Broadway star launches record label

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TORONTO - There is little to suggest that Tamara Podemski will not be a major star. The 25-year-old Podemski is a familiar face to Native Canadians. Born and raised in Toronto, the Saulteaux performer has been in the entertainment business for more than 10 years.

With a professional resume any young actor would envy, the affable Podemski is a classic entertainer in the vein of Hollywood stars of old: she sings, she dances, and she acts. Aside from starring on Broadway in the hit musical "Rent," she regularly appears on television, in movies, and on stage as a dancer. Podemski credits her career to the Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts which she attended since she was 8. "I grew up in an arts-based home where singing and dancing were common," she said.

Her proverbial big break came when she answered an ad for a music video in the classifieds of a local newspaper. "There was no wild story of how I got discovered," she laughed. "I had no agent and no idea about how to get started."

The casting agent for that shoot passed on her screen test to Bruce McDonald, one of Canada's premier independent directors. Impressed by what he saw, McDonald cast the 15-year-old Podemski in "Dance Me Outside." In this gripping film, she starred alongside her sister, actor and producer Jennifer Podemski as well as a young Adam Beach and Ryan Black.

Despite getting her start as an actor, singing has always been near to Podemski's heart. She recently turned her talents and determination to a new project. In January of this year, she officially launched Mukwa Music, her own record label.

"Mukwa Music - Ojibway for 'bear' - started off as a distribution company to sell my music," she stated. "World music is not well represented in the big music stores and selling my CDs directly to the consumer seemed a logical thing to do."

She realized that Mukwa Music could be bigger than what she originally thought.

Sales of her album through the Internet were strong and she eventually added a promotional aspect to the distribution company. "I had been doing mail orders in the past but not in an active sense. Mukwa Music changes that and allows me to promote and present my music as I want to."

Podemski has strong opinions on how her music is conveyed to the world. "There is a music machine out there that I have no control over. Mukwa Music gives me that control."

Her own label was born out of the less-than-positive experiences of her last CD. She removed her name off that album after she was dissatisfied with the way she was treated by the record company. "They used stereotypical Native imagery that I didn't think was culturally appropriate or reflective of myself," she said. "They did not have concern for the artist. For many mainstream record companies out there the concept of 'Native music' is a marketing ploy. I want my music to be first."

However, far from being bitter, Podemski regards the incident as a valuable learning experience. "I entered that contract willingly and the outcome was partly based on my naivet? about the music industry," she stated. Her outlook is typically positive. "Besides, if it wasn't for that experience I would not have formed Mukwa Music. When it comes down to it, the songs on that CD are important and the imaging and packaging are not."

Podemski is determined to not make herself susceptible to anyone else's agenda. "I can do it my way now," she said. "My music career is within my control. It is harder but much more rewarding."

For her next album - currently recording in Toronto - Podemski breaks new ground in her artistic career. For the first time she will record songs in English and not in Ojibwe as with her two previous albums. Additionally, the folk-rock genre of this album is a departure for Podemski who previously sang more traditional Native songs with a contemporary twist.

Citing Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette as influences, Podemski stated that musical theater also heavily influences her songwriting. "In musical theater narrative is very important," she said. "I sing like rock but with a lyrical narrative. I've been told the new songs sound like a rock musical. All the influences you aren't conscious of come out in the music, and it's only after you record them that you realize their influence."

The 12 new songs - co-written by producer Ron Allen who also worked on her last album - were written when Podemski was 17. "My husband [playwright and actor Darrell Dennis] and my family have been urging me to record them," she said. "I've performed these songs for them over the years and they know them.

"As an artist I have only ever been doing other peoples' work. As a dancer or actor, I have been a presenter of the art. This is a logical step as an artist: to be the creator instead of the presenter."

However, Podemski does express some growing pains. "It's much easier to hide behind someone else's work," she laughed. "It is difficult to put yourself out there and bear parts of yourself that are so personal. But it is part of an artist's growth. I've been on Broadway in front of 2,000 people and was younger then too. But with these songs the stakes are raised 100 percent and I find myself getting anxiety attacks about singing three songs in front of 50 people. I'm communicating to people in an entirely new way."

These songs are highly autobiographical and personal. "These are my diary songs that have been my therapy for eight years," she said. "But ultimately I didn't write them to hide them away."

In the future, Podemski envisions Mukwa Music representing other artists. "My company can be an example of personalizing the music industry," she said. "Artists and consumers are losing out in the music industry in favor of the large record companies due to file swapping and higher prices. I'd love it to be a bigger label for all the great musicians out there who don't get a record deal because they don't fit the mandate of big labels. I know I can do it."

She values the personal interaction she has with her audience. With each CD she sells through the Web, she sends a letter and a signed CD. "I feel like I am reconnecting with the audience. The feedback I get has been positive. People appreciate buying directly from the artist."

Podemski hopes to release the new album early next year. In the meantime, Podemski is keeping herself characteristically busy with a diverse slate of artistic projects. On Aug. 21, Podemski will again don her dancing shoes for "Kaha:wi," a one-hour dance performance choreographed by Santee Smith. The show integrates Iroquois culture and traditional dance with contemporary dance set to music by Ulali, who were commissioned specially for this show.

With so many artistic capacities, one wonders how Podemski juggles the creative energy. "I think of my artistic life in phases," she said. "Music has always been a big part of my life and I'm letting the music breathe right now. I have given my focus to other talents in the past, but now music is getting the attention it needs more than any other time of my life."

For more information on how to order her music, e-mail her at mukwamusic@tamarapodemski.com. For more information on her career, visit www.podemskichicks.com, a site she shares with her two sisters.