Photo by Matt Barnes.

Aysanabee: The Journey from Journalist to First-Time JUNO Nominee 

It’s a good thing Aysanabee quit his day job.

Before he was a JUNO-nominated artist, Aysanabee — born Evan Pang — was working for CTV News, and the call to make music full-time became too strong to ignore. The decision to leave a secure unionized job for the unknown of the music industry was difficult, but Aysanabee’s trajectory since he traded in his reporter’s notebook for his guitar confirms he made the right choice. 

I first became aware of Aysanabee’s talents during a special taping one year ago at Massey Hall. This intimate afternoon was a showcase of the artists on the independent Indigenous label Ishkōdé Records, co-founded by Amanda Rheaume and ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots. After this initial sampling of the singer-songwriter’s talents, I watched him get better — and more confident — with each performance: from sets throughout the weekend at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont. in July to a showcase at the Folk Ontario Conference in London, Ont. in September.

A self-taught player, the Oji-Cree, Sucker Clan of the Sandy Lake First Nation artist spent his formative years living just north of Thunder Bay — off the grid, without electricity. He learned his unique guitar style — a percussive tapping technique similar to playing a piano — by watching YouTube videos at a friend’s house of virtuosos like Canadian Erik Mongrain and American Justin King. 

Aysanabee is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer songwriter. He is Oji-Cree, Sucker Clan of the Sandy Lake First Nation. Photo by Jen Squires.

As I catch up with the Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist, he’s in Los Angeles to record a song with Shylah Ray Sunshine following a busy week at his inaugural Folk Alliance International (FAI) Conference in Kansas City. The opportunity to co-write with Ray arrived after she discovered Aysanabee’s record and sent him a DM via social media. The pair wrote a song over Zoom: Ray in Long Beach, California and Aysanabee at his Toronto apartment before convening in LA to record this collaboration. 

The whirlwind days at FAI in Kansas is a microcosm of the past year for the singer-songwriter — a period which, following giving up his day job, saw him play more than 100 shows and share stages with the likes of The National, Mavis Staples, Dan Magnan, and Sam Roberts. In 2022, Aysanabee performed at many of the major music festivals, including the Ottawa Bluesfest, Montreal Jazzfest, and the Mariposa Folk Festival.

“It’s been pretty surreal,” he says, reflecting on the past 12 months. “I’ve got to play on bills with people I listen to on Spotify. Just being able to do music as a profession is amazing.” 

In 2012, Aysanabee moved from Thunder Bay to Toronto to focus on music and to attend post-secondary school. After a near-death experience when he fell through the frozen ice on a February day in northern Ontario while working in the mining industry, he crawled his way back to the shore using his pick axe and had an epiphany. This was no life. Music flowed through his veins. The time was now or never to pursue his passion. Still, he wanted to make sure he had a backup plan, so he applied to a trio of programs: journalism, nursing, and massage therapy at Centennial College. He got accepted into all three. 

“I had to sit and think what I would invest my time into and journalism seemed closer to music than any of the others,” Aysanabee explains. 

After graduating from Centennial, he worked for Huffington Post Canada before landing a full-time job as a digital journalist with CTV News. Aysanabee was Ishkōdé Records first signing after Rheaume and Kish heard the artist play at their International Indigenous Music Summit in 2021. An interesting side note, Aysanabee admits he almost didn’t apply to the Indigenous Summit because he was paying off his student debt and did not want to pay the application fee. For the first nine months after inking the deal with Ishkōdé Records, the singer-songwriter had a foot in both worlds — journalism and music. He told other people’s stories by day, and sang his songs by night.

Eventually, the balancing act became too difficult as the demands on his time and the playing opportunities increased. So, the singer-songwriter quit his day job to pursue music full-time. 

Aysanabee released the melancholic and hopeful single “Nomads” in the summer of 2022, the final track on his debut full-length Watin (named after his grandfather) that arrived November 4.

The Watin album cover depicts Aysanabee’s grandfather in a painting by Toronto-based artist Montina Hussey.

Produced by the JUNO-Award winning studio engineer Hill Kourkoutis, the seeds for this concept record, named after his grandfather, were planted during the early days of the pandemic. On March 15, 2020, Aysanabee’s grandfather was moved into a long-term care home. As COVID-19 spread in the following weeks and months, especially in these facilities, the artist worried about his grandfather’s health. He was scared that one day he might call and his grandfather would not pick up.

He also realized there was a lot he did not know about his grandfather’s past. These feelings combined with his journalistic curiosity led to a series of taped conversations between the pair. Living more than 1,000 kilometres apart, his grandfather opened up and shared memories of his childhood he had never shared before — stories about his forced attendance at McIntosh Residential School where he met his future wife.

Watin features 10 original songs and nine interludes where his grandfather speaks his truths. The album garnered Aysanabee his first JUNO nomination in the Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year category.

“It’s still surreal and has not really sunk in,” he says about the JUNO nomination. “I had to move apartments the day after finding out and then I went on tour, so I did not have time to celebrate.”

Listen to Watin’s opening song “Seseepano” to hear the intricate soundscapes Aysanabee creates with synths and guitars, along with the lyrics that reveal these truths: “They took me from you father /With a fist full of dollars / A weapon that could starve us /I don’t even know my name.”

While initially he was hesitant and nervous about how residential school survivors might receive his record due to the candid conversations, any doubts were erased following his release when some elders reached out and told him they found Watin a cathartic experience that helped them to heal. They were also happy that an Indigenous artist was telling these stories.

Looking ahead, Aysanabee is hoping to get back into the studio in April to record demos of some new songs he has written. He also has shows booked until September, and is especially excited about the Tønder Festival, named after the small Danish town where it happens at the end of August. 

Day job be damned.