It’d be easy, if lazy, to compare Aysanabee to Sam Smith or Jeremy Dutcher: The Oji-Cree singer-songwriter brings the same goosebump-giving sense of drama either artist delivers, and like them, he boasts a voice so big it makes Adele’s boldest belting seem medium-sized by comparison.
But if you were to compare Aysanabee to anyone else at all—even Ben Howard, given the folky leanings—you’d be missing the singularity of this artist: A new-to-the-scene musician whose finger-playing guitar and haunting vocals have been capturing attention ever since he performed at the 2020 virtual Indigenious Music Awards.
An alchemy of grandiose-yet-grounded lyrics (“I was gone all those years/Why are you slowly disappearing” he asks on the addictive single “Nomads”) keeps your ears hooked on Aysanabee even after the artist’s voice has bowled you over and righted you again. It’s an effect his live audice witnesses in real time: Once, at a recent festival performance where he had the tough job of following Mavis Staples on stage, Aysanabee’s opening vocals managed to turn the tide of people leaving, halting them in place to witness the new artist. “My agent says, she's like: ‘My favourite part about your show is that you talk—and you’re like okay, you kind of have a softer speaking voice.’ And then she's like, ‘But as soon as you sing one note, people kind of turn around say, what the fuck? ’,” he says with a laugh.
By the time The Coast reaches Aysanabee by phone, he’s been in Halifax a handful of hours, just landed to play a Prismatic Arts Festival set at The Carleton on September 30 at 8:30pm—his first-ever East Coast show. The lucky attendees will witness more than just that voice, though: With a debut record dropping in November, seeing this show means being first to a veritable rising star in the Canadian music scene.
That album, Aysanabee says, started out of COVID: “I was nervous that there would be an outbreak at my grandfather's [care] home so I ended up just calling him every day,” he begins. “I started basically interviewing my grandfather for 2020. And we talked about his life in Sandy Lake. We talked about his experience in residential school, which is something we actually had never talked about prior to 2020. So we were both 1000 kilometers apart, both locked down in our little spaces—and just connecting on a level that we've never connected on before.”
Soon, Aysanabee asked if their chats could be recorded for posterity— what he figured would be “this little family memoir, in an artistic form.” He adds: “An album wasn't even on the radar, but I ended up listening, and I think I was just noodling on guitar when I was listening to the recordings. And then I wrote a song, and then I wrote another song, and then I wrote an album.”
As for sharing those songs with Halifax? “I just hope I’ve made them felt something. Anything I guess,” Aysanabee adds. “Some of my favourite artists, I don't even know what they're saying half the time: Like Radiohead, for the longest time I was singing his lyrics the wrong words. But he was able to still augment this feeling and this emotion—and it’s just like, I don't know what you're saying but I get it.”