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Oji-Cree singer Aysanabee shares stories of family and love in billboard-breaking music

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Tucked into an overheated Toronto studio, Oji-Cree singer-songwriter Aysanabee sings the opening lyrics of "River" from his debut album "Watin": "Take what you need, leave what you can, oh she told me and took my hand."

"I've been dreaming about doing this for as long as I can remember," he told W5 in an interview as part of a documentary special on his meteoric rise in the music scene.

2023 was a whirlwind year for Aysanabee. "Watin" was shortlisted for a Polaris Prize, his song "Nomads" reached No. 1 on Canadian music charts and he played his music for masses of fans in countless music halls around the world.

Last year, Aysanabee received a Juno nomination for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. He was nominated again under the same category for the 2024 Junos, as well as for Songwriter of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year.

"It was like London, Ont., to Spain, to Sarnia, Ont., like in the same week," he said. "Last year, we did like 184 shows."

His music also scored Wab Kinew's historic victory last year as Manitoba's first First Nations premier. "This is a great victory for all of us in Manitoba," Kinew said in his remarks.

"I haven't really had the time to stop and reflect on it," Aysanabee said.

"It's been surreal and I've been trying to take off the tunnel vision to kind of be in the moment, and really take things in," he said. "There have been these really special moments."

Aysanabee calls Toronto home now. Still, even when he's off the road, he says he's consumed with writing and recording new material.

Lana Gay is a host at Toronto's Indie 88. She first heard Aysanabee when he dropped into the radio station for a live session.

"Hearing those vocals through the wall … not knowing it was him in our other studio, and thinking, 'Who is that'?" Gay recalled.

"He sounds as amazing on record as he does in a studio session, as he does on stage," she added, "and his voice really cuts through. It's very powerful."

She says she loves the songs both as stick-in-your-head indie rock tracks and as tools to share the history of "Canada's great shame."

"Watin" is named after Aysanabee's grandfather and the songs are largely based on conversations they had over the phone.

Watin, who at the time was in a Thunder Bay long-term care home, told Aysanabee about his time in residential school.

"His health was failing, and so he was losing all these memories," Aysanabee said.

He recorded stories about Watin growing up in Sandy Lake First Nation, a six-hour flight north of Thunder Bay, Ont. Aysanabee lived there too, until he was four.

"I think I, like a lot of other people, always kind of struggled to reconnect with their roots because I moved off rez when I was four," Aysanabee said, adding Watin was his "last direct connection to our story and our family and our history."

Watin was taken away at age eight to McIntosh Residential School near Kenora, Ont., and renamed Walter.

"I didn't know all the things he had been through," Aysanabee said.

He says the stories were also a source of inspiration as he learned of his grandfather's resilience. Watin would also meet the love of his life during his time at the school.

"I think that was one of the main things that got him and my grandmother through," he said. "They had each other, and they fell in love."

He says the conversations also helped him along the path of his own self-discovery, which included reclaiming his family name, "Aysanabee," after going by Evan Pang until recently.

Aysanabee also worked as a journalist and video editor. He was employed as a digital content editor at CTVNews.ca until March 2022. He is no longer with the company.

Watch W5's documentary 'Aysanabee' Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV

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