“I’d like to move back to Toronto—if the city stops pricing out its artists”: A Q&A with musical polymath Jeremy Dutcher
Ahead of his December 9 show at Massey Hall, Dutcher talks about his latest album, being two-spirit and writing music in both English and Wolastoqey
Since releasing his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, in 2018, musical polymath Jeremy Dutcher has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma and Beverly Glenn-Copeland (among others), won a Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award, and performed his own NPR Tiny Desk concert. Dutcher, a Wolastoqi member of the Tobique First Nation, released his second album, Motewolonuwok, this past October and has been touring the country since. On December 9, he plays Massey Hall accompanied by his jazz band, choir and orchestra. We caught up with the artist to talk about writing music in the Wolastoqey language, the surprising alchemy between opera and his ancestral music, and what he likes to do in Toronto when it’s too cold to go to the beach.
Your latest album came out a few months ago. How did you celebrate?
I had a launch party in Toronto, at Longboat Hall, a side venue attached to the Great Hall on Queen Street. A lot of the musicians I play with on the album are based here. The venue has a beautiful wrap-around balcony, and the musicians performed in the centre, with everyone gathered around us. It was a wonderful way to send the music out into the world.
You used to live here. What do you like to do when you’re back?
I lived here for six years before moving to Montreal, so Toronto is a special place for me. It’s too cold for Hanlan’s Point now, but I’ll check out a jazz show at the Rex. I’m even considering moving back to Toronto. There are so many neighbourhoods I want to explore—if the city stops pricing out all its artists, that is.
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You’re a classically trained opera singer, but you return to your Indigenous roots in your music. What’s it like to combine these musical traditions?
I’ve been at this musical intersection my whole life. The two worlds may seem opposed, but they can be put in dialogue with each other. When I was studying music in university, I began to feel confined by the kinds of music the Western model allowed me to sing, which led me back to the songs I heard growing up. I’d sit at the piano and trace out melodies from our traditional songs. They were sung only to drums, but I found that there was so much music around the melodies to explore.
This may be the first English-Wolastoqey album ever. Why did you go bilingual this time around?
My first album was all in Wolastoqey, and while I wanted to reach a wider audience with this one, I didn’t have the confidence to write entirely in English yet. The album was inspired by the poems of Cherokee writer Qwo-Li Driskill, and putting those poems to music was a way around that. It’s a bit like the great European composers who would take the poetry of their time and put melodies to it. To explore the middle ground, where I still feel like myself even as I’m expressing myself in different languages, was a challenge, but I’m happy with how it turned out.
You’ve also used that term, “middle ground,” to refer to your identity as a two-spirit person. How did that identity inform this album?
I think a lot about middle grounds. We’re expanding our minds around gender, and while it may seem new, many Indigenous nations around the country have old ways of honouring and lifting up people who are between man and woman, between these ideas of fixed gender. It’s nothing new, especially on this land. This album looks at how we can bring back the honoured space that LGBTQ+ people once had.
What do you hope your listeners take away from this album?
It’s reporting from the intersection of my specific identity, and I hope people can project themselves into that experience and find resilience in their own stories. I don’t mean that they should assume the identity of speaking Wolastoqey—although it is a beautiful language—but that they should be curious about themselves and where they come from, what they care about and what they want to protect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.