Attawapiskat to Toronto: One band’s journey

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TORONTO – Travelling as far as they have, the bandmates in the northern rock band Midnight Shine consider just standing together in a Toronto rehearsal space a major accomplishment.

This week marks the first time the James Bay foursome has met to play since last August. Like many bands, life got in the way, but so did the 200 kilometres between their homes in Moose Factory and Attawapiskat.

“Logistics is a huge challenge for us,” says lead singer Adrian Sutherland, who lives in Attawapiskat with his family.

“Even just to get together to jam, nevermind get to shows.”

Bassist Stan Louttit was almost left stranded while en route to Toronto when a sudden snowstorm threatened to ground his chartered helicopter ride from his island to the local airport.

They all have good humour about it. After all, that’s life in the North.

But it also makes Midnight Shine’s time together at Canadian Music Week in Toronto so precious to them.

Over the past few days they’ve rehearsed for their shows — the final one is on Saturday — while experimenting with a few ideas for their next album.

“We want to make a push for radio,” Sutherland says. “We’re good enough to be in the mainstream.”

Midnight Shine was formed almost by chance in 2011 when Sutherland was hired to open for rock band Trooper in Timmins, Ont. The only setback was the singer-songwriter didn’t have a band to support him on stage.

So he made a few calls to fellow musicians and culled together an experienced group he liked. They spent about four days in rehearsals before the big show.

“One thing we noticed is the band gelled really quick,” Sutherland remembers. “It just felt good.”

They decided it would be a waste to only work together once. Within a few months, Midnight Shine was recording their debut album.

Shedding positive light on First Nation issues was one of the band’s priorities from the start.

Living in Attawapiskat, Sutherland says he’s no stranger to social problems in the northern Ontario community, which include an alarming number of suicide attempts by its young people.

The region has also faced a housing crisis as growing number of homes are condemned as unfit for living.

“It’s tough to see what’s going on and feel it,” he says.

“It’s emotional, it gets your spirits down, but one thing I know about our people is we’re resilient and we’re survivors.”

Sutherland says he considers music a pathway to a better place.

The band wants to keep that message at the forefront as they look to tour cities across Canada and, hopefully, the United States.

Breaking into the mainstream won’t be easy, Sutherland acknowledges, but he’s willing to give it his best shot.

First Nations artists have struggled to enter the popular Canadian music scene for several reasons. Many radio stations say most Aboriginal artists don’t fit into the Top 40 format, but Midnight Shine argue they’re an exception.

Their sound has an undeniable air of accessibility that, while reflecting its members’ roots, fits comfortably between the hooks of Train and Matchbox Twenty.

“We’re a First Nations band and I don’t know if a lot of people are in that head space,” Sutherland admits.

“People are not really sure what to do with us. We get that a lot.”

Staying true to a First Nations identity is a theme the band addresses on “Indian in Disguise,” a song from their self-titled 2013 album.

Louttit, who has an affinity for jazz when he’s not playing bass, says he wants to partner with industry types who are brave enough to look beyond stereotypes.

“I want to hear them say, ‘We’ll take you to England,'” he laughs.

“There’s no Native festivals there, as far as we know.”

Even though they talk about expanding their borders, the conversation frequently returns to home.

Sutherland struggles with how to adequately represent Attawapiskat and First Nations to the world. He’s in the middle of penning a song about violence against aboriginal women.

“That for me is a sensitive issue — and who am I to speak about that anyway?” he asks.

“But I’ve experienced that first-hand through my mother, who (dealt with) a lot of violence.”

He hopes by sharing his reality with others it might empower the community even in the darkest of times.

“We don’t think a song … is going to solve our problems. They’re so deep-rooted and serious,” Sutherland says.

“But I think if we can inspire people and give a few children hope, then I think it’s worth it.”

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