Evan James Redsky's Born is an unfeigned country ballad about his indigenous bloodline and life on the reserve.
"I was born in the echo of the Catholic Church, breathing down my families neck," is the opening couplet, an allusion to the residential-school system and its effects on his kin. Warm acoustic tones are cut with Redsky's sandy drawl on the steady-paced track.
The number is found on the Toronto musician's EP Dog Daze, a record showcasing a rugged sound that's interspersed with whining lap steel and palatable twang. The record will be released in late February.
The release hinges on Redsky's urge to share visceral stories about his indigenous roots "that cut close to the bone." He grew up on Mississauga First Nation, located near Blind River, Ont., a milieu where poverty and the generational impacts of residential school can be found. And it's these issues he's more inclined to write about the older he gets, he said.
Redsky is always hunting for ways to incorporate indigenous themes or characters into his music, he said. The Ballad of Danny Wolfe, a book written by The Globe and Mail's Joe Friesen, spurred him to compose a steely rock 'n' roll song about the notorious Indian Posse leader. Redsky describes it as "a real face-melting Americana tune."
Before his solo endeavours, he played in Single Mothers, a punk band from London, Ont., that was nominated for a Juno Award in 2015. Redsky called his time in the group "a happy distraction," however, emphasizing he is playing music that is more true to himself these days.
"I think it's the only voice I know," he said of the Americana style. "It's the thing that comes most natural to me."
Redsky grew up listening to Patsy Cline, the Band and Hank Williams, to name a few.
"What you hear on reserve is working-people's music," he said. "It's simple and hella catchy. It's like the blues. I always say this, but Lucinda Williams is my Beyoncé."
Redsky took up songwriting after brushing shoulders with musicians thumbing country songs in and around his reserve. Then it became clear what he had to do next in order to "make it" as an artist: leave his First Nation home behind. But it wasn't until he left that he realized its impression, he said.
"I think I spent most of my youth wondering how I could get off the reserve," he said. "It took 10 years to discover that the time I spent there was really meaningful to my music."
Redsky is motivated to refocus the Canadian narrative on indigenous issues through his music, given that they have been ignored for so long, he said.
Native North America, Vol. 1, is proof of this. It's a box set of underrated and – in some cases – unheard-of Americana music from indigenous Canadians and Americans whose heydays were in the sixties and seventies. The archival compilation was long-listed for a Polaris Music Prize in 2015.
It took producer Kevin Howes 15 years to complete the compilation, and plenty of travel.
"It's all about learning and sharing," Howes said of his project. "But it's really about celebrating the diversity that exists in this country, and we need that more than ever. And the industry is just completely behind in it all. It needs to wake up. It's like these artists didn't even exist in the Canadian narrative."
Redsky said he was inspired by the project, paying respect to the late Willie Dunn, a Mi'kmaq folk musician, and an Inuk rock band called Sugluk.
"It was just nice to see the response to all the various indigenous artists who would have otherwise gone unnoticed," he said. "When you see another First Nation artist being represented, or representing themselves, you can't help but see yourself in it. You sort of weave yourself into the fabric of all of it."
While musicians like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tanya Tagaq have started to receive the acclaim they deserve, there is still work to be done, said Redsky. As a result, he finds himself part of a collective of musicians working to champion artistic diversity.
"My ultimate goal is to write contemporary native-American stories because it's one of the most grossly misunderstood aspects of the Canadian mosaic," he said. "There has to be a voice. We're still here, alive and well."