Montreal-based Algonquin Two-Spirit trans musician Kìzis’ monumental new album Tidibàbide / Turn : Four Spirits in Motion is released this Friday February 12th. Comprising thirty six tracks and spanning over three and half hours, the album was composed and produced in Canada, the UK, Germany and Peru and features over fifty collaborators including Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson, Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett, and trans trailblazer Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Following her 2018 electronic album Kijà / Care under the artist name Mìch Cota, Kìzis’ Tidibàbide / Turn is a deeply personal yet communal journey of sisterhood that incorporates techno, spoken word, and Algonquin dance. It’s an exhilarating queer Indigenous Pop project that despite its epic scale and eclectic style has a coherent sound that challenges, moves, uplifts, heals, and delights. The singer-songwriter, who was raised in an intensely religious home by an Algonquin father and a white mother in Southern Ontario, is credited as playing the heartbeat drum, piano, violin, cello, and Oberheim on the record.
Ahead of the album’s release, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Kìzis about her earliest encounters with music, what inspired the theme and sound of some of the tracks on Tidibàbide / Turn, why it is important to her to incorporate the Anishinaabemowin language into her music, collaborating with Beverly Glenn-Copeland and Peruvian trans artist Escalimetr0, and why she loves Joshua Whitehead’s novel Jonny Appleseed.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Can you take me back to when music first entered your life when you were growing up and how your passion for it manifested itself?
Kìzis: “I’ve always had such a passion for music, and singing is the thing that brings me the greatest excitement. It’s arguably what I do best and there’s nothing like it. I started to play the piano when I was about three years old. My mother had played when she was younger, so that was brought into the home. Then I started making little songs up and singing along. As I was growing up in Maberly, Ontario a couple kilometers away from my nation, someone in my hometown and I started going on adventures in the countryside together. We would make up songs for one another about the adventures we’d had and all the things that we’d seen, then we’d share those songs with the people of our hometown. When I was still living with my family we went to church. Singing in the choir was quite monotonous and uniform, it encouraged me to sing softer I suppose or more with the group, but I kind of resisted that naturally.”
“My dad got me a guitar because he wasn’t able to play himself and he wanted me to learn some of the old country songs that his parents loved, like Kitty Wells. My dad is quite a conservative Algonquin man so he wanted me to play Johnny Cash and I spent time patiently learning and teaching myself to do that. Then I had to leave home at about 15 and so I moved to Perth, Ontario. I saved up my money and got myself a violin and started playing around town. One day with some friends at high school we snuck into the music room before closing and picked up some horns, hopped in a canoe and played in the river underneath a bridge, so the sound echoed through it. I had my little tape recorder with me and we recorded some music with that and shared it with friends.”
So that was your first recording?
“Yeah, it was. Then when I was 16 I fell in love with a boy who was a masonry worker, a closeted homosexual, and we lived together for a little while in this small town called Wemyss, more of a hamlet really, with a population of under 50 people. He saved up his money and I worked my ass off and saved up my money too, and we went into the studio in Perth, Ontario and recorded a proper album, Some Words I Think Should Exist. That’s how we paid the rent for a couple of years. It was an unconventional and simultaneously blissful kind of experience, being able to play music and share that with the community whereas otherwise we were just a couple of stupid kids! I sang about experiences and some things that were going on that the people in the town really responded to, I think it was because they admired the environmental sensibility with me being a First Nations kid. When I was growing up, we fought against the uranium mining that was happening in our area and we won against it. So from an early age I had an understanding that we need to take care of the Earth. So the people in the town latched on to it and supported it. I was quite relieved to find that kind of support in the midst of the cacophony.”
Congratulations on Tidibàbide / Turn, it is a beautiful album, epic in scope, how long have you been working on it?
“I started recording this album about two or three years ago. Some of the songs are from those adventures that I had with my friend as a child. RUN is a little mantra that I used to sing over and over again when I was a little kid: ‘It feels so good to run’. That made it on to a dance track. So as far as the development of the songs go, some of them start as early as that, although within this album there’s a journey that I went on that’s documented about sisterhood and empowerment, about caring for one another, be it through blood or otherwise.”
How would you describe the album to someone who hasn’t heard it yet?
Why did you want to open the album with the track Dawemà?
“Dawemà translates from Anishinaabemowin into English as ‘sister’ and that song is about the sisters in the sky and of the Earth who I acknowledge in order to move forward in this body, this repertoire that I selected for the album, because without the strength of my sisters and my mother, my aunties, my grandmother, my Kokum, I certainly couldn’t have been able to express the things that I needed to express. Also, as a transitioning person myself, it’s important to know that in times of isolation, in and out of the pandemic, we as trans people need to acknowledge and hold ourselves as sisters, first and foremost for ourselves, and hold on to that because it’s a very special, immemorial, sacred understanding. So that’s the acknowledgement of Dawemà, as well as the intentions of the more sparse Anishinaabemowin with the drum songs. It’s a tradition to make these songs in our language in order to preserve the language and keep our stories alive so that others can share them and sing them. Anishinaabe people and other Indigenous people of the land talk about always thinking seven generations ahead. So there have been songs that have really got me through some unsure times and I wanted to contribute to that.”
You’re playing the drum on that track too aren’t you?
“Yes, I’m playing my hand drum that was gifted to me by my sister Jillian when she was about eight years old. I think she made it with a woman from Golden Lake reserve. She gifted it to me last year and I’m honoured and humbled to have it in my possession and to be sharing it on the record and in live performances.”
Some people would like to think that gender identity that extends beyond the binary is something new but Indigenous cultures have always had more of an understanding of gender expansive folks haven’t they?
“Naturally, whether it’s acknowledged or not, there are always going to be people who don’t fit within the male or female binary comfortably. Some peoples talk about it and other peoples don’t. Some peoples sit with it and let it happen. Historically, we were called agokwa and that was a term that was given by the French towards Anishinaabe and Ojibwe people, but they’re not our words. The word actually for Anishinaabe people is ikwe kaazo; ikwe means woman and kaazo means to appear as. Even within the terms of definition it’s quite interesting to see that there’s still something between the person who is operating in an understanding of themselves not as this or that, and the one who is giving the name in order to understand. So that language even has its limitations. To appear as a woman is one thing and to understand that you are as well as something else is another thing altogether. It’s something that we can keep talking about it in order to inspire young people to feel comfortable within their own identities, but I think the most important thing is having the courage to show up and act in your own natural way, while trusting that others in the world around us will have the inherent wisdom to offer the respect that we deserve to give one another.”
Side of the Road is a track that I keep going back to on the album, could you give us an insight into what inspired it and how you shaped the sound of that track?
“Well, the chorus is the most important thing for me that I think it hits everybody because within a pop sensibility it works; the four-four-timing, it’s chill, relaxed, vibrational, everything is simple, a lot more gentle than some of the other songs. It’s the most encapsulating song in terms of talking about my own history, that’s in the verses. It talks about some things that needed to be resolved at a time that was rather difficult personally. The song talks about unrequited love, about love that’s already there and not needing to put anyone on a pedestal expecting things, and trusting friendship that can turn into courtship. I hope that that time doesn’t have to come back because I think I’ve learned a bit more since then.”
I love the strings and the vocals on Redbody, how did that track come together?
“That sound came to me about 10 years ago. Melodies come to me in many different ways, but that one specifically came in a conversation with someone that I had a crush on at the time. I started to repeat what they’d said over and over again in my head and then I transposed that to a violin part. The song in Anishinaabemowin is basically translated as saying, ‘Hello, I’m a body. Today my name is Red and if you’d like to dance with me, this is the way that we can pray together.’
You’ve collaborated with a huge number of other artists including Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Where can we hear him on the album and how did his involvement come about?
“Glenn makes a brief appearance on Sister Flower (Honor and Celebration). About halfway through you’ll start to hear, ‘my, my, my, my, my, my’, that’s him. Glenn was getting ready for a move and he was sitting with his little recording device to do that. He sounds very relaxed. He played the track and sang along to it and I threw it in the mix, so it was quite simple. I first heard Glenn’s music in the Montrealer hipster circulation through emails and fell in love with his voice. I found similitude in the quality of his voice that I could relate to. Through transitioning the voice does something, I can’t really describe it fully, although I certainly found part of myself through that and was quite encouraged. I look up to Glenn truly in his story as well as his music, and the way that he carries himself with his collaborators, he’s a very respectful person. As far as my spiritual analysis can go, Beverly Glenn-Copeland is full of many spirits and it comes through in the way that he composes and sings so beautifully. I had the opportunity to open for him at Sal Rosa in Montreal about two years ago and it was a very powerful show.”
You composed and recorded tracks for this album in Canada, Germany, the UK and Peru, how do you think that influenced the sound?
“It was a time where I was still in more close proximity to my queer sisterhood and all of the travel was based on initiatives of love and reconnecting some people with others. My friend Coco had to move back home from Montreal to Lima, so we pooled our funds to get plane tickets there and as a private initiative I put on a show. My sisters invited their friends and their friends came along. When we were in Peru, I met this beautiful trans woman, Escalimetr0, and she sings and speaks on few of the tracks on the album. Escalimetr0 showed me some moves and we had a really nice time by the water. Her voice really stuck with me and I told her that I was going to make a native neoperreo [subgenre of Puerto Rican reggaeton] style song for her and she was down for it. She recites some of her poetry at the beginning of Escalimetro. She sent me a really beautiful love letter that is played at the beginning of Kiss for the Valley. There’s a culmination of different people who I love in the song That’s My Dream (FAMILY = COMMUNITY), and so her voice is in there too.”
The album spans 36 tracks and runs to around three and half hours, given the length is there an ideal way that you’d like people to approach listening to it?
“When this started I didn’t know that it was going to be this many songs. Life started happening and I was inspired and given permission by those around me who I was inspired by to make this music, so it kept on going. When I was on tour in Europe I was sharing what I had already done. That’s the way I work, the moment a song is finished I’m ready to show it if I can. I couldn’t turn myself off and I kept making songs. By the time that I was at the three hour mark I was like, I’m not going to pick and choose, I’m going to accept that this is a story that people can enjoy and have a lot of fun with and be transported by if they’d like to be, either in succession, or in whatever order they like. Although there’s this sensibility where I would like people to sit with the record as if it were a book or something like that, but you don’t have to do that, you can do whatever you want with it because I’m not there to tell you what to do, I’m already there in the music, so people can listen however they please.”
What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?
“I would recommend reading Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Joshua Whitehead is also Indigenous and wrote a really beautiful novel that resonated with me because geographically we’re not too far away from each other. The experience of reading it was quite inspiring. Whereas before I had read and kind of resonated with the work of Anne Carson such as Autobiography of Red, which I really enjoyed, although it was from a perspective that was not fully identified as Indigenous, as well as lacking many cultural experiences and ramifications of where we’re at today. Joshua very skilfully wrote Jonny Appleseed which is his autobiography in a way. He’s getting some attention right now from various sources in Canada and people should definitely get the book.”
By James Kleinmann