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Escape Velocity

Labour Of Love: An Interview With Kìzis
Patrick Clarke , February 10th, 2021 09:37

Kìzis speaks to Patrick Clarke about the myriad forms of love that informed her epic new album Tidibàbide / Turn, which runs over three and a half hours and features over 50 collaborators including Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Owen Pallett, and a Toronto cab driver

Photos by Samantha Blake

The first thing that strikes you about Kìzis’ new album Tidibàbide / Turn is its sheer ambition. Over three and a half hours long with over fifty collaborators, produced and recorded across three continents, its 36 songs are bursting at the seams with pianos, cellos, violas, flutes, trombones, saxophones, guitars, indigenous Algonquin drumming and voices upon voices – in both English and Algonquin – that leap and sweep and shimmer in every conceivable direction. Released on excellent, though far-from-flush, indie label Tin Angel, “by no means is this a big budget production,” Kìzis says via zoom. “It’s a collaborative effort, based on working with people who love music.”

Tidibàbide / Turn’s formal qualities are in some ways incidental. “The way that I make music is step by step,” she continues matter-of-factly. “I’ve been quite nomadic, and a part of the production phase was while I was on tour, so I got to meet a lot of wonderful people.” Some of those people are established artists like Owen Pallett, a long-time friend, and Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who Kìzis met when she was supporting him at a show. “I messaged Glenn while [ Tidibàbide / Turn track] ‘Sister Flower 4’ was being recorded and sent him what I had so far, and he did a recording sitting in his chair, you can tell he’s smiling.” Others are strangers she met on her travels. PEACHMAN, who contributes booming vocals to ‘Sister Flower 2’, is a man with whom she struck up a conversation in a Toronto taxi. “He told me a bit about his story, how much he loved to sing gospel hymns, and then I listened to him sing and I said, ‘Do you wanna come into my friend’s studio and record?’”

The music on Tidibàbide / Turn is constantly shifting, from lavish orchestral sweeps to total abstraction, to minimal spoken word to joyous techno thumps. The record’s spine, however, is made up of the four immense ‘Sister Flower’ pieces. Even by Kìzis’ standards they are gorgeous to listen to, shapeshifting psychedelic jewels, swirling with emotions of every stripe. “Within this body of work,” she says of the entire LP, “there is Sister Flowerhood, which is almost an audible dissertation on empowerment.”

For all the record’s organic, sprawling growth, there’s a simple theme that blankets it all: love. “I understand how comparatively it can be quite a generic thing, but I went in with the intention to make a love album,” Kìzis says. “I didn’t know how many songs or how long it would be at the end of it, but this just happened! It kept going and going. There’s so many things I found growing within the album that can express and note and comment on love, such as sisterhood, romantic love, familial love, traditional love, love of the land...”

Kìzis grew up in the tiny, rural town of Maberly in Ontario, born to a Christian mother and a native father. There, she found escape in the great natural expanse that surrounded her home. “I would go walking through the forest and find peace in the little rivers, climb trees and fall asleep and fall down and keep climbing, singing and making songs.”

Half an hour away by car is where the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, to which she belongs, is based. “My first source of inspiration has always been from dancing and hearing music at pow wows, that’s really special to me so I wanted to share part of that. I take great pride in being able to share little parts of my culture.” In drum circles, and Algongquin-led protests such as those against uranium mining near her home in 2007, lie much of Tidibàbide / Turn’s roots. “In that process I learned a lot of wonderful songs that I carry with me, and melodies that will never be able to leave me.” Imbuing her music with those songs is a political act, she continues. “For a very, very long time we were not allowed to sing, we were not allowed to drum, we were not allowed to speak our language. Now it’s something that many of us take pride in doing and is very sacred.”

Though she’s since accepted the value in less rigid iterations of faith for those who pursue them, Kìzis left home at 15 amid a disconnect between her own values and those of Maberly’s more dogmatic inhabitants. “There were no other natives aside from me and my family. The congregation had a really hard time with that because they were trying to push these songs, these stories and these absolute life paths that completely miss the mark on our natural growth,” she says. “In history you’re gonna see it happen again, and again, and again. Whenever there’s a big man on the podium telling you what to do and he’s not your lover, or your dad, or your grandpa, you’re gonna have a weird time. I had to get up and go, and so I left.”

She lived house to house in the larger neighbouring town of Perth, and then in 2008 applied to Montreal’s Concordia University. It was an uneasy upheaval. “What was being offered to me in the school was a continuation of this strange, isolating dynamic that I didn’t want to absorb. But then I met someone, I fell in love.” She instead started playing music, forming a band with her partner. “From that we were able to sustain ourselves for a while in combination with sex work I was doing.”

That first band, for whom Kìzis was singer and songwriter, was “cacophonous,” at least until she learnt to “go out and trust the players,” an early lesson in the philosophy makes Tidibàbide / Turn so magnificent. Then, it morphed into a joyous disco-influenced project, and then it fizzled out. “After a while I took a break from playing shows because I thought it was smart to give space to other artists to share their songs and their stories.” She started working at a fur tannery but had to leave because of “homophobia, and curiosities that were unwarranted,” and returned to making music, this time buying a synth and going solo.

The music she produced this time was more still and meditative. It was around this time that Kìzis was beginning her medical transition. “The only resources that were available to me financially in order to express what was happening was sound. And it was a quiet sound, it was through ambience and waves, and giving myself space to think about what to do next. I was a little bit scared to share that with people. I didn’t want it to be only a self-serving thing. But I brought that to small little shows only to find that lots of people enjoyed the stillness, those prolonged moments of emptiness. I finally had a place to feel, where I could be comfortable and safe where I could begin to reclaim my body as a trans person.”

It was comforting to find a receptive audience for her vulnerability, but by no means was the process smooth. “I was empowered and very happy to share my music as an indigenous person, although oftentimes young kids would come because they just really wanted to see an Indian. That was quite disturbing, and it sent me back for a little while,” she says. “I always do my best to centre myself and realise that I do what I do because I’m trying to find the heart of real experiences. But I’m not a candy bar, you know? I’m a real person going through a lot of things that are good and bad.”

In 2018 Kìzis released the album Kijà / Care under the name Mich Cota. Born from this period of introspection, growth and vulnerability, it sounds like the process of recovery, full of deep plunges into darkness as well as swooning moments of beauty and joy, emerging battered but stronger than before. “The intention on Kijà / Care is to heal, to encourage others to process aspects of being that they can reflect on and to observe and study the world around them,” reads promotional material for that record.

Work on Tidibàbide / Turn began immediately afterwards. “Turn I think is a much more present record that addresses what’s happening today and what could happen tomorrow. It’s a much more physical record; for me it procures a lot more excitement to just let go, you know? As an artist that’s presently what I’m working towards, trying to find those moments where you can just have a good time.”

What’s most powerful about Tidibàbide / Turn is that despite the fact it’s so enormous, and in many ways chaotic, its enormity and chaos is of the same kind that makes up everyday life. On the record, she follows the winding and intersecting paths of the different forms of love she listed earlier – from sisterhood to romantic love to love of the land – and captures all the shoots of passion, pain and joy that come with them. This extends to her collaborators too. The universe in which Kìzis welcomes the performances of PEACHMAN, Beverly Glenn-Copeland et al is one that elevates the everyday magic in each of their voices. She didn’t begin with its scale in mind, rather “just let life happen, worked my butt off with performances and sex work to keep me afloat. I wasn’t necessarily looking for moments, or things to capture. It was more that in a phase of continuing to live life that I noted that what I was feeling was quite remarkable.”

Given its themes, does Kìzis’ new album represent the first step forwards after Kijà / Care’s act of healing? She pauses a moment. “What I found after in my own life, working through all of these experiences and bringing them to something that can be shared as music, is that trauma is a memory that exists in the body and it can be with you for the rest of your life. Love is a solution, something to fill you up. But you have to do it. You have to do things for other people and for yourself to be filled with love. And that puts trauma right in its place where it’s supposed to be. And that can be generated as empathy, or simply presence. I think Turn does that, because it did it for me. And you know, if it doesn’t translate that way to other people, that’s cool too! I hope you enjoy it however you may!”

Kìzis' new album Tidibàbide / Turn is released February 12 via Tin Angel. You can pre-order it here