Shortlist shortcut to Ombiigizi's Sewn Back Together

The singer-songwriters tell us why ‘Spirit in Me’ is the perfect gateway to their Polaris-shortlisted album.

The singer-songwriters tell us why ‘Spirit in Me’ is the perfect gateway to their Polaris-shortlisted album

From left: a person with light brown skin and shoulder length straight dark brown hair sits on a beach log wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering and a graphic and dark denim pants. To their right is a person standing behind that beach log with lighter skin, a bushy grey beard, grey hair that looks tied back, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and red pants.
Daniel Glen Monkman and Adam Sturgeon of Ombiigizi discuss the joy of mending together through their Polaris Prize shortlisted debut, Sewn Back Together. (Courtesy of Ombiigizi)

To help music fans get to know the 10 Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, CBC Music presents the Shortlist Shortcut series. Every week, we will ask a nominated artist for a recommended track off their shortlisted record. Perhaps it's a song that best represents the themes on the album, or maybe it's the most important, difficult or rewarding song they wrote. The question was left to the artist to interpret, but the hope is that the selected track will give us a pathway into their work. 

In the third instalment of this series, we spoke with two-person band Ombiigizi, which has been nominated to the Polaris short list for the first time.

Ombiigizi on 'Spirit in Me'

The spirit in me is my family
The past and the future
Together it's nearer
To our prophecy
This resurgency
I'm hearing you calling
So I make this offering

This is the first verse of "Spirit in Me," the track that both members of Ombiigizi [pronounced om-BEE-ga-ZAY] choose as the eye of the needle through which to understand their Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted debut, Sewn Back Together. The band is composed of co-lead singers/songwriters Adam Sturgeon (he/him), who also records as Status/Non-Status, and Daniel Glen Monkman (they/them), who also records as Zoon. In their own projects, each artist explores aspects of their Anishinaabe identities and the ongoing effects of colonial violence. 

Sewn Back Together is the first time Sturgeon and Monkman are doing that work together rather than in relative isolation. "Spirit in Me" conveys the album's overarching theme of family, but Monkman says it's even deeper than that. 

"It also represents humility," they tell CBC Music via Zoom. "You may be too caught up in your own stuff to reach out and ask for help. 'Spirit in Me' is that vulnerability of all of us coming together and doing such a vulnerable task together. There are other strong songs on the record for sure. That one in particular was special because we wrote it all together at the same time." 

"Everything that I've ever been taught — certainly about my culture — is to know my past is to envision a future," Sturgeon says. "And maybe now that I'm a dad, I see my place within that a little bit better and more clearly. And so I was able to tap into that. When it came to the lyrics, I was able to place my sense of self more central to our history because a lot of the previous work I did was really looking into the past."

A big part of the song, and the entire record, is healing; sewing back together what has been torn apart through ongoing colonial violence. 

"Sewn Back Together is a reflection of something that Daniel's been saying about this project all along: 'It's easier to lift heavy things together,'" Sturgeon says. "And a big part of the goal was to do something positive for ourselves, because in our individual work, the commonality for us both was that, at times, we would feel very isolated, whether that's cultural or just things along that line." 

"Exactly what Adam is saying," Monkman says. "And a lot of our culture has been kind of stolen and repressed. And so we're just like the common story for young Indigenous people, which is reclaiming things that were lost and sewn back together. Mending the wounds and hope that it heals. That's kind of what we were setting out to do."

"A lot of the music that I make in my own side project is definitely more subversive and darker and heavier," Sturgeon says. "To be able to sort of take some positive action with someone else that's in a similar position, this is a very healing experience." 

The record's sonic influences are elastic and numerous, but it still feels cohesive. Ambient dream pop, hypnotic shoegaze (or moccasin gaze, as Monkman has called his music as Zoon), distorted post-rock — it's perfectly fitting for Ombiigizi, which means "this is noisy." It's a statement of fact and a celebration of sound; they're taking up space and telling their stories as artists who are Anishinaabe. 

"I always feel a little bit vulnerable as I explore my culture and do my family work and how that will be perceived," Sturgeon says. "And I put a lot of that work out there. And in those moments when we're creating it's ultimate healing, but in presentation it's terrifying. I think that we both feel that way and we were able to gather in the studio and put a lot of that aside and to do it with someone else who also has a story of Indigeneity — the biggest takeaway for me is to just gather community and grow my circle. And then I think there's a responsibility to share these stories, because I don't think that our stories have been told effectively quite yet. They're beginning to and I feel positive about that. But there's a lot of space that needs to be made, and there's still a lot of vulnerable people that don't get to share their voice. So we feel that responsibility and that it's [the record] made it this far is quite an honour."

"Healing is like sharing," Monkman says. "At least that's what it was in my recovery. And I think we did a lot of that. I think you do every time you make a record. And there is some kind of release that happens because like what Adam was saying, it's scary for us to start talking about our identities because we do come from very mixed backgrounds. And so going into it, we were both pretty conscious and kind of scared. At least I know I was…. To complete the record with all the topics and themes involved and to put it out in the world and for people to enjoy it and to learn from it, it's everything that I kind of wanted from it. Just to have that release, but then also for people to connect with that."