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First Play: Beatrice Deer, My All to You

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Holly Gordon

Beatrice Deer isn’t a new name to the Nunavik or Montreal music scenes, her home region and home base, respectively. But with My All to You, her fourth full-length album in nearly 15 years, Deer did something brand new for herself: she learned how to write the music to go with her lyrics.

“Every time I had an album release, there always was that question that came: ‘Did you write the music? Did you write the songs?’ So every time I had to answer that question I wished that the answer was different,” Deer says, on the phone from her hometown of Quaqtaq, Que., where she'd travelled to perform a couple of pre-launch shows.

So, two years ago, Deer picked up a guitar and built on the chords her teenage self had already learned, writing the songs and then bringing them to her bandmates, who did the arrangements.

The product of this new process is My All to You, a refreshing album written in Deer’s three languages — Inuktitut, French and English — in a genre that Deer has called “Inuindie,” mixing elements like throat singing and Inuit legends with her own contemporary writing and vocals, as well as contributions from members of Land of Talk, the Barr Brothers, Stars and Timber Timbre. It's a bold collection that moves from nostalgic '90s-esque guitar ("1997") to a moving buildup of Deer's vocals over drums and throat singing ("Takugiursugit") to a brief, urgent take on a traditional song ("Sapannga Sujunukua").

On the eight new tracks (plus two traditional songs), Deer, who is of Inuit and Mohawk descent, distills the past eight years of her life since her last full album release, a time when she says she focused on reconciliation — in the larger context of Canada and First Nations, but first within herself. ("You can't be a change maker if you haven't gone through it yourself," she writes on her site.)

“I've been going through a transformation from within for a few years now," Deer details further, over the phone. "I've been sober since 2011, July 2011, and I'm going through a lot of changes physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and those are the songs that make [the album] — that's what came out in my songs."

Listen to My All to You a week before its release in our player above, and catch Deer co-hosting the CBC Music Indigenous Music Awards with Reclaimed host Jarrett Martineau on May 18.

Below, we talked to Deer about what it was like to learn to write music, what it means to reconcile with yourself and why including traditional songs is important to her contemporary work.

Tell me what it was like to learn to write music for the first time.

I didn't think I was able to write music because I don't play instruments a lot. I know a little bit of guitar, and a couple of years ago Bucky, Mark Wheaton, our drummer — I had a conversation with him and he gave me a really good talk and I felt, I don't know, he just gave me a boost of confidence to want to try it. So I bought myself a guitar and I told myself that I'm going to practise as much as I can and I'm going to write songs and that's what I did.

How was that learning curve?

I learned how to play basic chords when I was 13, 14, and I didn't play regularly at all. I would just pick up a guitar at random times, like two or three times a year and I was never really interested in it. But almost two years ago, summer of 2016, is when I bought the guitar and I kept learning songs that I like with simple chords.

You said that you wished the answer had been different when people asked you if you had written the music. Why was that?

It's like I felt a little inadequate but I felt like ... I wasn't as accomplished as I could be, I guess.

In writing this album, how did your songwriting process work? I know that you write in Inuktitut, English and French as well.

When I [write] the song, I notice that, you know, when I was playing on the guitar, a lot of my feelings came out and whatever feeling I had came out in words afterwards and whatever language that surfaced, it's the language that I used for the song. Inuktitut is my first language. So the majority of my songs are in Inuktitut.

You’ve said that the starting point for this album was a moment in your life when you decided to transform your outlook and reconcile with yourself. What does that mean to you within this work?

I'm someone that has gone through a lot of trauma in different ways through loss and different forms of abuse, all forms of abuse, I should say. And with that I had a lot of pain that I carried. And I also had a lot of resentment towards the people that hurt me and a lot of resentment towards myself for all the things that I had done. And the change that I went through is by reconciling with myself, by making peace with my past and ... letting go of a lot of things. Letting go of a lot of pain and forgiving myself and forgiving other people, too. And that really changed me and set me free in a lot of ways.

What was that process like for you?

I decided to make a life change because I was so exhausted of my life, how my life was, I was always unhappy, going through depression a lot. And I wanted, I needed to do something to change that. And I didn't know if it was possible but I needed to see if it was possible. So I quit drinking and I really put focus on searching. Searching in myself and searching for answers to better myself, to understand why I was the way I was and that's been my real focus since then. And it still is today. So I've gone through therapy many times. I've attended healing workshops to understand why I was the way I was. And it's when you start searching for these kinds of answers, you find them. That's what I encourage other people to do: if you don't know why you are the way you are, you have to look for answers and you will find those answers eventually. And it takes time. And it's not easy.

Is writing music something that helps you with that, too?

What I found was, like, if I'm observing my music now, the songs that I used to write were pretty unhappy, many years ago. And I'm not saying life is perfect now but it's a whole lot better than a few years ago. Yeah. The songs that I wrote this time are more positive, they have a more positive outlook and yeah, some of the songs on My All to You are songs that I wrote, [that] take me back to what I was going through a few years ago. So, yeah, it's definitely brighter.

What made you include the two traditional songs that are on the album, “Immutaa” and “Sapannga Sujunukua”? Those are the only two that you did not write, right?

Well "Immutaa," I did not write, that song is not dated. It's a traditional song, I don't know how long it's been around. It's a song that's gotten very popular since we started playing it live. Many people have always asked if we're going to release it, if we're going to record it and so on. So we decided to include it. And the other song that I did not write the lyrics for [“Sapannga Sujunukua”] — the throat-singing song — is a song that me and my friend kind of improvised ... and the lyrics in that song are also part of a legend that's also very old.

I wanted to include them because singing songs and storytelling is part of our culture. And it's just a new way of sharing a traditional song and story by having a studio recording.

My All to You will be released May 11. Pre-order it here. Catch Deer’s album launch at O Patro Vys in Montreal on May 12.

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