Fascinating debut album of duets from stellar Canadian duo iskwē | ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ and Tom Wilson.
The collaboration between JUNO award-winning Indigenous Canadian musicians, visual artists, and songwriters iskwē | ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ (Cree Métis and Dene) and Tom Wilson’s (Mohawk) has been unfolding over the past two years by way of intriguing singles like “Blue Moon Drive,” “Starless Nights,” “Long Way Down,” and “Stir The Ashes.” Their debut album “Mother Love” further combines their disparate styles, a fusion that is no less powerful for all its charm.
Hamilton, Ontario has a closely-knit music scene, so it’s not surprising that two musicians from different genres would run into each other eventually, in this case at a softball game. Tom Wilson, however, is in a category of his own. The widely admired and highly respected, atypically gregarious folk singer, with a varied career spanning four decades, is among the very best in Canada. After a hardscrabble life growing up in blue-collar steel town Hamilton, Wilson learned at 53 that older family members had adopted him at birth and that he was almost entirely Mohawk, not Irish, as he had previously believed. (Tehoh’ahake is Wilson’s Mohawk name.) Prior to this discovery, he and his daughter had long been interested in Indigenous Peoples’ issues, particularly justice for the alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. The acclaimed Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter and artist Wilson ran into at the local beer league softball game was iskwē (“blue sky woman”), who has addressed this ongoing tragedy of the missing women and other Indigenous issues in her music, utilizing a mix of cerebral art-pop, trip-hop, and electronica.
“Mother Love” is heavily weighted toward Wilson’s gritty, honest folk, but with the duets’ edges softened by smooth, uplifting harmonies. iskwē’s emotional intensity is not far off from Bjork’s as it provides a counterpoint to Wilson’s gruff, wise, Entish lower register. Both are natural storytellers, spinning affecting tales about struggle, loss, addiction, loneliness, and longing, as well as beauty, forgiveness, joy, and salvation. Lost love is remembered on “Dream You Home”: “I’ll ask the man up on the moon / Yeah, maybe Andy Kaufman knows what happened to you.” The very Tom Waits-sounding “Blue Moon Drive,” originally recorded with Wilson’s musical alter ego Lee Harvey Osmond, has a layer of extra depth as a duet and a fine trumpet solo from Chuck Copenace. On the hypnotic “Stir The Ashes,” produced by Serena Ryder, love and fire are purifying: “Your hair is gold like sweet grass darling / Your love is just like sage / I’ll pull your smoke over my body / And watch the way I change… Heartbeats beating the drum / Let’s stir the ashes / Spirit will come and take us dancing / In the medicine / This love is magic.”
Both artists are busy people – iskwē with her solo career and activism and Wilson with his music, writing, and painting – but surely they can find the time for more magical collaborations like these.