Jeremy Dutcher Balances Beauty and Pain

The musician reaches out with stories of queer celebration and unapologetic truth-bearing on new album 'Motewolonuwok'

Photo: Kirk Lisaj

BY Emilie HanskampPublished Oct 3, 2023

If you stop by the ground floor of the Killarney Lake Lodge in Wolastokuk (Fredericton, NB), you'll find a class of 12 students. Aged three to five years old, they might be huddled around a new toy, wreaking havoc on the playground, or taking part in the morning's smudging ceremony. Whether from the mouths of the elders, the teachers or the children themselves, you'll hear Wolastoqey — the language of the Wolastoqiyik people.

Kehkimin Wolastoqey Immersion School is the first of its kind. It opened its doors last year with a mission to revitalize the Wolastoqey language, and it all starts with these 12 students. Should they become fluent, they would join a group of lifelong Wolastoqey speakers that some now estimate to number less than 100. The majority of those speakers are over the age of 65.

These figures provoke a handful of knee-jerk adjectives: Wolastoqey is "endangered." The language is "dying." But if you ask artist and activist Jeremy Dutcher, that framing is all wrong.

"We can't bury it before it's dead," he tells Exclaim! over breakfast in Toronto's West End. "It brings forward the importance of speaking life to something and not using words of death around something that's really precious. It also aligns with the experience I see when I look into the community. There's a huge revitalization movement that's happening right now."

Language revitalization is very personal to Dutcher for a few reasons. For one, he's a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, one of six Wolastoqiyik reserves in New Brunswick. For another, the founder of the Kehkimin Immersion School happens to be his mother, Lisa Perley-Dutcher. 

"Language has been a part of my family conversation for a long time," the 32-year-old explains.

Dutcher's first album, 2018's Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, was sung entirely in Wolastoqey. A labour of love, the project resulted from years of studying, transcribing and arranging 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of traditional Wolastoq songs that were stored at the Canadian Museum of History. After weaving his own melodies and arias into the recordings, the result was a sort of neo-operatic ancestral collaboration. It went on to win the Polaris Music Prize and appeared on album-of-the-year lists, including Exclaim!'s.

He performed these songs for the nation on the JUNOS stage, for Joni Mitchell at her 75th birthday party, and for the world over on international platforms like NPR's Tiny Desk series. Throughout, translations were not provided. This, Dutcher wants you to know, was by design.

"That was very much a project of making people uncomfortable and letting them sit in the not knowing," he explains. "It was also about a direction for the work and pointing it towards the community and saying: this is for no one else but you."

For those outside of that community, the album offered an opportunity to reflect on the historic and systemic eradication of Indigenous languages in this country. It was an invitation for listeners to ask themselves: why don't I understand Wolastoqey?

It's a reckoning that Dutcher experienced in his own household over the pandemic. He leans in, fondly recounting an exchange between his mother and non-Indigenous father: "She looked him in the eye and said, 'As an act of reconciliation, I want you to learn my language,'" he recalls. "To his credit, since then he's been really trying. We get together on Zoom every Sunday as a family and try to teach the ones that don't quite know yet."

But, between the stages of learning and knowing, you lose opportunities for understanding — husband to wife, father to son, artist to fan. So, on his new album, Motewolonuwok (out October 6 on Secret City Records), Dutcher decided that he would sing in English as well as Wolastoqey. He wanted to speak to his dad, and to the many others who had proved they were ready to listen.

This is the first time Dutcher has ever written music in English. To get his pen to paper, he took inspiration from the words of others. Among them was Yupik activist and author Richard LaFortune. Following the 2001 murder of Fred Martinez, a Two-Spirit Navajo teen, LaFortune expressed what it meant to exist at that crossroad of identity: "The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live."

Dutcher identifies as Two-Spirit, a term that refers to the intersecting gender, sexual and cultural identities of people who might otherwise be identified as both LGBTQ+ and Indigenous. For him, LaFortune's line was profoundly impactful.

"That intersection has equal amounts pain, equal amounts beauty," he reflects. "It's the duality of that experience that I wanted to look at and write around."

The beauty of Motewolonuwok is collective and defiant. It comes through the 12-person choirs — on "Sakom" and "Together We Emerge" — made up of Dutcher's queer and allied friends. You feel it in the moments of stillness between each patient piano chord on the soulful ballad "Take My Hand." It emanates through every fervent call to "rise in beauty" on the album's closing track. It's woven into the soundscapes, as ambitious as we've ever heard from the composer.

"You know when you take a picture on a screen and you want to zoom in?" Dutcher mimics the pinching motion with his fingers. "I wanted to do that with the sonic world on this last record," he continues. "Point for point, let's make it bigger."

String quartets become full orchestras. Vocal duets become choirs. In a fusion of experimental pop, art rock, jazz and neoclassical, Motewolonuwok carves out a space of its own. 

Alongside that beauty, as the duality dictates, is pain, excavated on tracks like "Ancestors Too Young" and "The Land That Held Them." Dutcher wrote the latter as a response to Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," a protest song released in the wake of mounting violence and oppression against Black people in the segregated South.

"It was such a direct form of history-telling and truth-bearing. An unapologetic statement. I thought, what's our 'Mississippi Goddam'? What's our 'Saskatchewan Goddam'? What's our 'Edmonton Goddam'?" Dutcher pauses. "We need to hear that."

The result is a track composed of three vignettes, the first tellling the story of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. She was murdered in 2014, her body later found in Winnipeg's Red River. The second verse highlights Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man who was fatally shot in the back of the head after pulling into the yard of a Saskatchewan farm-owner. That farmer was later acquitted. The third verse reflects on starlight tours, a deadly practice that saw Saskatoon police driving Indigenous people out of the city and abandoning them, often in sub-zero temperatures. 

It was a painful song to write, and even harder to record. "We did one take and I had to go cry somewhere," Dutcher recalls. 

When he returned, his producer pitched a new approach: sing it like you're reading the paper. In so doing, he channelled the casual disregard for Indigenous lives that he saw reflected back to him through dehumanizing headlines.

"I think about my little nieces and nephews growing up as little Indigenous kids in this country where it's so precarious," he explains. "It's not really trying to tell any one story. It's just like: this is fucking how it feels to read this news and to feel like that's my sister. That's my brother."

One's sense of community can be strengthened through pain, but for Dutcher, it's also heightened through celebration. Queer celebration, in particular. 

The album's title, Motewolonuwok, directly translates to "witches." But Dutcher is quick to flag this as an example of English translation flattening the language. A more accurate translation would be something like, "the people of great spiritual power." 

"Very often, these people were shapeshifters and people who changed between man and woman. They were, essentially, queer people," he explains. 

"It's going back to our old stories and realizing that, in our mythology and in our creation stories, there are queer people, there are Two-Spirit people," He continues. "In our society today, we're patting ourselves on the back for using neutral pronouns. But my language doesn't even have 'he' or 'she.' Everyone is neutral, everyone is 'they.' So it's this funny thing where maybe we need to look back rather than trying to always look ahead, because there's a lot of wisdom back there — particularly wisdom around honouring and centering queer people that is not from a deficit model, but that actually builds us up and lifts us up as people that have knowledge."

For Dutcher, fashion has become central to the way that he channels and signals that queer power. "Oh my god, Indigenous fashion right now is blowing my mind," he gushes. "I love to peacock a little bit."

He was definitely spreading his feathers at the Polaris Prize Gala, decked out in nothing but a pair of high-waisted briefs and a sheer black cape. At the JUNOS, he donned another cape, this one by Indigenous designer Derek Jagodzinsky and Toronto-based Michael Zoffranieri. It cascaded over the back of his piano bench, embroidered with florals and Cree syllabics. In NPR's Tiny Desk library, purple streamers sparkled and draped over his shoulders. Last month, he sported his own floor-length technicolour dream coat while performing at Brooklyn's National Sawdust venue. The garment was designed by Anishinaabe-French designer Caroline Monnet and was made entirely from recycled housing materials. 

"It's putting out Indigenous imagery and queer imagery all together and making sure those are connected," he says. "I never want to distract from what's trying to be said or the musical elements, but maybe it draws in certain people or expresses myself through a lens of a kind of queer superhero." 

He then laughs and acknowledges the T-shirt and cargo pants he's wearing while eating a breakfast sandwich: "There's a look for every moment." 

It isn't lost on Dutcher that his messages — of revitalization, radical love, community — often land on the ears of the already-converted. In some ways, he finds himself preaching to the (literal and figurative) choir. It isn't a race to the reckoning, but how do you connect with the stragglers still huffing and puffing at the starting line?

With one foot already in the classical world, Dutcher is able to extend that reach. In a given week, he could be playing back-to-back shows at a local school's gymnasium and the Royal Conservatory of Music. Having studied anthropology and music at Halifax's Dalhousie University, he's classically trained as an operatic tenor and composer. 

It's a duality that he continues to grapple with: his classical music education on one side, and his Wolastoq musical background on the other. It's a unique vantage point for influence, but the perch can be uncomfortable.

"I guess I felt like an outsider in both of those worlds," he admits. "My voice doesn't really sound like the traditional boys when they sing around the drum. I can fake it, but that's not my way of singing." He stops to acknowledge that "Lovefool" by the Cardigans is playing in the restaurant. Hand to heart, he chair-sways for a few beats before jumping back in.

"But I kind of struggle in this world too, of this operatic canon," he explains. "The music might be nice, but sometimes the stories are rather misogynist or racist. They carry a lot of baggage with them. So all the time, I'm trying to tell better stories. I was raised with these beautiful philosophies and this language and this understanding, so how do I bring that into this space?"

Since the power brokers are more likely to be at the concert hall than the community hall on a Friday night, Dutcher's solution has been a renegotiation — a corrective approach to the Eurocentric classical world he finds so complicatedly beautiful. 

"I've been calling it 'Western Art Music' lately, because I think it actually holds more truth. When we say 'classical,' especially in a North American context, we conjure up something very particular. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach — what do all those guys have in common?" Dutcher laughs, raising his eyebrows. "All music has classics. There's Indian classical music. There's Chinese classical music. What is Indigenous classical music? Let's dream about what that could sound like." 

One fan-turned-friend he has made along that path of reimagining is Yo-Yo Ma — "Uncle Yo-Yo," Dutcher quips. While on a worldwide tour performing Bach's cello suites, Ma invited Dutcher to play with him at Montreal's Maison Symphonique. The two performed the Mi'kmaq "Honor Song" together, which Ma then included on his next album.

Dutcher, whose communication setting seems permanently toggled to "warm mode," softens even more at the mention of the world-famous cellist. In particular, he recalls the moment Ma met his mother.

"I witnessed maybe the longest hug of my life. Unflinching, for three full minutes," he remembers with a laugh. "How could I feel like an imposter in that room when it was such a warm invitation?"

Since then, Ma and Dutcher have stayed in touch. The cellist seems keen to learn about the past and present realities of Indigenous peoples across North America, and has even reached out to Dutcher for book suggestions to help him along the way. 

Don't bother asking for the reading list. "Oh, that's a secret," Dutcher teases.

These moments of education happen at the micro level — between Jeremy Dutcher and Yo-Yo Ma. Between an elder and a classroom of four-year-olds. Between family members. At the macro level, a performer sings to a sold-out concert hall. A song gets streamed across the world. The work is urgent, but the process is gradual. 

It's a pace that Dutcher seems to accept. Patience comes easier to an optimist, and progress has overpowered the pessimism. He struck the same tone in his 2018 Polaris acceptance speech. After first addressing his community in Wolastoqey, he addressed the country as a whole. 

"You are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance," he declared. That was five years ago. He smiles widely as he thinks about the state of that renaissance today. 

"It's with us. It's here."

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