Ansley Simpson and Anishinaabe Traditions

Ansley Simpson is Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg and a member of the Aldverville First Nations. The Toronto based Anishinaabe singer-songwriter is known for her lilting vocal performances and ethereal arrangements that leave audiences spellbound as they are entwined in her stories. The musician was nominated for the 2018 Indigenous Music Awards and was the winner of “Best New Artist” category.

FRONTRUNNER spoke to Simpson about song writing through storytelling and her upcoming album She Fell from The Sky. Ansley talks about Indigenous reclamation and Gizhiigokwe, or “Sky Woman”, as an inspiration for the songs that will be released along with her new album.

Photo credit: Jeff Bierk

I read that your music is an extension and expression of your identity and Indigenous experience. What type of messages do you want to convey to your fans through your music?

I think that that can vary depending on the audience, depending on the moment and depending on my own life. I approach song writing as an extension of storytelling, for the most part. I think that was maybe not a conscious choice, but that’s the way that feels most natural to me. And because of that, I can decide at any moment to pull out a different story that feels right in the moment and play it. You know, as much as I possibly can, because I’m also still starting and I just have two albums out.

You have an online show planned for May 5th, right? What is your favourite part about performing?

Yeah, it’ll be my first live show streaming from home that I’ve done. I’m really looking forward to it! It’s going to be an interesting show because it’s hard to just perform solo by yourself in a room. That’s clearly how it’s going to feel on some level except that I’ll have this distance audience participation. I’m curious to see how the whole experience will go. Anybody who feels like listening to me anywhere in the world can basically tune in which is one of the benefits of doing shows this way. I am streaming it on Facebook from my home in Toronto, Ontario. That’s sort of the options that I have right now. However, it’s really interesting.

For me, performing came secondary. It wasn’t something I ever thought that I would do. I have a lot of anxiety and it’s still present. It’s clearly present with everything that’s going on in the world. Initially that prevented me from thinking about even going on stage. But the more that I started writing songs, the more I realized that I wanted to share the songs and I actually did want to be able to perform them live. It’s still not something that comes easily – it still comes with a lot of preparation and a lot of management of anxiety. But there is nothing that compares to the experience of having an audience and connecting to them. I leave feeling really refreshed and charged and, you know, that good kind of tired.

You have an upcoming album, She Fell from the Sky. Can you tell me what inspired you to come up with this name?

When I started writing this album and I was about three songs in…I realized that this was more than just one-off songs. The songs actually began to connect and started to reveal a story. That sort of sent me down this path of writing this album a little bit differently with the concept of a storyline woven throughout the entire album.

Around that time, I was listening to and reading our creation stories and sort of feeling out how they differ from even neighbouring nations. I received a version from Doug Williams who is an elder at Curve Lake. It had this spiritual being, Sky Woman, who was predominant in all of our creation stories. And I started realizing that there were similarities between that and the stories that I was writing so yeah, ‘She Fell From the Sky’ refers to Sky Woman, or Gizhiigokwe. The stories that I wrote about encompass her elements and her expressions and her power as much as I possibly could do that.

Can you tell me a little bit more about who Sky Woman is?

I won’t go into great detail around it. There are a lot of protocols involved and I’m not a story keeper to that degree. I can’t tell those stories. To give you a general idea, and for me, she encompasses the creative rebirth, energy. And she’s been here from the very beginning as an element of creation. That’s how I view her as someone who’s heard the stories.

Your second album is also a journey to Indigenous reclamation. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes. So, initially this album, when I was writing it, and I started to see the storyline woven throughout… I started with this main question, which was if Gizhiigokwe (Sky Woman) was alive today, what would she be like? Initially, I thought, wow, that would be really hard. She would have witnessed the flourishing of the Anishinabee people, of all our neighboring nations and then watched the devastation of colonization hit and devastate our people. Then, she would watch climate change hit.

Photo credit: Jeff Bierk

Seeing that, she would be in really rough shape. Then I started realizing that we have all – as Anishinabee people, in particular – we’ve witnessed and survived genocide. We carry those memories with us, to some degree, in our bones.

Then I started thinking again, learning about creation stories and always playing them in my head. I started with this idea that well, what if we could just cause Sky Woman or get Sky Woman to fall again, maybe we could like restart everything. Maybe she could bring all of that creative force and energy back. We could just rebirth where we’re at right now – regenerate and repair. But very quickly, I started to realize that probably is not the best way to go about things. We can’t really alter things in that huge of a way in the spiritual realm, just because it’s a good idea one day.

The storyline is actually playing out that idea. It’s how, you know, we tried really hard, we tried to ask her to fall again. There’s a huge climax at the point where maybe she’s pushed – maybe she does fall again. There’s a huge devastating upheaval halfway through the album and then from that part coming to the end, the songs are all about how we, as nations and neighboring nations, can repair and do the work ourselves to actually come out of this.

All of your songs have a beautiful narrative. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind your song “Kwe (Changing into Thunderbird)”? “Kwe” means woman, right?

Sky Woman turning into Thunderbird is more of a personal story where Gizhiigokwe refers to me. It’s sort of about my attempts to transform myself and how much work that, in essence, takes. How much falling down that takes. How much, you know, picking yourself back up and how painful that process can be. And it didn’t feel as passive as just magically turning into something. I had to change. I had to actively do something. So that’s where that story is. Yeah, which differs from the storyline in the new album. I see myself reflected in all of the songs being the songwriter on She Fell From the Sky, but it really does follow specific characters that are woven throughout that aren’t representative of me.

Do you have a favourite song from your first album?

“Witness”, which is the first track on the album. It surprised me because I had written the lyrics and had struggled to come up with instrumentation to go with it. Then, finally, talking with my producer, we decided that it maybe it didn’t require any instrumentation at all, and that we should just play it with a drone and deliver it as a vocal performance. It ended up working really beautifully on the album, I thought.

I kind of assumed it would be one of those songs that I just add. It was an artful thing we threw on the first part, no one’s going to listen to it more than once. And it ended up being one of the songs that people would comment on the most or that would request the most when I would perform. I started to then be able to use it on a performance level as a way to be able to ground myself and really hold and sort of define the space when I was performing in this really beautiful way. It’s kind of gone from this weird song that I didn’t think I was ever really going to perform to one of my favorite pieces to perform. That one definitely has a special place in my heart for me.

I read about how you struggled with anxiety in the past. What role does music play in this?

It’s funny as sometimes my anxiety gets framed as being performance based and it’s life-based. It’s been a part of me and something that I’ve kind of had with me for decades, really. It was the thing that prevented me from being able to even consider performing.

I started this pretty late in life. I didn’t write my first song until I think I was 38. I don’t think I got on stage until, you know, I was 39, maybe. Music, for me, was sort of the motivator to do things in life, even though the anxiety was there. I made this decision probably 15 years ago that I would stop experiencing things in life because there was anxiety. If I was going to be at home and feeling anxiety, I might as well be out in the world experiencing different things and doing different things with the anxiety. And then what I realized is that the more that I actively did that, and the more that I challenged myself at a good pace to be out in the world, the anxiety lost its power to a certain degree.

It has been it’s been a therapeutic device or tool for me. Yeah. With that being said, it’s not something I can do if I am extremely anxious. It’s not something that I can do in situations like this. I haven’t written a thing yet. Pandemics are just not part of my creative jam here and I’m really wanting to get that across to artists. I think people are mistaking this as some sort of writer’s retreat where we can get things done and really, we need to take care of ourselves and take care of those who you love.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Music

Related Articles