Music

Why William Prince turned to his gospel roots during the pandemic

Gospel First Nation is a collection of original songs, as well as covers of Prince's father's music and foundational songs — including one from the late Charley Pride.

Gospel First Nation is a collection of original songs, as well as covers of Prince's father's music

William Prince has released 2 albums in the past eight months: Reliever, and Gospel First Nation. (Jsenftphotography; design by CBC Music)

"We've been kind of keeping this album close to the chest."

Talking over the phone from his Manitoba home, William Prince is almost sheepish about his second record release in eight months. The first of the two, Reliever, was Prince's much anticipated followup to his debut album, Earthly Days. Released in February 2020, Reliever came out mere weeks before the pandemic hit Canada, which put a complete stop to the biggest tour Prince had booked to date. 

"It was supposed to be a bit of a breakout year, I had a lot of things planned in the States, which was going to be a nice kind of revealing of this second record," says Prince, adding that he considered Reliever to be a "fresher debut" with Glassnote Records, which re-released his first album in May 2018 — a year after it won a Juno for roots album of the year.

While writing Reliever, Prince was dealing with layers of grief: the death of his father, and separating from his partner. But there was also joy: the birth of his son, and the taking off of his music career.

"I was seeking something," remembers Prince, of creating Reliever. "At the core of me, I was still really aching. I was still really hurt and I feel like Reliever needed to be brought into the world." Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Prince has to refocus in all areas of life. "[I get to] cleanse myself from sorrow in this new record."

Gospel just feels appropriate right now.- William Prince

On Gospel First Nation, which he released in late October, Prince returns to his childhood, when he would accompany his father on guitar as Edward Prince preached to congregations in First Nations communities across Northern Manitoba — a fertile training ground for the now folk singer. The inspiration for this new album came from Prince's Mother's Day live stream earlier this year, where he dedicated a few of his mom's favourite gospel songs to her. The fan response was overwhelmingly positive, and the timing felt right for Prince.

"I was feeling this sense of nostalgia because right now it feels like we're all attending some big funeral," says Prince. "A lot of us are hurting and dealing with confusion and grief. And I grew up playing in wake services and funerals with my family, singing for people in need and it feels like, what's appropriate to say right now? … Gospel just feels appropriate right now."

Prince, in his sombre tone, adds that gospel music — and Christianity — have been key tools in the colonization and assimilation of First Nations peoples. He says it's a delicate conversation to have as a First Nations man, singing these songs. "It's an odd feeling to contend with," he says, but he's "trying to extract the good." 

"I know there are other First Nations people like me who weren't raised completely cultural, who may have been raised in the Christian faith, and that this talks about Gospel First Nation as a geographical sound imprint."

I understand that it might be deemed I'm singing the song of the oppressor.- William Prince

Gospel First Nation "represents a number of reserves where primarily First Nations residents would have been singing these songs," explains Prince. These places are where his dad, a founding Christian pastor in his home of Peguis First Nation, would share testimony and song while on the road with his family, selling CDs of his music out of the trunk of his car. 

"It helped us feel good. It helped us live joyfully. It was one of the greatest times in my life. I didn't realize that at 14 years old — I was on tour, you know?" Prince says, laughing.

Gospel First Nation is a collection that hugs together traditional gospel songs with ones Prince's dad wrote, as well as songs Prince has written himself. "When Jesus Needs an Angel," a country-gospel song about a young family reeling after their mother has died, is one Prince wrote when he was a teenager, inspired by the death of a beloved community member in Peguis. Prince wrote it for his father.

"You could find [First Nations recording artists'] CDs in gas stations along the highway leading up to Northern Manitoba," explains Prince. "I wanted my dad's records to have some original music. And I wrote the song at 14. It's when it really came clear that songs are gifts. It felt like it was given to me in the middle of the night. I woke my parents up and we rejoiced and he ended up recording it for his third and final album." 

"This one I Know," the penultimate track, is one Prince's father wrote for his final album, a piano-based family favourite that Prince wanted to share with his fans. The title track, written by Prince, represents a special place for Prince in Fisher Bay, Man., that overlooks Lake Winnipeg where, as he sings, "the highway feels like salvation." It's the beating heart of the album.

"I speak about Gospel First Nation, [and] it really depends on the life you're living, what kind of place it is," says Prince. "It's a holy pulpit with water for some, to ponder life's deepest meanings. But also it's a place for some to escape and drink their beer and do drugs and have affairs in cars. And the opening lyrics kind of paint a contrasting picture of what it looks like there. And I wanted to detail that there is a very real, troubled side to these reserves, and that's the parts of the reserve that are dealing and recovering with the generational effects of alcoholism, substance abuse, sexual abuse. You know, there's a darker side, it's not a perfect nation of praise and worship; it's real life."

The album also includes covers from beloved singers of Prince's childhood, with one in particular that stands out today: "All His Children," recorded and released in 1972 by the late country star Charley Pride, who died of COVID-19 on Dec. 12. Prince learned of Pride's death just a few hours before taking the stage in Winnipeg for a live stream performance that same day. He remembered the barrier-breaking Black country legend, whom Prince and his father were able to catch at the Winnipeg arena years ago, by performing this beautiful tribute.

Gospel First Nation is the coming together of Prince's many parts, all under one project. It's an album he knows might be difficult for some, but one that brings him a peace he hopes to share with fans. 

"I understand that it might be deemed I'm singing the song of the oppressor," says Prince. "And I'm encouraged by the fact that some of my friends and peers see the value in this message and have reinforced that it's the time to talk about it. I didn't want to wait five, six albums down the road. Why not now, when people are listening to me more than ever?... I didn't want to hold back this very personal, important side of myself. Because truthfully, I was a kid who didn't have all the information back then."

If you want to dive deeper into Prince's gospel side, you can tune into his soothing podcast Sunday Verse, where he digs into the stories behind his songs from the comfort of his home studio. Season 1 focuses on Reliever, while season 2 is about Gospel First Nation. As Prince points out, the definition of gospel is "the good news."

"I'm just ready to bring some good news, you know?"

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