Folk (Rock) Hero

NWT’s music darling Leela Gilday talks about her new album, winning a Juno, and the perks and perils of being an aboriginal artist

ON A COOL NIGHT AT A PUB IN HANOI, VIETNAM, Leela Gilday rekindled an old love. It was jam night at The Labyrinth, a popular tourist bar in the city’s Old Quarter. She knew a pile of people and they all sang and played guitar until 2 a.m. Warmed by the place and the spirit of the night, Gilday decided then that she couldn’t quit playing music. “To my immense relief, I seem to have found my passion again,” she later wrote in her email travelogue. “I do want to be a musician.”

Her month-long Vietnam trip – which became a six-month Southeast Asia trek – was to be part escape, part quest. For the past two years she’d been playing festivals and shows all over Canada promoting her 2002 debut album Spirit World, Solid Wood. Couch-surfing and single-handedly juggling the business side of her career were taking a toll, and Gilday was seriously considering trading in the erratic musician-life to be a working stiff like the rest of us. Across the world from her troubles, she convalesced on beaches, meditated in silence for days, attended a Dalai Lama reading, gazed at the Taj Mahal, and gleaned the clarity and perspective world travel promised.

Back in her hometown of Yellowknife, the 33-year-old singer-songwriter is a beloved celebrity in the way that people from small towns are when they leave and do noteworthy things. When she visits from Vancouver, where she recently moved to be closer to the music industry, locals swarm (at least five approach her at the coffee shop during our hour-long interview) and men generally swoon. She’s a solid 5’9, with a long, soft face and a perfect dimple-flanked smile. She exudes a sensual warmth, always greeting friends with a kiss and a bracing hug. She laughs loudly and unselfconsciously, which makes her confident. It’s magnetic, yet intimidating – the kind of star-quality poise you need if you want to make it as a musician.

And in a sense Gilday has made it. She’s released two in-dependent albums, both on meager budgets, both award-winning. This spring her second LP, Sedzé, earned her a Juno – Canada’s top music prize – for Best Aboriginal Recording, followed by a handful more nominations, including her first U.S. nod. Career-wise, it’s been Gilday’s best year, though marked by no fewer uncertainties about her future as a musician.

Photo by Pat Kane

LEELA GILDAY’S first solo performance was on a plywood stage at Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks festival, held every July on the city’s only real beach. She was eight, wearing a stiff cotton dress and moccasins. With her dad beside her on piano, she sang One Tin Soldier, a popular ’60s anti-war song. According to her parents, Gilday’s voice was noticeably tuneful even as a toddler, when her repertoire was the ABCs and Peter Rabbit. Her father, Bill, a music teacher and jazz musician in his own right, took great interest in fostering his daughter’s talents – partly, he admits, because he forwent his own aspirations to be a professional musician when he moved to the North from Ontario.

A trim, tidy-looking man with a greying helmet of thick hair, Bill regularly brought home sophisticated children’s music, and always sang around the house. Gilday and her younger brother Jay (today a musician living in Edmonton) took fiddle lessons and were always enrolled in the local choir. For nine years, the family lived in Rae-Edzo (now Behchokó), a small aboriginal community about 100 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife. There was a two-year stint in the Edmonton bedroom community of Morinville, just before Alberta’s oil boom. Gilday’s mother, Cindy, a Sahtu Dene from Déline, NWT, wasn’t into the “suburban feel” of the town or how long it took to drive to “the bush.” So they returned to the North, albeit briefly.

When she was 13, the family, which by then included the youngest daughter, Carla, moved to Toronto for a year, partly so Gilday could join the city’s prestigious children’s choir. (Jay auditioned and also made the cut.) Together they performed on stage at Roy Thompson Hall with Canada’s world renowned Mendelssohn and Vancouver Bach Choirs for a two-night concert. “It was such an amazing opportunity,” Cindy says. “A chance for the kids to do music – proper music.” When they moved back north, Bill was so inspired by what he’d seen in Toronto, he launched his own children’s chorus in Yellowknife. Of course, young Leela would participate every year until leaving home.

She moved to Edmonton when she was 17 to take music at the University of Alberta. She majored in voice and set her sights on opera. “I remember thinking I was going to sing at the Met (New York City’s Metropolitan Opera) and La Scala (in Italy),” she says, chuckling at her naïve ambitions. But a few years into the program, the realities of the genre set in. She couldn’t afford to rent the huge rehearsal spaces, and felt she “was definitely not capable of writing opera” – a style thick with melodrama and theatrics. “I just wanted to write songs about who I was and my home,” Gilday says. So she turned to folk music. “In a sense I already knew how to write a folk song from growing up around it. It’s a craft, but it’s not rocket science.”

After graduating, with honours, Gilday moved to Toronto with a boyfriend, acquired an old guitar and started learning chords. Like any musician bent on making it, she worked crappy jobs and penned songs in her off time. She was a waitress and a temp, she sold counterfeit-money detectors door-to-door, then landed an office job at Big Soul Productions, an aboriginal-owned production company that at least put her in the same room with people in “the biz.” Meanwhile, she was building a decent collection of songs, which she was trying out on bar crowds. “I really put my whole effort into it,” Gilday says. “I did all my own postering, carried all my own gear. I certainly paid my dues.”

The open-mike circuit was great exposure, but Gilday knew she needed an album to carry her songs. So in the autumn of 2001 she made a bold phone call to an independent record producer named John Switzer. “She just called me out of the blue and said, ‘Hi, I’m Leela Gilday and I want to come over and play you my song,’” recalls Switzer. Accustomed to such starry-eyed requests, Switzer suggested she mail him a demo instead. But Gilday insisted. “She knew her songs would come across better live than they would – at least at that point – on a recording,” he says. “There’s a personality to what she does that has to be seen.”

On September 11, as planes were flying into the World Trade Center, Gilday sat on a picnic table in Switzer’s backyard and played her songs. “I was just bowled over,” he says. “Afterward, my family asked who she was, and I said, ‘That’s someone I’m going to be working with.’” Every Tuesday for the next several weeks, Gilday, Switzer and a hastily assembled band gathered in a rented rehearsal space to both score and record her music. The budget was tiny, but Switzer felt compelled to make the album. “As a producer you’re attracted to people who write really good songs and have a good voice and all that,” he says. “But that can only go so far – there has to be this extra thing, which Leela certainly had a lot of.”

In March 2002, they released Spirit World, Solid Wood. It was a modest soft-rock album featuring earnest ballads about love and the world, inflected with a Northern nostalgia. Her song “Village of Widows” relives the aftermath of uranium mining in Port Radium, NWT, while her empowering a cappella “Indian Girl” is about Gilday’s mixed Dene and white heritage. There are soft love songs and a charming ode to her small shoreline hometown. The debut picked up three Aboriginal Music Awards and got her in the media (a spot on the Maclean’s “Top 50 under 30” list). For the next few years she worked the album on stages across the country. “I don’t think I ever spent more than two weeks in once place,” she says, adding resolutely, “but I’m done with that now.”

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CLUTCHING HER BULBOUS glass Juno award this spring in Saskatoon’s packed arts centre, Gilday barely managed to keep it together during her speech. The bawling came afterward. “It was so surreal,” she says. “My mom was screaming and crying; it was like a movie.” Gilday says she was surprised to win, but knew she had a fair shot this year. Musically, Sedzé is a stronger album – acoustic and uncluttered, allowing her voice some breathing room. The long-awaited national nod was thrilling for all the obvious reasons. Though, perhaps most importantly, it drew the attention of a music agent, something Gilday had managed to do without over her five-year career.

The day after the Junos she made a handshake deal with Paul Gourlie, who represents other aboriginal artists like Digging Roots and George Leach, as well as popular Ontario reggae-pop trio Bedouin Soundclash. “Leela had been on my radar for a while,” Gourlie says from his Toronto office. “She’s got a raw honesty and really strong work ethic. She’s really bright and creative, and she knows what she wants.”

Gilday wants what most musicians want: to sing for billions, sell out venues, tour internationally – be valued as an artist. “I’m not talking about being a huge, famous rock star,” she says, “but being a noted artist, not just a novelty act.”  A friend and longtime producer with CBC’s Northern bureau, Peter Skinner sees Gilday as the natural and obvious Northern ambassador. “She’s a kind of synthesis of so many aspects of the North: aboriginal, non-aboriginal, traditional, modern. She’s so distinctively where she’s from, so completely a part of this place – and so sincere about it – that she can’t help but be a spokesperson for it.”

Gilday admits being an aboriginal singer has brought certain opportunities (aboriginal award shows and categories) as well as obstacles (getting stuck in those categories). “I’m proud of being Dene and being from the North, and I’ve used it to my advantage for many years. People find it exotic; they’re interested in you for that mere fact,” she says. “But the flip side is being pigeon-holed, tokenized and overlooked as a real artist.”

With the backing of a longtime industry flack like Paul Gourlie, Gilday’s career has a promising new momentum. Though, she tends to keep reality in close proximity. “I’ve still been turned down for most everything,” she says of funding applications. “I guess I thought (the Juno) was going to be like a pass-card to certain things.” Perhaps surprisingly, Gilday has never even had help in her own territory. “I’ve never gotten anything from the government beyond a pat on the back,” she says. “And it’s not because I haven’t tried.”

So, despite the usual music-biz snags and struggles that only a few years ago sent Gilday across the world to re-evaluate her career, she’s concluded she’s not quite ready to give up the excitingly irregular life of a musician. “Yes it’s exhausting, but I try not to be too negative about it because I get to play music for a living, and, for me, that’s like hitting the jackpot. But there’s also part of me that wants to save the world, have kids, live in the North again. I don’t know how that all fits in. I just know I’m not happy doing anything else.”

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