Ishkōdé Records is Indigenous-owned, women-led and ready to change the game
Co-founders ShoShona Kish and Amanda Rheaume are hoping to break barriers while also being 'good aunties'
"This is our moment to make a contribution. This is our time to be alive, and clear a path for those yet to come — and pick up that work that was done before us."
ShoShona Kish, over Zoom from her home in Golden Lake, Ont., is explaining why she and fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume have started a new project so close to their hearts: Ishkōdé Records, a label where they can foster and amplify Indigenous talent. The dream of starting an Indigenous- and women-owned label has been with Kish for a long time, and when she and Rheaume became close and started organizing the International Indigenous Music Summit together, Kish knew she'd found her future partner.
Rheaume, on the same Zoom call from her Ottawa home, laughs when she tries to remember how far back Kish started talking about launching a label together.
"Well, we've been working on the summit for the last three years maybe? Maybe four, including the year that we were getting ready to launch it. And so pretty much since then."
"ShoShona, you would just drop these hints subtly," she continues. "Ever since we started working together, like, 'What about a label?' And I was like, 'That sounds great.' But then, you know, it actually came to fruition, which is very exciting."
We are still breaking through tons of barriers and presenting really, really important music that really needs to be heard.- Amanda Rheaume
Kish, an Anishinaabekwe musician who is also one-half of Digging Roots with husband Raven Kanatakta, and Rheaume, who is Métis, have worked as independent artists for nearly two decades, and want to create space in the Canadian music industry for emerging Indigenous voices — space that they had to fight for themselves.
"I know ShoShona's spent hours looking at label rosters — major labels, indie labels — and it's almost impossible to find an Indigenous artist on a major label," says Rheaume, referring to work that they've both recently done for a CRTC review. "There are no charting songs, for example, in the top 100 [from an Indigenous musician]. So the landscape is that we are still breaking through tons of barriers and presenting really, really important music that really needs to be heard. But that is very true of the industry at large, that we've been, I think, kept out of certain spaces. And it's time to change that."
While Ishkōdé Records already has a distribution deal with Universal Music Canada, Rheaume and Kish are building a label structure they haven't yet seen in the industry today.
"I think that a lot of the colonial capitalist models are based on extraction. Maybe all of them, I don't know," says Kish. "And I just think that extraction is not the way of the future. It's about building balance, reciprocal spaces. And so we're not interested in mining content or mining intellectual property from the artistic community. What we want to do is build a family and really support nurturing, healthy relationships." Kish adds that they're looking at "traditional Indigenous governance systems and Anishinaabekwe governance systems" for inspiration, and are trying to change the language people speak around the economics of music.
Rheaume details one way that looks different for Ishkōdé Records: licensing music from the musicians they sign, instead of owning the music themselves. "The idea of owning artists' music, we're not really interested in that," she says. While Kish adds that they don't have everything figured out yet, they know that they want to build a label that would work for them as artists, too — which they've proven by signing up Digging Roots and Rheaume to the roster.
'ShoShona and Amanda are trailblazers'
Their first outside signee, Aysanabee, was particularly drawn to what the two women are building. The Toronto-based Oji-Cree singer-songwriter first met Rheaume and Kish when he was accepted into the Giiwewizh mini-documentary program for the 2021 International Indigenous Music Summit, and met with a few other labels before deciding where to take his in-production album. But sitting down with Rheaume and Kish made him feel at home.
"They've created this great atmosphere, and there's something exciting about being a part of a new label as well, especially for what they're trying to do with it. And one of the first Indigenous-owned and operated labels? Yeah, I just wanted to be a part of it. And, you know, ShoShona and Amanda, too, are trailblazers."
"I really love that they wanted their mission statements," he continues, "to have their artists have the creative space to put forward the songs that they want to, and how they want to and … to just be behind the artist 100 per cent."
"I feel like he's a voice for a generation," says Kish, of Aysanabee's music. The multi-instrumentalist has been playing shows for years, but his work under Aysanabee, his mother's maiden name, is a bit genre-less in its multi-instrumentation, with a guitar and piano forming the backbones of his 2021 releases, "Howling" and "Ocean Breath," respectively, with percussion and saxophone filling in the spaces.
While Aysanabee's first solo album will be out in 2022, the first release from Ishkōdé Records will be a new album from Digging Roots. The lead single, released Aug. 5, is a powerful healing call, featuring chorus vocals by Rheaume, Kinnie Starr, Serena Ryder and Shakura S'Aida.
"I very specifically wrote ['The Healer'] because my community has been through so much, and we are hurting ... I really just wanted to sing medicine into that space," explains Kish. "And it really, to me, also speaks to the why of the label — they're sort of one and the same to me. The creativity and the wanting to respond to things in the world, it's just different outlets in a similar way for me."
The song starts with an audio sample of the late author and journalist Richard Wagamese, who was a close friend of Kish's, and the new album will be dedicated to him. Kish describes the recording process for "The Healer" as being emotionally difficult — "I was in my own struggle at that time, which I often am, and went to art, the place that I know clearest and best how to move those things for myself personally" — and says she needed to bring a community of women to sing together for the piece.
"These matriarchs in a space, and that power of those women's voices being able to to speak to that future … the chorus says, 'No more, no more struggling/ no more, no more suffering.' And I sort of see the power of women standing as protectors from now into the future, like protecting the future from that struggle and that continuity of suffering. And so it felt really important to actualize that in a space with the women that I know I'm standing out there on the front lines [with]."
Working toward that eighth fire
"The Healer" also ties back to the root of the label: Ishkōdé in Anishinaabemowin means fire, linking its name to the Seven Fires prophecy, where each fire refers to a time in Anishinaabe history.
"It is said by our elders that we're in the seventh fire right now," says Kish. "And this is a time of of remembering, of picking up our teachings, of returning to those things that our ancestors kept for us or those Earth teachings that we all have a responsibility to … and it said that this is also a great time of turmoil and we will come to a crossroads. And I think that we are seeing that that's true."
I just am excited to work with up-and-coming artists and really be a good auntie for them in the space.- ShoShona Kish
"Ishkōdé really refers to a dream for that eighth fire to be lit," continues Kish. "And that's spoken of in the prophecy, that if we choose at this time of the crossroads, if we choose the right path and that path being returning to our teachings, returning to a deeper relationship with each other and the land, that the eighth and final fire can be lit, and that will mark a time of great unity and prosperity where a great nation will be will be created."
Ishkōdé Records has world-changing goals, and it has shorter term, everyday goals to get there, a balance held by the close bond that Rheaume and Kish have created together. At its core, though, Ishkōdé is about family.
"I think we talk a lot about being good aunties, you know?" says Kish, smiling. "And I just am excited to work with up-and-coming artists and really be a good auntie for them in the space. Just open possibilities. That's our job."