Kelly Derrickson puts First Nations pride and healing into songs

Kelly Derrickson has her grandfather to thank for the twang in her tunes, and her heritage for the lyrical honesty in her music.

The West Bank First Nation singer was given her first acoustic guitar by her grandfather. Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ole Days) by the Judds was a frequent request. The narrative line in the lyrics appealed to Derrickson’s desire to be a storyteller.

The multiple award-winning musician was most recently nominated for a Native American Music Award in the Best Female Vocalist and Best Country Record categories for her Warriors of Love release. Her latest album, titled I Am, features 11 tunes. The material ranges from the nostalgic 1st Avenue North to the moving look at the national crisis of native youth taking their own lives in Suicide Song.

“Rather than just straight-up country music, my music has a lot more in it about native issues and messages, so I like to call it country tribal rock,” said Derrickson. “It’s a niche that I’m proud to be in too. It’s really me, and gives me a place in the otherwise huge category of country music or country rock.”

Songs such as her Indigenous Music Awards-nominated Idle No More and others speak directly to her community and pull no punches. While the content may be raw, the production and performance clearly reflect her education at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and subsequent degree in professional music and music business from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.

“I learned a lot during my time there, especially about writing and performance and — perhaps most of all — keeping up with your craft and business innovations,” she said. “It set me up for a lifelong journey where I’m always adding new things. Most recently, I picked up my first ukulele so I’m learning how to play that and bring in some of those new sounds.”

The daughter of Grand Chief Ron Derrickson was never far from the social and political movements in her culture. Grand Chief Derrickson and Arthur Manuel co-authored Unsettling Canada: A National Wake Up Call. This bestselling work outlines a plan for a new sustainable Indigenous economy while addressing ongoing unfinished business with this country’s political structures.

One gets the sense talking to Derrickson that she is using music to build new futures too.

“When I was really little, my father used to say to me, “come give me some medicine” when he wanted a hug,” she said. “And I think that if we aren’t giving healing, transforming love to ourselves and developing resilient spirits in our communities, then I’m not sure why we’re doing it.”

Which is not to say that I Am is an album full of nothing but heavy content and lacking in fun. She says that achieving balance is key to successful delivery.

“There is some fun stuff on the record as well as the more political, which reflects what’s happening in my community,” she said. “Anything that deeply affects my people, I’m going to write about, such as Suicide Song which is about something so devastating it must be heard. But I also know the importance of being able to smile and dance.”

So she has let her inner muse be her guide in determining what portion of the music is geared more towards the essential message of healing she feels strongly about disseminating and what part is reserved for those tried and true roots rocking reminiscences of home such as Pine Needles and Rust with its chorus honouring memories. One of the finest songs on the album is Nobody’s Business But the Moon.

Written in the style of a classic murder ballad, the song tells of a woman getting revenge on her rapist and lines such as “I held the shotgun/Threw him a shovel/And watched him dig his grave” put the tune right in with such contemporary classics as Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl. She says the inspiration for a song such as this can come from a place of just reading the news and “getting pissed off.”

“It’s all part of what I’m talking about on the album as a woman, as an Indigenous person and as someone who cares about Mother Earth and how we need to connect with her,” Derrickson said.

As she works on booking a tour across North America and Europe, does Derrickson ever have any regrets that she pursued music as her means to helping her community rather than following in the political footsteps of her elders?

“You know, I was all lined up to go into law at UBC and instead I went to Berklee,” she said. “My dad wasn’t happy, and I get it because he really worked his whole life to get where he was, but my mother was understanding. I know that I made the right choice because it’s going well and now my dad is my biggest supporter and fan.”

With groups as varied as A Tribe Called Red and the Jerry Cans as well as solo artists like Tanya Tagaq and Derek Miller all gaining national profile, it feels like a good time to be a First Nations musician.

“I think the purity coming from artists like that is really grabbing people, because honesty cuts across all the crap,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see who is coming out and spreading the message to heal and moving our messages forward.”

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