Ansley Simpson: Anishinaabe musician comes out of her 'hiding place'

For the better part of a decade, Ansley Simpson suffered from bad anxiety. It was holding her back from her dream of becoming a songwriter and performer. But seven years ago, something changed: her daughter was born.
Ansley Simpson (Supplied)

For the better part of a decade, Ansley Simpson suffered from anxiety. 

It was holding her back from her dream of becoming a songwriter and performer. 

But seven years ago, something changed: her daughter was born. 

"I've always really wanted to write songs, and I wanted to show her it can be done at any age in life," Simpson said. "Once I started writing, I realized how good it made me feel and how therapeutic it was, and it was very difficult to stop."

Through therapy, she also realized how much she was accommodating her anxiety over her desire to do what she really wanted. 

"So I just decided instead of waiting for the anxiety to go away in order to [perform in public], I would just do it anyway," she said.

Three years ago, she picked up her guitar and began performing publicly. 

Today, she's about to record her second album, She Fell From The Sky. The 11-song EP, will unfold as a story. Each song stands on its own but, when listened to in order, they tell a story from beginning to end. 

The Toronto-based artist is originally from Alderville First Nation but grew up in Wingham, in southern Ontario. 

As a child, Simpson was surrounded by music. Her mother taught piano lessons and her dad "could play anything by ear." 

She took piano lessons growing up and started playing guitar at age 13. 
Ansley Simpson performs in the CBC Manitoba studio. (CBC/Anna Lazowski)

"For us, music was part of our curriculum. My mom would say 'You can't quit math so you can't quit piano,'" said Simpson.

Being Indigenous, however, wasn't always a part of the family's curriculum. 

Simpson's grandmother was in foster care in Peterborough, Ont. as a child. As a curly headed Indigenous kid, her grandmother faced lots of racism growing up. She didn't quite fit into any one world so she dealt with rejection and acceptance from both sides, Simpson explained. 

As a result, her grandmother taught her daughter, Simpson's mother, to hide her background. 

"Anyone who has had that experience you actually just feel like a fraud. You're hiding and that you're not being your genuine self so it's difficult," said Simpson. "And I think it's an experience that a lot of people have with mixed Indigenous backgrounds."

At school growing up, Simpson, who also has curly hair, was encouraged to hid her heritage too. But her classmates eventually found out. 

"I experienced some racism, that feeling of not belonging, and that feeling of not wanting to take space. As I have aged and grown up that's been the hardest struggle is to actually come out of that hiding place and take space." 

But Simpson is learning to fully embrace her Anishinaabe heritage. Her music is a natural extension and expression of her identity, and the larger Indigenous experience.

"The more that I learn my language, the more that I reclaim my language, the more that I am able to see things through that lens. That's all starting to reflect in my songwriting."

Her song, Medicine Hat, for example, flips the script on the Sixties Scoop narrative. It's about a women who gets her kids back on her own terms instead of waiting passively for the legal system to reunite the family. 

That song took about six months to write as Simpson wrote and rewrote the song multiple times.

"I always thought that you just sat down and wrote a song," she said. "I would say that that maybe happens about 10 per cent of the time and the rest of the time you work really, really hard at it for months." 

Simpson is happy to struggle because ultimately, she's following her dream of being a musician and performer. 

And she's leaving her anxiety behind too.