“Chasing big city dreams/ got no fear/ cause I’ve got a song that will get me the hell outta here.” – Adrian Sutherland, “Big City Dreams”
Adrian Sutherland’s earliest music memory is being five years old and dancing to a Mini-Pops record. Singing endlessly to “Yellow Submarine” drove his parents crazy, but the annoyance was worth it. Something inside him stirred. Years later, the songwriter remembers stealing his sister’s Sony Walkman in the middle of the night and listening to Cyndi Lauper tell him: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Despite living in one of the most isolated places in Ontario—Attawapiskat First Nation, a fly-in community of 2,000 on James Bay—popular music reached the songwriter and touched his soul.
“Music always took me to a different place,” says the singer-songwriter, who was nominated for his first JUNO Award in the Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year category in 2022.
Since these humble beginnings, music has taken Sutherland far. His journey to the JUNOS was no overnight success story. It’s been the result of hard work, determination, staying true to his roots, and seizing opportunities.
Flash back to 2011. Sutherland was offered an opening gig for Trooper. The only problem was he needed a band. He quickly recruited three other musicians from the James Bay region — Charnelle Menow (drums), Stan Louttit (bass), and Zach Tomatuk (guitar). A band by the name of Midnight Shine was born. This “one-off performance” led to four albums, two singles, and critical acclaim for this band from Canada’s far north that creates unique soundscapes, combining elements of Mushkegowuk Cree culture with rock and folk influences.
Despite the accolades, the pride of Attawapiskat is humble. For the past decade, the father of four, and grandfather of five, has chased “big city dreams” in the music industry, but his heart never strays far from home.
“I’m deep-rooted there,” says Sutherland, who is also an entrepreneur, running an eatery and convenience store with his wife Judy. “It’s hard to picture myself being anywhere else. I love the Cree tradition and I’m passionate about the culture.”
Earlier this month, before Canada’s biggest night of music, the 44-year-old travelled to Toronto for a few days—doing press, rehearsing, and just “binging on music.” Due to the pandemic and staying isolated at home, it had been two years since the musician had this opportunity. Sutherland used his extended stay in the big city to book a couple of overdue personal care appointments: a haircut—his first since before the pandemic—followed by dental work to fix some broken teeth.
Throughout the week leading up to the JUNOS, Sutherland chronicled his #JourneyToTheJUNOS via TikTok and Instagram. Posts described his daily adventures and big-city dreams coming true, from seeing his face larger-than-life on a digital billboard at Yonge-Dundas Square, to shopping for clothes and working with a stylist at Hudson’s Bay to assemble a few new outfits, to taping an episode of The Marilyn Denis Show.
When Sutherland and I connected virtually, the songwriter had yet to see the giant digital sign in downtown Toronto. His Instagram post later that day expressed his feelings about this surreal moment.
The first time the songwriter and I were scheduled to chat, the interview was postponed because he was heading into the bush for a month with his son to hunt and gather food for the coming year. This is one of the many Cree traditions Sutherland holds dear and still practices.
“Surviving and enduring life is what it is,” he explains. “But during all of that you find moments of peace and harmony. I wanted to raise my family in the community where I was born and my wife and I made that choice. This time of year, the Cree communities are in spring harvesting mode, which lasts from the end of March to the end of May.
“It’s quite the undertaking,” Sutherland adds. “Everything shuts down. The whole community is out on the land with their families trying to fill their freezers for the rest of the year. That is our reality in the far north. Everything is expensive here and often by the time food arrives it’s not always fresh, so we still rely heavily on the wild game and the meat we kill—that is what my people have done and what we continue to do; it’s a big part of my life.”
Music has also always been a big part of Sutherland’s life. Growing up in a hunter-gatherer community, he says music was always present, but it was set aside for specific times.
“It was not a part of everything we did,” he explains. “I remember being told, ‘you need to put your guitar away now because we have to go kill caribou, pluck geese, or collect water from the river for washing and drinking’…these obligations were always done first. Music was the last thing you got to do at the end of the day once all your chores were done.”
Sutherland’s mom—a residential school survivor who he pays homage to in “Nowhere to Run,” the most personal of all the songs on his JUNO-nominated album When the Magic Hits—played guitar. He would pick up her acoustic and play whenever he could. After his mom sold this guitar, Sutherland waited until he was in his early teens to get his own instrument. Another musical epiphany occurred while watching MuchMusic back in 1984.
“One day, I saw the Bryan Adams video for ‘Run to You’,” he recalls. “That did something to me. I was just amazed by the guitar sound. That was the moment I said to myself, ‘I would love to do this for a living.’ From then on, whenever that video, or others, aired, I got so excited. I would jump around with a broom and play air guitar. The rest of my family probably considered me a little eccentric!”
This excitement for popular music made far away from his community is what initially fuelled Sutherland’s passion. Classic rock was his earliest influence—bands like CCR and artists like Tom Petty and Neil Young.
“We had a jukebox in the community in the arcade/pool hall and we played those records every single night,” the songwriter says.
Once he got a guitar, Sutherland practiced all night long after his other work was done. “As I got older, I wanted to be a guitarist and spent three to four hours a day trying to hone my skills,” he adds. “Eventually, I got tired of that and in my 20s I got into songwriting; initially, I just wrote a bunch of crappy love songs!”
ON TRUTH, RECONCILIATION, AND THE HEALING JOURNEY
As the eldest son of a residential school survivor, Sutherland knew some of the truths about the ill treatment and abuses faced by Indigenous people. It was still a shock when unmarked graves and remains were discovered at former sites of these government-sponsored institutions and made known to the public in 2021. This revelation brought up the question of what non-Indigenous people can do to better understand Indigenous people and begin to right these egregious wrongs, to repair and reconcile these truths.
“That’s a really tough question,” Sutherland says. “With the remains being discovered, even on the Indigenous side, we were shocked. We’ve always heard the stories, but now the truth is out. A lot of people are still hurting. We are all in different places in our healing journey. Some of us are a little ways into our journey and are trying to move forward and look at a better life and having some stability in our lives because we’ve been so displaced. My mom is a survivor [of the residential school system] and I’m trying to put back together my younger years now to create stability and bring that love back into my home for my children.”
Sutherland is pensive as he pauses to reflect further on this difficult issue. Then, he continues: “Now that the truth is out, the question is how do we move forward and reconcile some of these wrongs? We can’t change the past and there is no point getting angry about those things at this stage. That doesn’t help anyone. Most Canadians want to move forward and they want to know how they can help. For me, it’s about finding healing. I need that space.”
On When the Magic Hits, the songwriter dug deep into his past to explore some of these issues. Music is medicine. It gives him the required space and outlet to help his recovery journey.
Released on September 17, 2021, the JUNO-nominated record is Sutherland’s solo debut. The pandemic pause offered the right time to make this record—which he always wanted to make—apart from his band. Grammy-winner Colin Linden produced and mixed the bulk of the songs remotely at his Nashville studio while Sutherland worked from his home in Attawapiskat First Nation. Tim Vesley (Rheostatics) also recorded a pair of songs at his Toronto studio.
The themes tackled on this album are more personal and sensitive than the artist’s work with Midnight Shine. Getting the songs written was not a problem; initially, the challenge was finding a space to record. Fortunately for the songwriter, he had come into possession of a 40-foot sea container a few years back and the idea hit him one day that he could retrofit a section of this storage unit into a makeshift studio. There were some logistical challenges and it took two weeks to get it finished, but Sutherland got it done.
Sutherland met Linden—whose most recent solo record, bLOW, was also nominated for a JUNO—a few years ago when he opened a string of shows for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. He learned a lot from these veterans. Colin, especially, took a liking to him. The stage was set for a future collaboration.
“The original plan was for me to fly to Nashville and record there, but obviously that didn’t happen because of the pandemic, so we did the next best thing,” Sutherland explains. “Colin told me I just had to trust the process. He was so flexible with ideas and getting all the stuff done that I wanted to do. When I got the rough mixes back I was blown away. It was exactly the sound I was going for. It is really remarkable how it all worked out with everyone recording and working in their own little spaces.”
JOURNEY TO THE JUNOS
Sutherland is filled with gratitude for his first JUNO nomination, though it took a while for this industry recognition to sink in.
“When I first heard the news, it didn’t phase me and I showed no emotion,” he recalls. “As the day went on, and my family, friends, and industry peers all congratulated me, that’s when it hit me and I realized how big a deal it is.”
As our conversation ends, Sutherland gets serious, returning to his people’s plight. He knows the road to recovery, healing, and better conditions for Indigenous people in this country is long and not easy to solve.
“It is going to take generations for things to start improving,” he concludes. “I say that because I come from Attawapiskat where in the last 30 years, nothing has really changed. We don’t have access to clean drinking water and we are under-serviced. The list goes on and on and on … it is what it is. I am just one person. I can’t make these massive changes.
“One thing I know for sure is that I want to use this platform to continue to shine positive light on our people and to share a message with the rest of Canadians or non-Indigenous people about who we are and where we came from so that so we can better understand each other and spark conversations that lead to good places.”