iskwē's Vulnerable Strength: "I Had a Good Front, but I Was a Mess"

The songwriter traces the moments leading up to her deciding, "I just don't give a shit the same way about what people are thinking"

Photo: Lili Peper

BY Alisha MughalPublished Apr 9, 2024

When I ask iskwē why she recorded her fourth and latest album, nīna, in Mexico City, she smiles in that honeyed way of hers that leaves one feeling as though she is a lifelong friend.

"I went to see about a boy," she says frankly. "A man, I guess."

I'm seated across from her in a corner next to the bar at Abrielle, a restaurant on the ground floor of the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto, where she's staying. I'm nursing a glass of Corvina, and she has the driest white they have to offer. As iskwē tells me the story about a boy, which meanders through past and present, it's as if the sounds around us — servers fretting about families settling down for the dinner hour, plates clinking, the generic jazz of the place's playlist tripping over itself — recede to a fizzling hum. The romance, as if plucked from a Michael Curtiz film, is sweeping and sweet as it comes to life.

"We had met years before in Argentina, randomly, and had a wonderful connection," she begins. He was working in the small hotel where she was staying.

"It was only five rooms," she says. Fate placed the two together in the evenings; when she would go to have a drink, he'd be the one serving it. "He's Colombian," she explains. "He was in Argentina living in exile. [He was] a musicologist. So we had all of these bits of connection where we were really both politically, socially active and involved, musically very passionate." A friendship bloomed, and then sparks flared.

"The night before I left, we had a kiss, nothing more, nothing less, and made this very loose pact that we would keep in touch, that one day we would see each other in Mexico," she says. "Fast forward seven years, I got married, I got divorced, he got married, he got divorced. Pandemic hits, everybody's now online, you're reaching out to anybody and everybody is reconnecting, all the things. We start talking again and a romance bubbled up." iskwē was in Montreal at the time, and the day that pandemic restrictions were lifted, she was on a plane to Mexico City. There, she spent three weeks before beginning work on the album.

As she nears the story's end, it becomes evident that the romance is beside the point — at least for nīna and who iskwē was as she crafted the album, and who she is now. She had two songs penned for nīna ("A Little Piece" and "Sure to Come") that she planned to record in Los Angeles with producer Damian Taylor (Björk, the Killers) after her three weeks of bliss, but plans swiftly changed after her first call with the Grammy-nominated producer.

Back home and on the phone, "I was telling [Taylor] about Mexico, and how I had just been there and it was so wonderful and the smells were vibrant and my eyes were on fire from all the beautiful colour, and life was just being pumped back into me," she recalls. "And he's like, 'Why don't we go do these two songs in Mexico? We can go back to Mexico City.'"

Back in Mexico City, the romance, iskwē says matter-of-factly, lasted a couple more months, but what emerged from the time was something eternal: nīna.

nīna is a turning point for the JUNO Award-winning artist — just as much a reintroduction as it is a rebirth. It's the most autobiographical she has ever been. Her first three works — 2017's The Fight Within, 2019's seminal and resounding acākosīk, and 2022's Tom Wilson collaboration Mother Love — have a communal bent, looking at the individual contextualized within society. They speak to the artist's Indigenous identity (iskwē is Cree Métis) and delineate the healing power of love, Indigenous people's mistreatment at the hands of settler colonial violence, and find solace in culture. nīna, on the other hand, finds the artist taking a look inward and documenting the changing topography of her psyche, something she felt was necessary as she traversed a turbulent path.

"During the last few years of my life, it's been very isolating," iskwē explains. "My connection to the outside world had shifted so dramatically that all of my creative energy was circulating around what I was going through at the time."

She continues, "In 2020 I had a really good front on, but I was a mess. I was a disaster on the inside. This [album] was really helpful for me to process all of those things, learn from it, learn how to be a better partner, learn how to be a better friend, learn how to be a better caretaker of my own being, all of it."

Capsuled within the album are tracks like diary entries, speaking to iskwē's experiences of anger and sadness at a fracturing love, her relationship in Mexico City, isolation, fear, and the difficulty of working toward resilience and reconnection with the self through reflection and release.

She has this inimitable knack — through her lyrics that are dark, searing and ironic — of blowing experiences and feelings to beguiling proportions, unmissable as the wind. "The salty air / Feels tight against my skin with the breeze," she sings on the sensualist's dream that is "Blown Away."

In a sense, Mexico City is not so much about a boy as it is about "finding and reconnecting with my own sensuality and my own emotional side, but the emotional side of myself that I've never shared outwardly," she says. "In fact, I've never been very good at it, even within more intimate relationships. It was a lot of shift and a lot of changing that was taking place. All of those bits and pieces participated."

Crucially, nīna isn't a sad album for iskwē. "'A Little Piece' is a painful song, but it's not a sad song to me," she says of the album opener. "And I don't feel like any of the other songs on the record are sad. I feel like they're introspective, they're emotional, but I don't feel any of them are really rooted in despair. It's kind of like acceptance all across the board — various forms of acceptance. I accept the fact I could be forgotten at any moment."

This steady acceptance is balanced by her beautifully protean voice, carrying the vibrant emotion of her diaristic lyrics, each track a different point on the journey back to the self after jarring upheaval. On the smouldering "A Little Piece," her voice is pained, reaching a confessional hush as she introduces us to her heartbreak that she fleshes out to full form on "Part Two" and "End of It All," which carry in them the increasingly resolute understanding of the end of a relationship.

"Blown Away" is the track that immortalizes the story about a boy, and it's not a lament so much as it is celebratory. iskwē is careful to note that the relationship ended on good terms and that she and the musicologist are still friends. Accordingly, there is nothing but blushing bliss on the track that feels as satiating as a cold drink on a hot day. Her voice here is easy and unburdened, breathless as it exists in a pocket of safety and fulfilled passion.

For iskwē, writing such a personal and intimate album wasn't daunting, simply because of the dialogical role art plays in her life.

"Music, to me, is just the outlet of the conversation of the experience. It becomes cathartic once it's been created, but I don't look at it as the tool for help or something. It's more just like the thing that feeds it out. It starts here," she says, gesturing to the space above her head, "and then it comes out. It's shooting through and collecting the stories and then pulling them out in a way so that I can have a bit of distance from that. So it's not just so consuming."

Creation for the artist is like a harnessing and then release of energy. "I truly believe that creativity, we're just meant to be conduits for it," she says passionately. "So once it's come in and it's entered you, you're responsible to get it out."

But what did give her pause was the idea of sharing the textures of her internality and personality with others. "So I smoke weed. Actually, I quit at the end of December, but I don't know if that's bad for branding now that I have a song called 'I Get High,'" she says and then flowers into a peal of laughter. She says her team would tease her for it, so much so that a prior manager told her she ought to write a song about it.

She wavered, telling her manager that she didn't think it would be well-received. "Part of this record was actually me breaking away from what I felt was expected of me," she says. "I felt like I was expected to be the one that stood up for stuff, that I couldn't be sensual, I couldn't be sexual, I couldn't be talking about smoking weed."

She continues steadily, speaking to an unease at having to perform the model minority myth: "I couldn't do those things because I had to be this person that was poised and eloquent and considered her words before she spoke, because the things that I was talking about were really important, and they were not just me. These were stories that were impacting my community at large. I wanted to be very, very careful about how I was presenting it. I felt this — maybe even a self-imposed — pressure to follow a path within that that wasn't very personal to my own sentiment and my own emotions and my own sensuality and sexualities and experiences and so on. When it was suggested that I write a song about getting high or smoking weed, I was like, 'Oh no, I can't do that.' But then I had to step back and be like, 'Okay, why not?'"

Days in the studio in Mexico City followed a pattern: iskwē would come in around noon with coffee and pastries for herself and Taylor, who had arrived a couple of hours earlier to clean up work from the previous day, then they would talk. "Eventually I would roll a joint," she says, and then they would write.

Finally, a day came along when Taylor turned to iskwē and said, "Come on, let's give it a shot," referring to a song about weed. She acquiesced. She remembers, "He's like, 'Okay, what were some tunes that you listened to back in the day when you would get high? Where did you go?' And I was like, 'Oh, I know exactly.'" There was only one song she played for him: Nina Hagen's "Cosmic Shiva," which Taylor had never heard before.

Watching him listen to the track, "It was like the matrix going through his body," she remembers. "I could just see it computing. ... And then he got up and he went over to the computer and he just fucked around for maybe 10 minutes. And we had the foundation of the base or the sample. And then within an hour we had the whole song written from start to finish."

The resulting song, "I Get High," landed on the Canadian alternative charts and has more than 160,000 plays on Spotify, as of press time. She says her dad introduced her to Nina Hagen, and when she played the song for him, he noted that Hagen is staunchly anti-drugs. "And I was like, 'Oh fuck'," iskwē says. But she decided to persist, penning a letter to Hagen explaining who she is and what she has experienced, and asking for permission to use a sample of the bass from "Cosmic Shiva."

"She responded within two hours, gave her full permission and asked to be listed as a feature, but not for financial gains," iskwē says with an astonished smile. "It was just her way of supporting the tune."

The delightful earworm of a track is certainly about sparking, but it's also about something more. "You're pushing all the weight like you're the only one to carry / Tons and knocking other people down to take a seat not built for one," she fires in the track's hazy interlude.

"It's a song about holding each other up rather than being crabs in the bucket," iskwē explains. "When we see somebody succeed, your success is my success, we're on the same team and vice versa."

She adds, "I definitely did feel like I had to be very, very careful, and I had to be very thoughtful," she goes on. But she doesn't believe that her hesitancy about nīna was ill-founded, because it comes from a place of care for her community, she says.

When the friction between the facets of her public identity and her existence as a private individual began to sting, she did some reckoning. "[I always felt] like I had to be very loud about those parts of me," she says. "I had to be really loud about where I come from. I had to be really loud about what my background was, my upbringing. And I felt like I had to be very, very vocal about those things. And sometimes it felt empowering, but then also sometimes it felt controlling."

There is a sense of fallibility about nīna, and I tell iskwē this. The album feels like a changeable person, impermanent as the sea — messy, impassioned, feminine, joyous, heartbroken. "Do you feel like the album has allowed you to overcome the idea that you have to be just one certain way?" I ask her. Has it allowed her to reveal her private self in peaceful coexistence with her public self?

"Hell yeah," she says. "That's why the images are the images and the visuals are what they are now." The album's cover depicts iskwē in a dress like a starry night, her hair tumbling in caramel waves down her right shoulder. Her chin is lifted — not so much in defiance as with an air of confident honesty, announcing her unabashed but sensitive presence. Behind her, waves lazily lap ashore in the brightness of twilight. She's not wearing any makeup.

"I don't even know if we put on mascara," she says. "It was lotion and a little dewiness kind of thing, Chapstick. I wanted to call the record nīna, which is the Cree word for 'me,' because I wanted it to feel as close to me as I absolutely could get."

Near the end of 2022, iskwē was attacked online by voices hiding behind anonymity accusing her of faking her Indigenous identity for professional and financial gain, hurling various racist arguments against her. The attack forced her to prove her Indigenous identity; as of this writing, an image of her citizenship card remains pinned at the top of her Instagram profile.

"Truthfully, after being attacked on the internet," she says, "I just don't give a shit the same way about what people are thinking." She references her track "Sure to Come," which jauntily walks through the anxiety around being forgotten as an artist. It's an anxiety that iskwē not so much quells as she puts into perspective with the reminder that she is still alive, her body able to see all the colour, to hear the song, her pulse still able to thunder and rage.

"I have no control over what you're going to think or say or do about me, so why am I sitting here stressing about it all the time?" she says. "I've been trying very consciously my entire artistic career to be aware and to be positive and to be in support of all of these different things. And I've been trying my best. And so at this point I'm like, 'Okay, now it's time for me to try my best at being vulnerable.'"

It's a revolutionary act, to be so achingly vulnerable and human, and iskwē masterfully achieved it on nīna. But it feels stiff to talk about the album in the past tense, because of how alive it feels, roiling and becoming as the sea depicted on its cover. For the monumental lesson it has taught iskwē about herself, it would be an injustice to speak of the album as an artifact sitting in the past.

"I do feel like I can get through shit," she says in response to my question of what the album has taught her. Dotted throughout the last couple of years for the artist were moments "I wasn't certain if I was going to get through to the other side," she acknowledges haltingly, being patient with her thoughts. "In my being, in my breath. And then somehow, I still did. And I feel like it gave me something that I could lean on a little differently."

At a couple of points throughout our conversation, she wordlessly places her hands palms up on the table, reaching toward me. I place my hands in hers, and she gives them a soft squeeze. It's a confirmation of life meeting life, as we are now.

"I've never been signed to a label," she says near the end of the interview. "I have an incredible team that I've been working with for years, but it's something that I had to put together myself. I had to earn the trust of the individuals who've decided to be a part of the team."

nīna has taught iskwē about the strength she contains in her multiplicity and fallibility, and it's an understanding that allows her to attend to others as she does to herself. The album ends on the shimmering twinkle of "Exhale," which comes after the reckoning with the passage of time contained in "Waiting for the Laughter." "Breathe out," she sings like a hymn on "Exhale," reminding listeners of the soul's light, which cannot be snuffed.

"At the end of the day, if I lose steam, then things just sort of cool off for a while," she says. "And then, when I come back, then we kind of come back together. I learned through the process of this record how fragile an ecosystem is, but how resilient it can be as well."

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