iskwē and Tom Wilson's 'Mother Love' Is a Stunning Exercise in Contrasts

iskwē and Tom Wilson's 'Mother Love' Is a Stunning Exercise in Contrasts
iskwē and Tom Wilson's debut collaborative album, Mother Love, is a glorious wealth of contradictions. It begins with Wilson's voice counting down on "Blue Moon Drive" like the guttural purr of a lion, and, as the track goes on, Wilson's deep voice is joined by iskwē's inimitable one, changeable as a nightingale's song. Their voices are so differently textured, allowing them to unite beautifully with each maintaining its idiosyncratic strength, that one wonders how we could have gone so long without this collaboration. Wilson's folk rock sensibilities create a perfect complement to the timbre of iskwē's voice that so effortlessly changes from powerful to delicate at the drop of a hat, because the two seem to be linked by a gift for visceral vocalization that strives toward a defiant emotionality. Each has such a unique approach to expression, and their personalities are both present in equal measure on this album, ultimately achieving what all collaborations must strive for: an album that successfully doubles in emotional heft. 

Mother Love is a lush, stunning album — it brings together two exceptionally strong musicians and lets them loose in a folksy landscape, a perfect genre for these two because it, like their poetic words, is unapologetically sensual, lending itself easily to the translation of wrenching feelings. This album, with its various parts that seem to delight in their friction with each other, is ultimately a celebration of love and, by extension, of feeling itself.

iskwē, Cree Métis, and Wilson, Mohawk, met serendipitously in 2016, while cheering on their own family members at a softball game in Hamilton. It's an organic origin story, serving as the perfect allegory for Mother Love as a whole, which is endlessly cinematic and lush — but also so apparently effortless, as though the entire album was something the two came up with in one go and someone just happened to record it. These are two musicians playing to their strengths, not subduing the best parts of themselves.

The album is a collaborative effort with Serena Ryder, who produced five of the eight songs. Each track functions as a tonal world unto itself, but also seamlessly as part of a whole in service to the record, which seems to be a practice in directing a caring love towards oneself.

"Mother Love," which speaks of a raw yearning for love in the face of present hardships, sets the tone for the album beautifully. Soft drums like a steady heartbeat and an unrelenting but sweet acoustic guitar come together to create the track's backbone, and then Wilson's voice, like a scarlet, bloody gash, comes in wondering, "When I got branded / Where were you my mother love / When the world turned blue," going on to ask for what might be impossible: for mother to come back home. "Mamma dry your eyes and rest your soul," pleads iskwē's velvet-like voice, playing up its sensual, natural twang, then going on to become light as gauze with sombre wails that punctuate the chorus. There is no moral injunction placed upon any kind of feeling here: a desire for love is celebrated on this track. Everyone deserves to ask for love, the track seems to say — and this is why there's an imitable and refreshing kind of optimism cradling Mother Love, which is a celebration of being alive at all. 

"Starless Nights" is the album's most notable tonal departure, with its horns like a David Lynch noir, but again it epitomizes this album's play with contradictions. It's got a jazzy blues bent, as though it were the lamentations of a tired lounge singer, and is another perfect showcase for how perfectly these two individually strong musicians come together to complement one another's styles while preserving their own uniqueness. iskwē's powerhouse vocals are at their best here, as they demonstrate her impressive versatility as an artist: she at times whispers breathily like Lana Del Rey, and at other times her voice swells with an operatic precision, confident in the validity of her feeling. She's so different here from her earlier electronic alt-pop work, not so much subdued as she is in skillful control of her voice. Underscoring her lament is the echo of Wilson's purr, lacing the track with a sort of sinister edge, a delicious bite.

Each track on Mother Love is unforgettable. From the raw country bones of "Blue Moon Drive" and the Johnny Cash bent of "Dream You Home" to the psychedelic guitars of "Coal Mine" and the satiny earworm that is "Stir the Ashes," the album is studded with unconventional gems that have the power to kindle something primal. The lyrics throughout are as aching as they are deftly expressive, like a warm hug: "Heartbeat's beating the drum / Let's stir the ashes / Spirit will come / And take us dancing / In the medicine / This love is magic," iskwē's voice sings during the chorus of "Stir the Ashes," which unapologetically speaks of the multitudes that each of us contain, of moulding the contradictions roiling within us to create a reified person. This track is another apt encapsulation of the album's thesis of the need for a nurturing love toward oneself in the form of holding space for all feelings — because, ultimately, iskwē and Wilson seem to say, this kind of love for ourselves will allow us to better show up for each other. (Independent)