OUTSIDE VOICE is a new feature. It follows musician and writer Glenn Nuotio as he chats with artists, musicians, news-makers and community builders. This new column is published at OttawaMagazine.com.
I am, at best, an awkward morning person. I get my chance to call songwriter and performer Amanda Rheaume at 9:15 a.m. during the week she’s preparing for her Ottawa Bluesfest performance on Friday, July 11th at 6 p.m. on The River Stage. I’m certain this is her first interview of the day, but she does have to take another call at 9:45 a.m.
Amanda Rheaume: I’m awake early a lot, actually.
Glenn Nuotio: How many gigs are you doing a year right now?
AR: I didn’t count it this year yet, but it’s usually between 150 to 180 or so. It really depends if I have an album and if I’m doing more touring.
We talk about her latest album “Keep a Fire” (2013). Amanda details the early co-writing process of songs with John MacDonald, leading her to learn more about her Métis heritage and interpret her personal family history. Listening to the album’s shift of historical and emotional elements, I notice the differences in arrangements between “Keep a Fire” and her last album “Light of Another Day.” Both were produced by Ross Murray.
AR: I first met Ross years ago. First of all he’s a fantastic musician, but he’s just so good at kinda getting the best out of me, song-wise, but also vocally. I find that’s he’s just so great … if I bring a song to him, and there’s just voice and guitar, he’s really good at keeping that original essence of the song. His vision is just really good at working with the artist and maintaining the original vision of the music and the songs. He plays drums and percussion and all sorts of other hilarious things on the album as well. It’s just this big, creative, fun time.
GN: What was it like to embody the emotional contexts of your ancestors?
AR: There was a panic that all of this information would leave once people passed away. It became really important to me to have family stories and Canadian stories. People have said to me ‘ Oh I wouldn’t even bother looking back. There’s nothing interesting.’ You know, you’d be surprised. You just have to ask and you just have to look. I mean, we all come from somewhere and somewhere important. Decisions are made for our life to be this way. I think it’s important to honour that.“Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (August 29, 1809 – October 7, 1894)
GN: Has taking these stories to heart and putting them to song changed your own path as a songwriter?
AR: Hmm … as a songwriter, yeah! Because I’ve become older and I’ve been in so many situations now where I don’t feel like I’m just singing songs and words and notes — it’s an opportunity to say something. I started to get insecure when I was just touring as a songwriter by myself in the States a couple of years ago. I’d be at house concerts and just sitting with my guitar, staring at strangers and it’d be quiet and I’d just be singing a breakup song. I just sorta felt that I’m kinda over the breakup thing. I wanna sing about something where there’s depth and a story and to really try to touch on people, you know, in a different way. I don’t know, that’s just where I am at now. There’s always room for breakup songs. I’m sure there’ll be more.
GN: And do you think you’ve found your voice yet?
AR: Yeah, I’m writing for my next album now and I’m trying not to think too much, just, because, you know, that’s never good. I think for me it continues to be important to have depth to what I’m singing about and I think that will continue. Having gone so far into research and really thinking and crafting the songs, not just journaling and diary lyrics. I’ve really thought about, them, really hard. So, having gone down that path, it’s a little bit hard to go back.
GN: It must be hard to go back to journaling after you’ve embodied your ancestors.
AR: Yeah, it’s like, ‘okay, what am I really saying here?’ I just ran into Andrea Menard, who’s an actress and a musician on a bunch of TV shows and APTN. She talks about this thing of being a music messenger, and that just hit home to me. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to have a message of some kind. It doesn’t have to be, you know, deep all the time, but I think it’s really important to be conscious of what you’re singing about.“Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context” – David Byrne
After a few more summer festival dates and the 2014 North American Indigenous Games, Amanda starts a six-week UK and European CD Release tour. Her last big performance before 2014 Ottawa Bluesfest was at World Pride in Toronto.
GN: You’ve just come from 2014 World Pride, where you opened for Chely Wright- how was that?
AR: I played Pride just last year in Toronto, but there is something extra special to be seen the year after. It was kinda like a country-themed Americana big concert; the billing and the way that the organizer put it together, it was just a perfect scenario. People were super-excited, it was a big crowd, and it felt really special to be there for such a huge event where people from all over the world were coming to celebrate. It was very hot though. I’ve never been so hot on stage in my life!
AR: Chely Wright was also lovely and just really encouraging, and, you know, I made a great connection there, so it was a great concert. There’s this jump now when you have a bigger team and you have a bigger audience and I’m still working my way up there. To have someone who’s been doing it for a long time and who just has such a great message and is obviously very talented, it feels good… I think it’s important to have feedback from artists who’ve been at it for a longer time.
GN: Has anything about the songs themselves changed for you began hitting the road and sharing them?
AR: I’ve learned that everyone has a story. I can sing the songs, but what I’ve found interesting is that people have come up to me after shows and tell me something about their family. I just think that that’s amazing, to start these conversations with people.
GN: Tell me about the Juno nomination for “Keep a Fire.”
AR: Oh, it’s a real honour, especially for this album, with these stories. We all keep our head down and work our butts off to get our careers somewhere, or anywhere, really! To get some recognition from your colleagues in this industry, and the whole time at the Junos , was a real blast. It was exciting to be part of that.
GN: What number Bluesfest is this for you?
AR: I was just thinking about that this morning – I think it’s six.
AMANDA RHEAUME will be backed onstage at Ottawa Bluesfest by a full band including multi-instrumentalist Lyndell Montgomery and drummer/ album producer Ross Murray. She plays the River Stage of RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on Friday July 11at 6 pm. Check out the songs, lyrics, and more details about the album “Keep A Fire” here.