After Being Stripped of His Culture, Willie Thrasher Doesn't Want to be a Part of "Mainstream Society"
Mr. Thrasher talks about his life and the long journey to reissuing his debut album 'Spirit Child.'
This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
Ever hear of Lloyd Cheechoo? Or the late Morley Loon? How about Willie Thrasher? The answer is probably not, and that’s for a good reason. These are all names of forgotten musicians who thrived in the North American Aboriginal community from the 1960s until the 80s, only to see their recordings and memories get lost in the annals of history. While they shared the road with eventual icons like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Band, Joni Mitchell, and even their fellow Native Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie, these singer-songwriters weren’t offered the same chances. Recordings largely came from very modest set-ups, including the CBC, but any hope for them reaching a wide audience was dashed by a severe lack of funding as well as a prejudiced industry.
Enter one passionate crate digger and music historian named Kevin Howes, who has scoured high and low to unearth lost albums in search of giving them the exposure they deserve. Having previously compiled the Jamaica to Toronto compilation for the Seattle-based Light In The Attic label, Howes did the same for these lost Aboriginal recordings after he was introduced to them by a fellow enthusiast. Spending a dozen or so years tracking down the albums, as well as their artists and the producers, Howes compiled Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, an extensive and beautifully detailed box set released by Light In The Attic last year.
But the label’s interest in these recordings goes beyond gathering up select tracks for compilations. Light In The Attic has followed up Native North America with a reissue of Willie Thrasher’s debut album, Spirit Child, which saw a very limited release by the CBC’s Northern Service back in 1981. Thrasher has been one of the faces for NNA’s promotional campaign, travelling all over the world playing gigs in support of the comp—but now it’s his time to shine. Willie Thrasher has one of the more fascinating stories from the era’s cast of songwriters: at the age of five he was stripped of his Inuvialuit culture and forced into a residential school by the Canadian government as a way of assimilating indigenous people into what it deemed “mainstream society.” But it was through music where Thrasher was able to express his heartache and search for his true identity. Spirit Child is the result of his spiritual journey and an important reminder that the atrocities the Canadian government committed all those years ago will never truly leave its victims. Noisey reached Willie Thrasher at his home in Nanaimo, British Columbia to discuss his second chance at a career in music, how being forced into a residential school inspired him as a songwriter, and why he finds solace in busking for strangers.
Noisey: You had surgery back in September. How are you doing?
Willie Thrasher: It’s a slow recovering process right now. I’m just getting better on a day-to-day basis. I’m dealing with pinched nerves on my left foot. I walk every day, but I still feel the pinched nerves. The doctor says that it should go away soon though.
What did the release of Native North America mean to you?
You know every time you wake up in the morning and you see that beautiful sunrise, and you know something good is gonna come? That’s how I felt when the compilation came out. Something from the past was well organized because CBC didn’t have the budget back then or the record company that took it didn’t have the money to push it and get me festivals, radio time, TV interviews. We didn’t have the finances or the resources to do much across North America. It wasn’t a high priority for CBC at the time. Right now we have a lot of beautiful light showing. A lot of interest. A lot of good feelings inside of me. A lot of memories inside me of where I was when I wrote those songs, where I travelled, who I met. It’s a beautiful feeling.
You have been playing a bunch of shows in support of the box set. How does it feel to get another chance at this stage in your life?
It’s different and really weird because I remember playing those songs 30 years ago. And 30 years ago those songs were new, lively, I had long hair and we travelled all over under the great Northern Lights, plus doing festivals in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, the States. We were really enjoying our music so much. And now that feeling inside is coming out again. It gives me lots of energy to perform again. Plus, my voice has changed since then. It’s better now, and my guitar playing is better controlled now.
Kevin Howes dug up all of these records, and now a lot of unknown artists are getting the exposure they originally deserved. How does it feel to look back on your album, Spirit Child?
I never dreamed that some would relocate those songs and put them together, put the musicians together. Or finding the album and spending 12 years working on it. Kevin Howes did a terrific job of looking into it and finding the performers if it could be re-released again, being brought out a second time. It’s such an honour to see him bring this music back from 30 years ago. And now that it’s getting a better response than ever before. There are people from all over the world wanting the music. It’s beautiful.
How different is it for aboriginal musicians now compared to 1981, when you first released the album?
Of course, it’s easier now than back then. I remember back in 1981, when this album was coming out, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Moody Blues, CCR, Elvis, Rolling Stones, Buffy Sainte-Marie, all those big singers were getting hit songs on the charts and finances to go to Europe, all over, to be on television... We could only go so far. But we were there when these big singers were doing great. We travelled and heard our songs a little on the radio. Someone would say they heard “Eskimo Named Johnny” or “Spirit Child” on the radio and were really proud of me. So back then it was really tough to push our album because we had no agent, no manager. It was just financed by CBC and nothing else to push it. If those people wanted us to go somewhere they’d have to get a government grant, which would take six months to get sometimes. Not like a big singer who could go on the road right away. But today it’s different. You can put your songs on the internet right away, like YouTube, and then you get a big response from a lot of people.
You began playing in bands throughout high school, inspired by popular music. What made you decide to all of a sudden explore your heritage through songwriting?
Well, there was an old man who came to our dance in Inuvik, Northwest Territories when the Cordells were playing the New Year’s dance. We were really hot that night, we were sweating and getting people going. And then this man came and sat down at our table and introduced himself and asked where we were from, what our heritage was, and why we didn’t write songs about Inuit culture, how we lived off the lands, our stories. He knew more about our traditional ways then all of us put together. We were in residential schools, which wiped us out of knowing who we used to be and who we were. And it was a massive change in our life. Our moms and dads weren’t allowed to teach us where even they came from. There were these powerfully strong Catholics and the Catholic Church condemned our traditional ways. They called them the “Devil’s ways.” Our parents had to be strong to not tell us anything. Most of our elders were scared to talk because the church said Jesus would hear them, and if they said anything they’d be sent to hell and burn forever. They were throwing all of this garbage at us. But I learned enough to write songs and try to bring some of it back. I’m glad of who I am, where I came from and the experiences I went through. That I could fight for what I really believe in, like my life, my spirit, my culture. My mom and dad didn’t have that chance, but I have it and I can move forward like the beautiful sun that rises up every morning. I can talk to people about where I came from.
At what age did you begin writing about your Inuvialuit heritage?
About 18 or 19, two years after the Cordells broke up. I was a drummer for about ten years, and then when the band broke up I knew I couldn’t travel around just playing the drums, so I asked the Cordells to teach me the guitar but they said they wouldn’t because I’d take the girls away from them. It was silly. So I was self-taught. A friend gave me a six-string guitar and I started from there. I listened to country, folk, rock’n’roll and eventually I did one chord at a time and watched all of the performers that came to Inuvik. I spent a lot of time with them, and as years went by I became more confident and got better. And today, my guitar flies like a fire.
There is a lyric on “We Got To Take You Higher” that goes: “Yesterday, it was hard to know who you are.” I feel like with all that’s going on now with the Canadian government releasing records of residential schools, Spirit Child is a more powerful record than ever. How does it feel to have your album come out now, while this is all going on?
It has brought out a lot of memories. It’s stronger now than it was then because it’s being pushed the right way. People are listening to Spirit Child from the heart. They’re listening to the words. And it means much more today than it did in the past. The experience and the hardship of what I went through, of what my mom and dad went through, the feeling in the great northland, the Mackenzie River, the Arctic Ocean, and all the love from my family. People don’t realize what it’s like to be torn away from that. Torn away from the life that the Great Spirit has given to you. It’s a real spiritual battle to get it back because you have been thinking the other way. You constantly fight who you are, where you came from, who your parents were. But eventually when you write a song and talk to the elderly, and pray to the spirit world and to your higher power you will become stronger inside. And more unknown answers will come to you.
You busk now in Nanaimo. What kind of a response do you get playing your music in public?
We get our licence from City Hall to play for tourists all over the world. And my singing partner and I sing down at the waterfront. Besides doing all of the festivals and concerts all over, I go to the waterfront because there are people from all over the world: Japan, Holland, Switzerland, Russia, and Germany. And them buying the album and pushing it where they live. Doing that for 13 years we’ve had the greatest response. They loved it so much and thanked us for giving them our legends, our stories, our songs. They call us ambassadors of Canada.
Earlier you mentioned you are making a new album. What can you tell me about that?
It’s just in the works right now. We’ve got about three or four unfinished songs, but we will probably reach nine or ten. We’ve got a year to work on it. And it will eventually come out.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.