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Singer-Songwriter Tara Williamson Knows Who She Is, Pushes Boundaries

An interview with Cree musician and songwriter Tara Williamson, who recently released an EP titled 'Lie Low.'

Calling herself a poet and provocateur, Tara Williamson is a singer-songwriter from Winnipeg who's gaining acclaim in Canada and throughout Indian country. In the wake of a recent EP release “Lie Low” (available on iTunes) Williamson has found her music on RPM.FM’s Best Indigenous Music of 2013 playlist as well as the Top 40 Aboriginal Music Countdown in Canada.

Last year and prior to the EP release, Williamson grabbed the number one spot of the Native Trailblazers radio show Indie artist showcase June Jamz, having been voted to the spot by the show’s listeners.

In a recent chat with ICTMN, she spoke about her development as an artist and her plans for the future.

How as a First Nations artist did you get started in music?

I had a really great public music school teacher which is one of the reasons why I am such a big proponent of art and music programs in schools. There is no one artsy in my family -- It's just me.

My music teacher said I had a good voice and maybe I should take voice lessons. I started taking vocal lessons and some piano and sort of went in and out of formal training such as the choir and other things. When I was 17 or 18 I went to study at a music conservatory for six weeks and then left.

Why did you leave the conservatory?

There were a few things -- music school was not for me, I was learning classically but I was not learning traditional songs. I was transcribing jazz solos, but this was not music to me. It was not why I love music and I did not want to turn it into an academic pursuit. 

Where did traditional music come into play?

I'm adopted; I was born Cree but raised Anishnaabe and Metis. Pow wow music and dancing and ceremonial stuff was always part of my life. There are people in my family who have a big drum but my immediate family was never the singers and dancers. I was exposed to this a lot. 

Any arts program is so important, especially ones that are culturally specific. You're so thirsty when you're young; it is so much easier to connect with something that is relevant. We need to be rooted and grounded into who we are before we can branch out, and it usually works the other way with the Western education system.

How does what you do today reflect your heritage and history?

We have a very broad sense of identity and self to include travel, trade and diplomacy. With this foundation of thinking my great-grandmother would never have wanted me to feel like I have to stay in one place or be a particular way. I think that we have teachings that say figure out who you are, try something new and push boundaries. I think this is one of the reasons we survive and have thrived.

I think indigenous artists make some of the most beautiful art in the world because of that really rich rooted-ness, along those same lines they have that capacity say screw this and to do whatever they want.

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I've just been really lucky the last two years to meet so many amazing artists and indigenous artists in particular who are making their art and are also rooted in their culture and tradition.

On your "Lie Low" EP, you exhibit a range of styles within your music. How does that happen?

I don't know how to write any other way. I feel like I should have some really well thought out-answer about genre or something, but a lot of times my songs just happen.

I can sit in my apartment and play piano all day by myself, but I'm really interested in how music changes when other people hear it and they play with you. 

It was great to bring some really amazing musicians to the table and ask them, "what do you hear?" I have a super great crew one of the best bands on the planet I think. They are all so talented and when you work with really talented people who are kind, and really professional, everyone just brings their ideas. And we ended up with this really interesting mix of sound. It was fun.

Releasing an album can be stressful for Indigenous artists when they compare themselves to an artist that has 80 million YouTube views.

I have no desire to be like that or have to deal with that at all. I really want to make music and the best way for me to make music for lots of people and to travel is to make albums. 

Yes, that means doing the commercial work and the public relations stuff, but I have no desire to sell 5 billion albums. I feel as though that would be very destructive to my life. (laughs) Yes I want people to hear my music and comment on it, yes I want to play festivals and I want a sustainable music career and I would love to do this for the rest of my life, but I think that takes a lot of different work than getting a one-hit wonder.

Where do you see yourself going in the next few years?

I feel as though you have to plan a couple years in advance when it comes to art funding and things like that. I also want to tour out West in the summer. I'd also like to work with Hawksley Workman and Tomson Highway. I'd like write a theatrical musical or cabaret. Musical theater was a huge part of my training.

What advice do you have for young people?

It is hard to give advice. I have a really good job because I went to school. I don't necessarily think university or college is going to fix everything in our community or fix things for yourself but it has certainly given me a privilege and a liberty to be able to say I have a steady income and I have something to fall back on as an artist.

You have to learn to live on the land so you don't need to rely on this current economic system. Develop other skills as well. The artists that I know that worked in the field the longest have more than one skill.

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