October 12, 2023
By D.T. Baker
Listening to a Jeremy Dutcher song, it doesn’t take long to realize there’s a lot going on – all at once. And that pretty successfully sums up the person behind the music too.
Jeremy is a part of the Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation), and hails from what Canada calls New Brunswick. His mother tongue is Wolastoqey – and in fact that was the language of his entire debut album, 2018’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. That album garnered him a JUNO Award, as well as the Polaris Music Prize, catapulting his career forward in a major hurry.
Jeremy attended Dalhousie University, earning a degree in classical vocal performance, “because I wasn’t good at math or science,” he jokes, but a positive high school experience in musical theatre led him down that path.
Jeremy is two-spirit, which his management’s website describes as, “an Indigenous term to discuss the interrelated and intersecting identities of gender, sexuality and culture for those who may otherwise be identified as both LGBTQ+ and indigenous.”
And almost by default, Jeremy Dutcher is an activist, one who often uses his music to shine a light on aspects of his life – because they are also aspects of the lives of others. His second album has just been released, and features songs in English as well as Wolastoqey. “(It’s) understanding that, ‘oh, you have a platform and you can speak to lots of different people now, so do it in their language. Tell them our stories if they want to hear’,” he explains. “But that brings a whole other set of challenges, like what do I sound like in English? What is the English voice? I knew quite well what my Wolastoqey voice was, because I’d been using it for many years.”
At the heart of Dutcher’s debut album was a desire to keep alive the traditional music he grew up hearing all around him. When it garnered an audience, he knew he had to adjust. “With the first record, I had a very intentional audience of who I wanted to speak to – which was other Wolastoqey. This record was for them, in their language, and I didn’t translate it – it’s very directed toward them. But after (the awards), people gathered around it and heard it that weren’t from that community and that experience. And so, speak to them too, right?”
Motewolonuwok was released on October 6, and several singles have already been released ahead of it. Jeremy Dutcher is currently touring, and stops off at the Winspear Centre on October 24. No matter which language he is singing, Dutcher’s songs somehow manage the conjuring trick of making Dutcher’s own unique blend surprisingly seamless. “I think of it as a weaving – of these different esthetics that seem diametrically opposed, almost,” he says. “We have these beautiful starting places that at first are so far from each other, and yet, when you get into it, it takes the same breath to make those operatic sounds as it does to make those traditional sounds. So, for me, it was always a natural thing to just blend them.”
What wasn’t natural, he admits, was singing in something other than his first language. “It was a lot of philosophical work, and thinking about ‘Oh, is this even kind of necessary?’ There are so many songs in English, there’s a whole world full of it, right? There’s not a whole lot of people making music in Wolastoqey.”
In the end, however, he overcame his misgivings much more pragmatically. “At one time, I was being trained in (classical music), but that’s not the music I make,” he asserts. “I can sit around the drum and be with the traditional guys, but that’s not my world either. So, it’s a weaving together both of the esthetics of the music, and also, ‘Well, what does that voice even sound like?’ And I’ve come to, well, I guess it just has to sound like you. Take a breath and open your mouth and sing.”
Jeremy Dutcher’s music has led him to some unexpected places, and a variety of collaborators. There was his NPR Tiny Desk concert, and the opportunity to cross paths with Yo-Yo Ma and Buffy St. Marie, among others. On the new album is a work called “Sakom,” for which a 12-voice choir made up of Dutcher’s queer and allied kin join together without any sheet music or fluency in the Wolastoqey language, finding their own wavelengths through call and response.
“I guess in the same way that we think and talk about the sonic weaving of genres together into something hopefully quite seamless, I think our personage works that way as well, where we try to weave it together in a way that makes the most sense both to ourselves and those who we are in community with,” Dutcher says frankly. “For me, I never shied away from presenting that, because I knew there was a dearth of imagery, of reflections of queer identity – particularly Indigenous queer identity – that intersection, with few exceptions, has not been explored in the public – yet. Which is exciting, because there’s a lot of wisdom and a lot of power and a lot of strength there, and this new record is really all about this experience, that intersection of identities.”
Honouring traditions as much as Jeremy Dutcher does, yet somehow pushing aside barriers and suppositions and creating something new, fresh, and exciting – and yet maintaining an accessible and inviting musical environment – is yet another blending that Jeremy Dutcher manages with rare aplomb. But in a way, he has to. It’s all a part of who he is, and how he expresses that.
“This record’s very personal, I’m really excavating the feeling space of myself – and yet, those are all universal feelings, and music has always expressed that,” he maintains. “Even those who don’t share a single identity piece with me – we’ve all got identities; we’ve all got ancestors. I want to be invitational in the work that I do. Not just a dialogue around these identities, but a dialogue with themselves, because in order to meet each other and help each other, we must be strong in ourselves and understand where we come from.”