July Talk premiere a new collaborative song with First Nations high school students

During the groundbreaking New Constellations tour, artists and students wrote a song together. Read about the recording process, featuring Broken Social Scene, Ansley Simpson and more, and listen to their moving collaboration now.
July Talk premiered a new collaborative song with First Nations high school students. (Supplied by July Talk)

"Mourning Keeps Coming Back" isn't your typical July Talk song.

For instance, the credits alone read more like a large party invite list rather than a group of artists collaborating on one track: Joel Aganash, Alexis Angeconeb , Kayden Angeconeb, Dazelle "AJ" Beardy, Broken Social Scene, Greg Chomut, Aleena Crowe , Donovan Day, Cris Derksen, Peter Dreimanis + Leah Fay of July Talk, Nick Ferrio, Lester Gliddy, Jaylene Harper, Haley Jeremiah-McNeil, Jordyn Johnup, Gloria Mawakeesic, Nathan Meekis, Hailey Morris, Latisha Pascal, Latoya Pemican, Alaina Sakchekapo, Ansley Simpson.

The credits also raise more questions than they answer. Broken Social Scene, Nick Ferrio, Cris Derksen and Ansley Simpson are likely names that inspire recognition, but it's when we dive into the unfamiliar that the story fully takes shape and the song's real power is evident.

"Mourning Keeps Coming Back" was written and recorded in community with students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont. Dennis Franklin Cromarty is a private school that was established by parents and elders in the Sioux Lookout district, providing instruction to more than 80 Indigenous students from 20 First Nations. For some students, it's the only option within hundreds of kilometres to receive a high school education. When the New Constellations tour bus rolled into Thunder Bay last year on Nov. 28, several of the artists in the "nation(s) wide" tour spent the day at Dennis Franklin Cromarty, including Nick Ferrio and July Talk's Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis, who facilitated a songwriting workshop for a group of teens.

"We had chatted on the way into town about how we should likely figure out a way to break the ice a bit, because it's a lot to ask of anybody to have them put themselves out there and write personal lyrics on the spot, let alone high-school students that see us as strangers," Dreimanis tells CBC Music via email.

"Neither Leah, Nick or I had much experience doing workshops, so we discussed ideas with a few of the other artists on the tour. We decided that we would each play them the first song we remember writing when we were young. First-ever songs can be great, and there's usually a naiveté about them that is amazing, but it can be pretty embarrassing for the writer to play them years later. It felt like the only way to make the rest of the folks feel safe being vulnerable with us was to throw ourselves into the ring first."

Jeremy Ducher performs "Sakomawit" at the 2019 Juno Awards. 3:31

Jeremy Dutcher, who was part of the New Constellations tour, also suggested that they pass out pieces of cut-up paper so students could write lyrics on and submit them anonymously. They started combining lyrics with music, switching the style of chord progression until they found something the students liked. One of the students, Latoya Pemican, had experience writing melody and was comfortable singing lead, so the rest of the group sang along and gave feedback after each run through. Another student, Donovan Day, came from a musical family and started writing lead lines on Dreimanis' guitar.

"I remember opening one of the pieces of paper and seeing 'I used to be this girl that made everybody smile,'" Dremainis says. "That line kills me every time I hear it."

They weren't thinking about recording a song during the workshop, Ferrio says, but when he, Fay and Dreimanis talked about the experience afterwards, they couldn't shake the feeling that the song was special.

"It's a real earworm," Ferrio says. "We were all singing and humming it on the bus."

The trio began planning a return trip to Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School to continue working on the song with the students. Greg Chomut, a teacher at Dennis Franklin Cromarty, had helped build a recording studio in the school, so they started brainstorming with him. Fay and Dreimanis also organized a day of recording with Broken Social Scene, who helped create the "backing track" of the song, along with artists from the New Constellations tour such as Cris Derksen and Ansley Simpson. Dennis Franklin Cromarty agreed to have Fay, Dreimanis and Ferrio back, and they spent two days in the recording studio with the students.

"Leanne Betasamosake Simpson encouraged us to keep the students' needs and interests at the core of every creative decision," Fay recalls. "When Nick, Peter and I got back to Thunder Bay, we were able to approach the process with the common goal of doing what was best for the song, and amplifying the voices and experiences of the students. Traditional classroom etiquette dissolved within the first few hours and by the end of the first day it felt like we were all working as a collective as opposed to students and mentors. It didn't matter if anyone heard what we were making or if anything happened with it, the most important thing was allowing the students to lead the direction of the content and conversations surrounding the project."

"At one point we gave a student, Gloria Mawakeesic, the bridge section of the song on loop, and she just listened to it in headphones as she walked the halls of the school and wrote her entire spoken verse in less than an hour," Dreimanis remembers. "It really stands out as a moment of hope in a song that otherwise speaks a lot of dark truth. Her lines stick out to me: 'DFC's like a second home/ always about the positivity, never the negativity/ Thunder Bay is our only way out.'

"These students live in boarding homes in Thunder Bay because their own remote communities don't have a high school for them to attend. It became apparent that the school, a decrepit old building full of asbestos that badly needs to be replaced, was a beacon of familiarity to the students within a very foreign situation to be placed in as a teenager so far away from home."

The students also travelled to Toronto a few months later to finish up the recording process at Dreamhouse Studio.

"We spent the first day just showing them around town and the second day in studio, so it was nice to have some time to catch up and not have to dive right in to the work," Dreimanis says. "Like any artists nearing the completion of a piece of work, it's always hard to make those final decisions. There was an understanding that this was the last time we could make any changes to the song, so I was very impressed with their decisive opinions on what it needed to get across the finish line."

The finished song is a powerful testament to all of the collaborators. "Mourning Keeps Coming Back" is both an act of testimony and of bearing witness. The students' voices are centred in their own verses, claiming their space in the song, sharing their truths, bolstered by soaring sing-along choruses. The blend of voices singing sweetly, children and adults in community, is an emotional and visceral experience. The song is also a call to action from these students — to everybody listening — as they talk about racism, poverty, clean water and racialized violence.

"Many of the students already know music is medicine," Ferrio says. "Music has the power to change. Music has the power to heal. Music has the power to turn heads, make people listen, make people see. I know that the students want the rest of Canada to know what's going on in Thunder Bay. They want people to know that young Indigenous people are being targeted. I think the students wanted to share that with the world before we walked in to do that songwriting workshop — I mean this is their everyday experience. Hopefully the song can raise some awareness, shed some light on that. "

"In the beginning of the process of creating this song, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson pointed us towards an amazing group called N'we Jinan that does arts workshops in Indigenous communities," Dreimanis says. "In the coming year, we're hoping to start a similar workshop program where different kinds of artists can travel to Thunder Bay to collaborate and create with students at DFC. We all have our own relationships with our settler colonial roots, but it's easy to see that a lot of the bridges of trust have been burnt to the ground over the years. It feels like it's our responsibility to gradually rebuild that trust. These kinds of relationships aren't built off of singular acts. They are born out of commitments that are upheld, promises that are kept and friendships that are respected."

Here's a full list of participants in "Mourning Keeps Coming Back."

Leah Fay, Kevin Drew and Peter Dreimanis

Nathan Meekis
Donovan Day
Joel Aganash

Hailey Morris
Latoya Pemican
Jordyn Johnup
Latisha Pascal
Alaina Sakchekapo
Lester Gliddy
Kayden Angeconeb- verse 2
Gloria Mawakeesic - verse 3
(AJ) Dazelle Beardy outro vocals.

Aleena Crowe
Alexis Angeconeb
Jaylene Harper
Haley Jeremiah- McNeil

Nicholas Ferrio
Ansley Simpson
Cris Derksen
Peter Dreimanis
Leah Fay
Kevin Drew (producer)
Charles Spearin (bass, guitar, horns)
Brendan Canning (bass)
Sam Goldberg jr. (guitar)
Derek Downham (drums)
David French (sax)
Julia Hambleton (woodwinds)

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner