Meet Melody McKiver, the Anishinaabe musician changing the way we think about the viola

McKiver's debut EP, Reckoning, is nominated for a 2018 Indigenous Music Award for best instrumental album.
Melody McKiver is an Anishinaabe violist. (Courtesy of the artist)

Melody McKiver didn't grow up dreaming of the day they would become a solo electronic violist. Possibly nobody ever has before. Maybe every electro-violist's career is a kind of happy accident. Certainly as a child studying classical violin in Ottawa, the Anishinaabe composer-musician (whose pronouns are they/their/theirs) never anticipated a future wherein they'd release their first commercial album, an ambitious and haunting EP called Reckoning, and be nominated for an Indigenous Music Award.

In part, that's why McKiver's background is so varied. This is a person who is not only an accomplished musician, but also holds a master's degree in ethnomusicology from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and, according to their bio, has "research interests in Indigenous electronic music, artistic processes of decolonization, urban Indigeneity, and two-spirited studies." They've also worked as a journalist, youth worker, and videographer, to name a few different jobs.

Musically, there have also been years of collaboration within and outside McKiver's community, including producing and engineering credits, crafting string arrangements and compositions, and being a featured artist on other musicians' tracks. Reckoning itself began as a composition for a theatre piece about residential schools. With all of that success on the CV, as well as this IMA nomination, there's talk of McKiver saying goodbye to their day job and the unimaginable — making a living as a musician, classical or otherwise — doesn't seem so impossible anymore. McKiver spoke with CBC Music by phone about a week before the IMAs to talk about why the viola is no joke, racism and classism in classical music, moving to Sioux Lookout, Ont., and the future of music.

The viola gets a bad rap sometimes, and there are a lot of jokes about it. How did you fall in love with this curious little instrument?

It's not so little an instrument. I grew up as a violinist and I started young enough where I'd play my father's instruments, the same instrument that he studied on as a child. It was kind of the first thing I was exposed to and it's not like at five and a half you're making an educated decision, like, "Oh, here are all the instruments in the string family, which one applies to you the most?" That might have been cello had I been coached a bit earlier but I think the tonality of it, the range of it, the idea of carving out a more unique space where violins are kind of a dime a dozen but it's harder to find a good violist. I was halfway through a violin performance [degree] and got to the end of my second year and asked my teacher, "Should I try the viola?" and she said, "Yeah, sure, pick one up that's not too big." I came back to third-year studies and she heard me for five minutes and she's like, "Yeah, you're a violist."

I was also studying with a jazz cellist and he's, like, "Can you sing the low notes?" As someone who's a natural tenor, the viola falls naturally on my vocal range and it just became a really comfortable fit so it was a fast learning curve. I realized I was more of a violist than a violinist. Many musicians double, but many are also drawn more to one or the other. It's a different tonality and repertoire, but the viola requires a bit of a firmer touch. I kind of think about it as kind of a queer instrument, too. [Chuckles] Like, there seems to be a smaller subsect of queer violists. The peculiarity of it — if you're going to take the literal definition — it has an appeal so I decided to take it to run with it.

There's something really special about finding an instrument that is really you. Were you aware of the viola jokes?

I was aware of it. Growing up in Ottawa, there's a really vibrant and also racist classical music community [laughs]. But I also had access to see a lot of classical concerts, chamber music concerts, which I especially appreciate now that I'm living closer to my family's community; it's not like there's a bustling string quartet scene in Sioux Lookout [laughs]. I remember the viola tone didn't always appeal to me so I think it's something that, as I got deeper into my musical study, I appreciated more.

Once I was cursed to be a more creative musician in university and not sticking strictly to the classical material but learning how to improvise, learning how to work with electronics — an improvisational instrument like the viola can kind of shuttle all that baggage. But I was definitely aware of all the viola jokes.

You mentioned a "vibrant and racist scene," which sounds like a stunning combination, really, but also applicable to many if not most places across Canada. What have been some of your experiences with classical music growing up?

I was not a child prodigy by a longshot but I would say that my mother was. She's a professional pianist now and so a lot of my musical education definitely comes from my mom, but for me up until about age 14, I was really obsessed with hockey and I'm kind of dragging my heels to the music lessons, which puts you a little bit behind the curve. The culture is very competitive: "My child must be the greatest and also a lawyer and a doctor and a surgeon" type of standards that you see with that kind of classical music parenting. So, being the only visibly Indigenous musician growing up in Ottawa in that era and still to this day — like, my mom is still working as a music educator there, and it is definitely not the most welcoming place for Indigenous people to be in.

I think classical music is especially endemic for deep classism. I grew up in a middle-class household but not the type of household where both my parents were surgeons and investing $30,000 in a custom-built violin. And now that I've come into my own as a music educator, kids always want to know, "How much does your instrument cost?" and "Where did you go?" if you're giving a classroom presentation. It's like, "Oh, well, it takes like a bachelor's degree and a master's degree and at least a $5,000 instrument, and about 15 years of lessons."

There's so many hurdles for becoming a classical musician. Which is why, when working as an educator, I remind people about possibilities in hip-hop production and more accessible pathways to music because I need to be realistic that it takes a 20-year investment in training to become a really proficient classical musician and check all the boxes and expectations. Those are not accessible for the vast majority of Indigenous communities, for so many reasons. The hostile climate; we're told, "Oh well, you're First Nations, why do you care about these Russian composers?" Then, once you look at money to get good quality instruments and professional, dedicated lessons and music education, I think one of the bigger uphill battles is to try and fight for better music education in public schools.

When did you move to Sioux Lookout?

The summer of 2016. Prior to that I was based in Ottawa. (I just finished shooting an APTN episode about that whole transitional process last week. I'm pretty excited about that right now.) My mother was born in northwestern Ontario but she was a part of the Sixties Scoop, so it was kind of a lifelong process for her and she's still alive and well and we talk every day. For me, it was kind of picking up where my mother left off. Reconnecting with our biological family, knowing the territory but not our family, and then we started finding people on Facebook and I started making trips up [here].

There was a job in journalism that opened up here so I decided to apply for the job, which would have me working in my family's community, Obishikokaang Lac Seul First Nation. So, the job financed the move and once I finished that contract, I decided to stay and it's because I knew that if I wanted to continue learning more about my culture and learning more about my family history, it's not something I can do in a series of weeklong trips. I felt like I needed to really live here for a number of years to build that relationship with the land. As an artist who so strongly identifies my practice within being Anishinaabe, I kind of reached my limits of what I could learn within an urban setting. Though I appreciated the urban community, if we talk about being Indigenous as being a land-based person, I ultimately need to rebuild that relationship with the land.

This is your first Indigenous Music Award nomination. Can you tell me what that recognition means to you?

[Reckoning] is my first commercial release, so it's nice to get that industry recognition as I try to develop my career and return to making music full time because I currently have a day job as a youth worker. So I appreciate being recognized among my peers especially since, as part of the instrumental music category, it's so broad. In previous years there's been people like Cris Derksen, who's definitely more of an immediate peer and we have a lot in common in our musical practice, but looking at the category this year, it is — and has always been — dominated a lot by flute players. So ... I like being able to show that diversity — that instrumental music can look like a lot of different things, just as Indigenous music encompasses all of the different genres.

You've collaborated with artists like Jeremy Dutcher and Lido Pimienta, and the future of music looks so much more interesting with all of you together. How do you choose with whom to collaborate?

It happens in a couple of different ways. With Jeremy Dutcher, I helped him produce his first demo of "Honour Song" before it was later commercially released. We met each other in the community a few years before he was even thinking about making a move to professional music. We met at a two-spirit event in New Brunswick and stayed in touch and then he started taking his music more seriously and I had some gigs come up in Toronto. I was, like, "Yeah, Jeremy might be interesting for this," not knowing what his music sounded like and I was just floored.

[With] Lido Pimienta, I think it was also [through] a lot of mutual friends and we kept on being on the same bill, and then she invited me into the studio and had already written the arrangements for "Fornicarte es un Arte", and then I improvised the viola solo while we were in the studio and I always tried to jump onstage with her whenever we're on the same bill. I appreciate that we're moving in similar circles.

I had met Frank Waln a couple of times and knew he was going to be in Ottawa so I sent him a message and said, "Hey, open offer if you want some string arrangements," so we rented a church for a day and had a lot of fun working together.

Being an Indigenous musician, you get to know the community pretty quickly and I have a couple more projects that are hopefully in the works. It helps to get your name out in different circles, too. This is my first release, but I already had a bit of a track record of working with other musicians, and viola jokes aside, I think that my instrument really does make a lot more sense, and I really enjoy collaborative music-making as much as being a solo artist.

The solo career is a little bit of a happy accident. I never had ambitions of being a solo electronic violist — I'm happy playing in bands, I'm happy working with other musicians, especially as someone who's a little bit more introverted, it can be a relief to just be onstage with a number of other people and be part of something bigger, too.

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