Musician Adrian Sutherland is committed to a life in his remote home on the Attawapiskat River where it flows into James Bay in Northern Ontario.
As a community serviced only by air and winter ice road that’s a big commitment for a touring musician who has spent the better part of the past decade as the lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Midnight Shine.
Sutherland originally assembled the group as a backing band for an intended solo project.
“I got a grant at the time to record a bunch of music I had written before the band even came together,” he says on the line from his home in Attawapiskat.
“So that basically got put on the back burner once the band was formed back in 2011, and we just kind of kept running with it,” Sutherland explained. “We all felt that it was something very good and positive and we all wanted to keep it going.”
A member of the Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak Cree community, Sutherland is a man who possesses a rich and diverse background of experience. A former paramedic, he wears many hats in the territory. He’s a Master Corporal with the Canadian Ranger Patrol, and with his wife Judy and their four children, he owns and operates a local eatery called The Moose.
In addition to his family business and army reserve work, the Midnight Shine front man has dedicated himself to numerous community cultural initiatives. Sutherland was instrumental in bringing the ArtsCan Circle to his community. He’s an Artist Ambassador for the Downie Wenjack Fund. He launched a local music program with the assistance of the MusiCounts charitable organization, which works with the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to bring sustainable music programs to in-need schools and communities across Canada.
He’s also a vocal critic of the Canadian government in regard to its failure to secure clean drinking water for remote Indigenous communities and Sutherland has strong opinions on how COVID-19 protocols have left many community members locked out with few options to survive.
In addition to the ongoing water issues, Sutherland’s James Bay community has also suffered from overcrowded housing and poor medical facilities which he feels has been made worse by the current pandemic.
“It’s certainly exacerbated the problem and I think it has really exposed the situation and the types of conditions that exist up here.”
“Personally, I think there's just a lot of things happening up here right now with all the restrictions that are being put on us, even the delivery of the vaccinations,” Sutherland said. “I haven’t heard anything in the community about how they’re going to roll it out. Which leads me to wonder about healthcare and how the planning of all this is supposed to unfold.”
Finding himself locked down in his northern community, physically separated from the other three members of Midnight Shine, Sutherland decided it was a good time to revisit his original intention of releasing some solo material that he had been working on before COVID shut everything down.
“No one has expressed that they didn’t want to continue on as Midnight Shine,” Sutherland says. “It was just a good time for me to step away for a while. We had done three albums together and it just felt like the right time, especially since the pandemic came down, even more so now that we can’t perform or get together at all. It just seems more timely now for me to put my efforts toward a solo project.”
Working with Toronto musicians, brothers, and songwriting partners Chris Gormley and Matt Gormley, Sutherland recorded his solo compositions with producer Carl Jennings just before everything went into lockdown. Unable to tour the new material the Cree songwriter decided to sit on the masters for a while to wait and see how things played out.
In October 2019 Sutherland released his first single from the sessions called Politician Man. Coming to his audience with a pop rock sound the Attawapiskat musician admits that his songwriting with Midnight Shine often had political overtones that were much subtler than his debut solo single.
“I try to do it in a way that invites people in for conversation and not like punching you in the nose with it. Politician Man is completely the opposite. It's more in your face,” he said.
As the pandemic persisted Sutherland continued to focus on running his family business and adventuring out on hunting excursions with his children. He also invested time in building a modest recording studio, as well as putting work into his first book of memoirs, commissioned by Penguin Random House Canada, which is slated for release next year.
He admits that his experience writing the book so far has been more straightforward and less demanding than song structure. His compositions are influenced by his life in the north, incorporating aspects of his Cree language and traditional percussion to create underlying soundscapes within the songs with the intention of capturing the sonic ambience of the natural world that surrounds him.
While embedded deep into the pandemic lockdown Sutherland was inspired by Indigenous blockades, grassroots citizen initiatives, and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter to release his second solo recording Respect The Gift, which he had been sitting on for more than a year.
“We wrote this song almost as if we knew what was coming here. It’s kind of weird when you listen to the lyrics,” he says. “It's about challenging the state and rising up together. We can't continue the way we have. We all know that now. We all can see that. It’s about rising up and shining light on the darkness and trying find ways to coexist and move together.”
Adrian Sutherland’s inspiring new single, Respect The Gift, is accessible on all the popular music streaming platforms, and it’s also available to download at midnightshine.bandcamp.com
By David Owen Rama, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com