John Butler (via Aysanabee / Instagram @_aysanabee_)
Aysanabee taught himself to play his older brother's acoustic guitar.

Aysanabee played in different bands in Thunder Bay, booking gigs with neighbourhood bars and Photoshopping flyers.

“We had it in mind to make it, but had no idea how to make that happen,” he tells The Coast.

Hence, the mining work. He stuck with it until he was 19. And then, after that close February encounter, he quit and booked a ticket to Toronto. Music was on Aysanabee’s mind, but he’d been raised with the importance of having a backup plan—so, he enrolled in journalism at Centennial College in 2012. He graduated three years later and, for a time, juggled two careers at once: Reporter by day and aspiring artist by night. Aysanabee worked for Huffington Post Canada and CTV News.

“I was a unionized, salaried journalist—which is completely impossible to get,” he tells The Coast. “I was getting comfortable when the pandemic hit like, ‘Okay, I could retire as a journalist and make music as a hobby.’ That’s when I met the record label.”

Founded by singer-songwriters Amanda Rheaume and ShoShona Kish, Ishkōdé Records is a brilliant anomaly in the Canadian music industry: An Indigenous-led, women-led label with a mandate to “foster and amplify Indigenous voices.” Aysanabee got onto their radar thanks to the International Indigenous Music Summit, which Rheaume and Kish also co-founded. He saw an ad for the 2021 summit that encouraged artists to apply. So, he put together a video submission.

Kish still lights up recalling the audition tape.

“It just stopped us in our tracks,” she told Global News in 2023. “You know, it just had that quality of … it got me in my solar plexus, you know?”

Aysanabee’s voice has that effect. Deep and molasses-rich, it fills a room and hits like a 20-foot wave. But it’s his ability to write songs that lodge in the heart that sets him apart.

One whirlwind year

Aysanabee made his full-length debut with Watin in 2022. Named for Pang’s grandfather, the album traces the legacy of Canada’s residential school system and the impact it has left on generations of survivors and their descendants. It started as a series of conversations Aysanabee had with his grandfather during the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns. The two were 1,000 kilometres apart—Aysanabee in Toronto, Watin in Thunder Bay. As they kept in touch, Watin would recount his life story. Aysanabee wove recordings of their conversations into the album, penning songs like “Nomads” and “We Were Here” (“Where do we go from here?” Aysanabee sings on the former, “Grandfather, did we flip the script?”).

The end result is a powerful listen.

The album made the Polaris Prize shortlist and earned Aysanabee a 2023 JUNO nomination for “Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year.” It also launched the singer-songwriter into a year-and-a-half of touring that, for the most part, has continued non-stop. He joined the CP Holiday Train Tour in 2022, playing in Montreal and Winnipeg. Last March, he played the 2023 JUNO Awards in Edmonton. Then the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Then Osheaga. Then festivals in Denmark and Nashville. He’s off to Brighton, UK, for another festival in May.

click to enlarge Aysanabee’s long, winding and wild road to the JUNOs
Anna Allen (via Aysanabee / Instagram @_aysanabee_)
Aysanabee teamed up with Raye Zaragoza for "Come Out," a new single released in 2024.

In the midst of that whirlwind of shows and recording sessions—including a trip to Los Angeles—Aysanabee got the news that his grandfather was about to pass away.

“I dropped everything and went straight there,” he tells The Coast.

He made it in time for one last visit. But the moment stuck with him. And the theme of balance—between a career and life, and the ways that intergenerational trauma can rear its head—worked its way into Aysanabee’s newest EP, Here and Now. (It, too, is worth the listen.) And now? He’s ready for a break.

“I took four days off in November and went to Mexico. I had this little hut by the beach, and I sat down in the sand—and there was this, like, beautiful sunset, beautiful clouds, warm water and this crazy pink, purple sky,” he adds. “And I just kept thinking, ‘What’s going on in my emails?’”

This time, Aysanabee says, he pictures going farther afield and taking longer to recharge—“finding a nice nature-y spot and just resetting,” he adds.

Big week in Halifax ahead

Aysanabee’s second year as a JUNO-nominated artist is an even bigger one than the first. Along with earning another nod for “Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year,” he’s in the running for “Songwriter of the Year” (for “Alone,” “Here and Now” and “Somebody Else,” co-written with Ali Willa Milner, Charlie McClean, Derek Hoffman and Sean Sroka), along with “Alternative Album of the Year,” for Here and Now. He’s tabbed to perform a special tribute to Gordon Lightfoot and Robbie Robertson, along with his current tour partner, Allison Russell.

And while there’s anticipation baked into the weekend’s events—a JUNO win would be Aysanabee’s first—there’s gratitude, too.

“The cup is full to hear that my friends and peers find what I’m doing worthy,” he tells The Coast.

That, too, has come with a change in perspective.

“I used to think of these awards ceremonies as a competitive thing, and they kind of rubbed me the wrong way. But now, I just see it as peers recognizing each other. And that’s something to be celebrated.”

And when the day comes that his name is called up on-stage, whether that’s on Sunday or in another year to come? That’ll be a day to celebrate, too.

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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