The healing power of Zoon
How the moccasin gaze Anishinaabe musician wrote about overcoming addiction, trauma on his debut album
Written by Jarrett Martineau
Daniel Monkman is a time traveller. Throughout Bleached Wavves, his self-produced, debut album recorded as Zoon, the experimental Anishinaabe musician weaves the past, present and future together into a symphony of sound, light and storytelling. The results are both moving and kaleidoscopic.
The Polaris Prize-shortlisted album arrives fully formed, unafraid to acknowledge its indebtedness to legendary shoegaze bands like Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine. But Zoon's influences aren't limiting — instead, he transforms them into prismatic departure points. Monkman reflects and infuses these influences with the depth of his own life stories and a deep love for, and connection to, his homeland and healing journey.
"I was always such a Kevin Shields [singer-songwriter from My Bloody Valentine] fan," Monkman says, "and I always loved how he made shoegaze music — just really gritty and experimental. And a lot of my peers loved Slowdive and more atmospheric shoegaze that's dream-poppy, but I always just loved the experimental shoegaze. And so when I was creating Bleached Wavves, I didn't want to make it too overproduced, I wanted to stay true to the original shoegaze sound … and that's what I found using this little '80s-style drum machine to capture that MBV style."
Bleached Wavves overflows with songs that trace long arcs through Monkman's family and history to chart his journey of overcoming addiction and trauma in order to find healing. That journey has taken him from Treaty 1 Territory — including Selkirk and his home reserve of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba — all the way west to the coastal wilds of B.C., then east to Calgary and, finally, to his current home in Toronto.
Zoon is at the forefront of Indigenous music's evolving next wave, but his experimentation is boundless. This debut album is more than an expression of "moccasin gaze" — it's a symphonic reconciliation with the present and a haunting call to catharsis: to reclaim your life, and begin again.
"I always just described myself as an Indigenous dude making some experimental music," Monkman says. "That's the way that I always perceived it and still do…. But when people started hearing my music they started calling it moccasin gaze — the term has been around, and I liked it."
As reverberating guitars, reversed melodies, soaring vocals, and looping drums wash over you, Zoon's music refracts Monkman's Indigenous identity and experience through a vast prism of storied experiences. Bleached Wavves offers an incantatory exploration of longing, hope and healing.
"The reason I wrote the album," Monkman says, "was to process my experiences of addiction and healing. And as I started to reconnect with my Anishinaabe culture and teachings, I started appreciating it, and loving where I came from. It reminded me that I actually love myself, I'm proud to be Ojibway. From that experience, when I got out of rehab, I continued to write about my identity. And I decided to write about where I come from and to put it into my music. And the songs and poems that I wrote to myself to tell those stories are what became Bleached Wavves. And to say that I'm proud to be an Indigenous artist. This is part of my healing, and it reminds me that I'm proud to be Anishinaabe, because for a long time I just didn't accept it, and that's a lot of where the trauma occurred."
CBC Music spoke with Daniel Monkman from his home in Tkaronto, where he shared how the album was created and told the stories behind each of its stunning songs.
"When I was thinking about the album tracklist, I thought about how I loved Nick Drake records, because he always had a song like 'Introduction' — and it would be just a beautiful way to capture the album in maybe two minutes. And, for me, I wanted to give an introduction of what to expect on the record, not give away too much, but sonically represent what the album may be. Every song, title and lyric on the album has meaning, and 'Clouded Formation' in particular, the song that I wrote on a cheap 10-second looping pedal and the song itself is actually reversed.
"Because going backwards in time is a common theme and it's something that I do throughout the record, because a lot of time I wish I could go back in time. I wish I could go help my friend, wish I didn't say that to that person, or even do drugs. Having that represented in the song is a way of reflecting on the past, reconciling that, and saying I needed to go through it to be where I'm at now.
"And the title comes from days I spent in more remote parts of Manitoba, where I had to go to school with a lot of racist kids, so I spent a lot of time in the field by myself looking up at the sky and watching clouds. And I just loved doing that."
"I wrote the melody super quick, but when I played it I would always think about my grandma and grandpa. So when I wrote the lyrics, I wanted to write it for them.
"They both had terminal illnesses, and my grandmother had brain cancer that led to dementia, and I had to watch her, on the reservation, just deteriorate. And there were times where she couldn't remember who I was … this thing that happened to them really did affect me. Because it felt like I'd missed out on a lot with my family. I felt like a lot of my Native friends were taken care of by their grandparents, but that I'd missed out on that. I felt more disconnected and didn't get to learn from my elders or my dad, and had a mom that was just working all the time. And I felt a little lost. So as a way to honour their memory, I decided to write this song about them. And in the song itself it is a little scattered sometimes, but the chorus is like a dedication — to memory slipping away — as the melody slips away."
'Was & Always Will Be'
"This track was originally just a wall of acoustic guitars that I downtuned to this weird tuning. And it seemed very angry with just the wall of guitars, but I realized that it was also very hypnotic, too. And a lot of times I would do a demo, burn it into MP3, and I would just walk around listening to it for weeks. And this song in particular I would listen to it … and I kept hearing hand drums and little cymbals and other Indigneous instruments that I was collecting that I wanted to include.
"I wanted to capture a feeling that's like hearing music in a sweat lodge — with a kind of looping repetition…. I wanted the song to have a specific energy — it felt like maybe we were becoming endangered, as people, because in textbooks they always talk about us in the past tense. So I wanted to have this song that represents that we're here. Like yo, I'm here!" [Laughs]
"I wanted to write something that represents where I'm from: Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. Right beside is a beach called Patricia Beach that a lot of people don't go to ... but it's really nice. And a lot of Natives hang out at that beach. And I have a lot of memories of going there with my family — from Selkirk, to Brokenhead, and then we'd all go down to Patricia. And I had a lot of nostalgia for that place.
"I always loved the sound of water washing up on the beach ... and that always reminded me of my family. So I wanted to have that sound first, and then build a song around it. It took a while to write the melody and the lyrics, but the guitar part just felt right. And I just kind of improvised it. Improvisation is a big part of my practice, strumming how I feel, and that's how the sound came about.
"Later on, I decided to write the lyrics about living in Selkirk, and this time of being with my friends on mushrooms at a fair, and the cops came, and we had to run away. And as we were running over this hill, the moon was huge in the sky, and I had this experience of becoming super self-aware, of watching myself. And I felt strange but also good because I was with my friends. So the song became a way of reflecting on us being so innocent at that time, and then how drugs and gangs came through my community, and I watched a lot of my friends get hooked on pills, have kids when they weren't ready to, and alcohol … and so the song pulled from the past and from where my friends are now. Some of them have healed, but some of them have passed on now, and so I just sang about that. And I was just trying to capture that feeling, because a lot of my friends didn't make it out.
"I was really struggling hard, and addicted to opiates, and I really couldn't say no to any of it. And I became very isolated and people stopped helping me, and couldn't see that I wanted to heal. So I reached out to my dad and said, 'I don't really have anywhere else to go, can I stay with you?' And he said, 'Of course, my son. You can come stay with me no problem. I live in a shack, but it's home for you. You can come here.' So I moved to the reserve, but I couldn't drive, and my dad and uncle helped me get my licence. I stayed with them for more than a year and they helped me learn to drive and eventually I got my licence and my dad said he wanted to help me to move into my new life.
"So, I'm there, about to do my first solo ride out of Brokenhead. And my uncle was driving behind me and my dad and I drove in a truck that he had helped me to get. And we got to the intersection from the reserve to Highway 69. And we pulled over. And my dad said, 'This is going to be your first solo trip on to your new life. And I'm proud of you.' It was pretty emotional, and we got out of the truck and he said, 'I love you and I'll see you when I see you. Baamaapii.' And I just remember driving out of the reserve that day thinking this is my first time leaving … going to the reserve broken, and doing drugs and no licence, and now I'm leaving with my licence, some money in my pocket, and I'm not doing pills and stuff … and now I'm on to this new life. And when I was writing this song I kept thinking about that experience."
'A Perfect Sunset'
"I always wanted to make an orchestral song. But when I was making Bleached Wavves I was broke. But I learned to do a reverse reverb effect with this one guitar pedal I had. So I did all these slow slide movements on the guitar and when I reversed it, it sounded almost like an orchestra. Like a makeshift neechie version of an orchestra. And I liked it. It was going to be an intro to another song, but I liked the piece by itself as a sound collage that gave so much emotion. And the title comes from the reserve always having beautiful sunsets. Those Prairie skies. The reserve can be really muddy, with rez dogs running around all the time, but these beautiful natural elements were so perfect."
"This one's a reflection of being a drug addict. In the [Narcotics Anonymous] program, there's this part where you have to take a moral inventory of yourself and make amends with people. And that song is me reflecting on a lot of stuff that I had done, and trying to be OK with it. And understanding how I'd been coping with my traumas in maybe not the best way, but realizing that it was the only way that I could do it at the time.
"Back then, they didn't talk about mental health and I felt pretty alone through all of it. And then when I got into rehab I started learning about my feelings and really focused on that experience of being an addict. And this was right when fentanyl was coming out, and overdoses were happening left and right, and people were just dropping like crazy. And 'Light Prism' was just kind of a memory collage of those times and putting them down and ultimately hoping to let it go. And that's what the song is about: letting go and trying to move forward … but always remembering where I came from and what I've been through. It's a really emotional song, but it's about being able to come out of it, where some people don't."
"I talk a lot about reclaiming my identity but I do it in such a soft way. The album's almost a representation of how I'm pretty careful around white people, I try to make them feel safe by talking calmly around them [laughs]. Really trying to play that role of almost changing their perspective on Native people.
"But my friend Jesse Davidson is really straightforward and blunt about things. And so I said, 'Write something for this music I have, in a spoken word way.' And he came back with this poem called 'The Ritual.' And I lined it up and it was perfect. It worked. And the words that he used is kind of what I wanted to say … but I got him to do it for me, but in a way where we were able to collaborate."
"I was in Hamilton, working in weird jobs through a temp agency … and one of them was a factory job with conveyor belts running everywhere. And people would get screamed at for using the bathroom and holding up the machines. I would go home and feel really disturbed about our system and how flawed it was. These politicians go around talking about how many jobs they created and how great the public sees it that there are all these new jobs. But I went to and worked at those jobs — and they weren't helping out anyone. It was actually killing people. And I started looking at society differently and really feeling for people living in poverty. So the song 'Landscapes' came out of that. It was about trying to create that same feeling of insane repetition — and I just kept picturing that factory and everyone getting screamed at. It was the worst job ever.
"The title comes from a story that I heard about how when first contact happened, people from Europe were coming over, and they would hire painters to paint landscapes, but not include First Nations people in them. They wanted to convince people to move over here and say there was no one here — it's just beautiful landscapes, you can just come and live here. I don't know if it's entirely true, but it makes sense that they would try and convince people of that."
'Help me Understand' (dedicated in loving memory to Barret Peterson, 1991-2010, and Glen Olson, 1964-2019)
"This was the first song I wrote for the album, back in 2014. I was living in Victoria, B.C., and that's when I first started writing, cathartically, ideas for what would become Bleached Wavves. At that point I hadn't put anything out in six years, and I remember writing 'Help me Understand' and it felt like things were connecting again. When I wrote it, I felt a resurgence of creating art again … and I'd just gotten out of rehab and.... And it was like I was learning to live again.
"And the song felt like the perfect way to end the album, because of how powerful it is. It represents everything that I was trying to create — our take, an indigenized version of shoegaze music."
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.