Back in May of 2016, First Nations pop/rock band Midnight Shine played two showcase performances at Canadian Music Week (CMW) in Toronto. It’s doubtful that any other CMW act had a more eventful trip to the fest, as vocalist/guitarist Adrian Sutherland explains from his Northern Ontario home in Attawapiskat.
“I come from a very poor family here,” Says Sutherland. “My grandparents lived a very traditional life, and everything on our table was from the land. That’s still alive in the community. I have to go out and kill geese and caribou and moose, still. We have to fill our freezers, and that’s part of life in the far North. The harvest is about family bonding and our culture, too.
“It was very tough for me to cut my hunting short and come all the way out by snow machine, travelling on sea ice to get home, and then to CMW. That’s my commitment to the music. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
The other members of Midnight Shine come from different communities in the James Bay region in the far North. Guitarist Zach Tomatuk and bassist Stan Louttit are from Moose Factory First Nation, and drummer George Gillies from Fort Albany First Nation.
Formed five years ago, Midnight Shine’s public debut was opening a Trooper gig. They’ve since released two well-received albums, 2013’s self-titled debut and 2014’s Northern Man.
Their career received a major boost when agent Ralph James of United Talent Agency took the band under his wing. Their CMW appearance also drew major, nationwide media attention, including a sit-down interview with The National, the front page of the Toronto Star, a live performance and interview on CTV’s Canada AM, two Canadian Press stories, a featured video on Daily Vice, and stories in the National Post, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press, Calgary Herald, Halifax Chronicle Herald, and more.
“There are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.” – Adrian Sutherland of Midnight Shine
As the group’s primary songwriter, Sutherland has been hard at work creating songs for a third album. “We’re hoping to get back into the studio by early spring, and we’re talking to a few different producers,” he explains.
One new song, “Sister Love,” will come out as a single soon, and is drawing a favourable early response. “It’s based on a poem written by my sister,” says Sutherland. “It’s about the struggles we face every day, and some of the hardships we have to go through in life. It explores the feeling of wanting to go back to a time when things weren’t so hard, being around your family and the kinship that existed back when things were good.”
Look for other upcoming material to tackle First Nations themes more directly. Earlier Midnight Shine songs like “Northern Man” and “James Bay” are definitely rooted in Sutherland’s culture and home region, but he’s now ready to address social and political themes more directly.
“My writing today is a lot different than on the first two albums,” he says. “I don’t want to force myself into any direction, but something that’s been on my mind is the residential schools. My mom was in that system for several years and I’ve seen how that has affected her life. I want to tell her story. Then there is the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. I now feel compelled to write about these things.”
Midnight Shine’s sound is poppy and melodic rock, but Sutherland explains he’s now looking to incorporate more First Nations sounds. “I’m looking at other artists in the James Bay area to help bring the music to life,” he says.
“In the past, we haven’t put cultural embellishments into the music, but things are changing. I’m thinking about putting some traditional drumming on the new record, and I’m working on songs written in Cree. That’s a lot harder than writing in English!”
Since Midnight Shine formed, such Canadian Indigenous artists as Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red have had a huge impact, nationally and beyond. Sutherland acknowledges drawing inspiration from their example, and from Gord Downie’s recent Secret Path project. “Gord is just so courageous and doing phenomenal work now,” he says.
In turn, Midnight Shine’s growing success is proving inspirational to those in Sutherland’s own community of Attawapiskat. That area has been the subject of plenty of negative media attention in recent years, but Sutherland stresses “there are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.
“I think we’re inspiring the younger kids. It’s hard for them to grasp that here is a band that lives in the community, they can talk to us. That’s not something they’re used to. As a group, we’ve been very mindful of getting into these communities to play shows. It’s our duty to inspire these young people, and remember our roots.”