Indigenous high school students and July Talk collaborate on new song

A group of students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont. have collaborated with some celebrated Canadian musicians to create a song about their experience of leaving home to go to school.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty students sing about leaving home to study in Thunder Bay

'There was a whole bunch of really cool moments,' while recording the song at the school's studio, said DFC teacher Greg Chomut, including this one, when three students held hands to give each other courage while singing the chorus of the song. (Nick Ferrio)

Sitting in the art room at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., 15-year-old Alexis Angeconeb and 18-year-old Lester Gliddy are listening to the final version of a song they started working on close to a year ago.

They're still surprised by what they hear.

"It sounds really professional," said Angeconeb, who helped with the writing of the song and also lent her voice.

"I was really shy when they were making it, so I was singing pretty quiet so you could barely hear me. But it still felt like I made a big contribution."

Angeconeb and Gliddy are among a group of students who contributed to the new song Mourning Comes Back, the result of a collaboration between the teens and celebrated musicians including Toronto-based July Talk and Broken Social Scene.

Lester Gliddy, 18, from Wunnumin Lake First Nation and Alexis Angeconeb, 15, of Sachigo First Nation. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

New Constellations leads to new connections

It started last November when the New Constellations Tour was making its way across the country. The tour, which brought Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to cities, towns and First Nations to perform, also included a mentorship program for Indigenous youth.

While in Thunder Bay, the visiting artists chose to visit Dennis Franklin Cromarty, a high school that serves Indigenous teens from Ontario's far north who are forced to leave their home communities in order to continue their education. 

Among the workshops offered was one on songwriting led by Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay-Goldstein of Juno Award-winning July Talk, along with singer-songwriter Nick Ferrio.

They started by passing around paper and asking students to write down just a word or a line to incorporate into a song, and were struck by what the students had to say.

"I think immediately it became about their common experience in moving away from home into a really foreign environment and there were some pretty remarkable lyrics that kind of came out of nowhere," said Dreimanis.

A student works with Leah Fay-Goldstein of July Talk. (Nick Ferrio)

They recorded a scratch demo of the song and left the workshop. 

"During the workshop we weren't thinking about recording the song, we were more interested in creating a safe space for the students to share their ideas and collaborate," said Ferrio.

But something had struck a chord with the musicians, who couldn't get the song off their minds.

"It was a really cool, sort of catchy song so I think we wanted to kind of rekindle that and continue that process," said Ferrio,

They contacted the school and asked to come back. 

Musicians return for recording session

The trio consulted with Indigenous musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on how to go about continuing work on the song.

"She shared with us what her approach would be and encouraged us to keep the students' needs and interests at the core of every creative decision," said Fay-Goldstein.

Before returning to Thunder Bay in March to spend several more days working with the students in the school's recording studio, they also recorded a musical bed for the track with the help of Broken Social Scene. 

Then they began recording vocal and instrumental performances by students. It took some coaxing to get some students to overcome their shyness but once they did, the professionals were blown away.  

"It was just so remarkable to see these performances come out of the students within a number of hours over a few afternoons," said Fay-Goldstein.  

DFC teacher Greg Chomut was also struck by the bond that formed between the musicians and students and their ability to help the students have the courage to write and perform. 

"I think it helped a lot with confidence," he said. 

"Writing music is a great way to wrestle with all those ideas of homesickness and the fear [of] the city and that all comes out in the song."

Dennis Franklin Cromarty students, staff and musicians involved in the project pose for a photo at the school. (Submitted by Nick Ferrio)

Song about homesickness and living in the city 

The final product is a song that's slickly produced but it also conveys a telling story about the lives of First Nations students in Thunder Bay, how they feel about the city and their school. 

The song is "about [how] students get sent out for high school, and racism," said Lester Gliddy, who comes from Wunnumin Lake First Nation. "But I have friends to be around with and feel safe being with them."  

Angeconeb​, 15, from Sachigo Lake First Nation, said it's "about being homesick and us having to leave for Thunder Bay every time for school and leaving our families behind. That's us mourning leaving home."

While the challenges the teens face are front and centre in the song, Angeconeb said she hopes that when people hear it, what they'll think about is what the students are capable of achieving. 

Perhaps, she said, the song will also draw attention to the ongoing push to replace Dennis Franklin Cromarty's aging building with a new school and living centre, so that students will no longer have to live in boarding homes while staying in Thunder Bay. 

Students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont. wrote, sang and played keys and guitar on the track Mourning Keeps Coming Back. (Nick Ferrio)

The song is being released on iTunes, Spotify, on a website and is being featured on CBC Music. And while the project is complete, the musicians who made it happen say they hope it won't be their last interaction with students at DFC. 

"We just feel really lucky that maybe this could be the start of a longer-term relationship," said Dreimanis. 

Nathan Meekis, 17, from Deer Lake First Nation, said the whole process was a lot of fun.

"I want to hear that song again," he said.

"It's a pretty good song."