Newfoundland’s own all-nations, all-women folk band, Eastern Owl honour tradition, community and stand up for themselves and others on sophomore album
Local all-nations all-women folk band Eastern Owl released their sophomore album Qama’si on March 29, at the Cochrane Street Centre in St. John’s. Joined by guest musicians like throat singer Tama Fost, soloist Kassidy Lush, and instrumentalists Kelly McMichael, Sarah Harris, Denise Lear, Darren Browne, Maggie Burton and Chris Donnelly, the album launch was a great success – like everything else Eastern Owl has ever done.
Eastern Owl is Natasha Blackwood, Joanna Barker, Rebecca Sharr, Jenelle Duval, Stacey Howse, Kayla Stride, Jaime O’Leary, and Danielle Benoit. Many of the members are longtime friends.
Eastern Owl was formed through a community drum group, developed by the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (First Light). Some of the women in the drum circle felt a special connection to one another, artistically, and wanted to further pursue this musical interest.
Playing drums is culturally important to many Indigenous people, Blackwood explained.
“It kind of started out as a song-sharing circle,” Sharr added. “We put the call out, we all got together and if someone knew a song, they’d share it. Sometimes people would drop in, share a song, and we’d never see them again,” she said with a laugh. “But we’d still learn the song.”
The group became confident in their budding talent and decided to create a performance group out of their song-sharing circle.
‘Not Quite Like You’
After years of singing at traditional ceremonies and community celebrations, the group decided to perform publicly under the name Eastern Owl, a name bestowed upon them by an elder.
Gradually the group expanded their sound – already rich in harmonies – taking their traditions and adding their own ideas plus additional instruments, like guitars. They began creating original music in 2015, after four years of playing together.
“We still consider ourselves traditional drum carriers – we still carry the teachings and the responsibilities that come with the drum, but we don’t feel obligated to only play traditional music,” Blackwood explained.
One year later in 2016, Eastern Owl released their first album, Not Quite Like You. Creative juices flowing, Eastern Owl penned tracks about powwow experiences, residential schools, missing and murdered women, and much more.
Also performing locally, the band took their album on the road. They travelled the country, playing 2016’s Petapan: First Light Symposium in New Brunswick, 2017’s National Indigenous Peoples Day in Ottawa, 2017’s Coastal First Nations Dance Festival in British Columbia, 2016’s To Light The Fire Indigenous Arts Symposium in Labrador, and 2017’s Canadian Music Week in Toronto. The group won ArtsNL Emerging Artist Award in 2016.
Barker, who joined the band in 2018, noted that when she began writing a grant application for Eastern Owl, she was surprised to learn just how much the group had accomplished in their short lifespan. The band is currently seven years old, but have grown in many ways since their inception.
In 2017, three of the eight members of Eastern Owl had babies. In the fall of that year, the band decided that – if they were going to continue performing and create another record – they needed to dedicate some time to writing, playing, and eventually, recording.
Eastern owl retreat
“We got some funding from the Bruneau Centre for Excellence in Choral Music, and we went out to a cabin in Birchy Bay. We took all the children with us … and we stayed in a cabin for the whole weekend, eating food, bouncing ideas off each other, and writing songs,” Blackwood shared with a laugh.
“Every one of us is so conscious of making sure everyone feels included,” Sharr said. “I personally really appreciate the fact that … everyone has an opinion of what’s being put where, even just the simple things, like what colours we’re going to use for the album (design).”
“No decision is made before everyone’s opinion is heard, and the decision is based on everyone’s opinion,” Barker added.
“The way we interact as a band is reflective of how the (Indigenous) community interacts. We’re just upholding a tradition. The idea that nothing happens until we’re all OK, that’s not just an Eastern Owl thing.”
Sharr noted that through the years, the group’s creative process never really stopped at any point – even with the addition of three new babies. Each member is consistently creating new riffs, chorus lines, and lyrics. With eight members, it’s a highly collaborative effort.
With so much material to bring to the table – or in this case, a cabin – the group wrote almost the entire new album in just two days.
Qama’si was released on March 29. The Mi’kmaq album title translates to “stand up.”
“Stand up, as in stand up for the community, for yourself, for each other. Stand up and do something,” Barker said.
“There’s a common sort of theme throughout all our music,” Blackwood began. “We come up with ideas based on things happening in our lives, in our communities … Whether we try to or not, there’s a lot of really strong messages, because we have a lot of strong feelings.”
In their earlier years, Eastern Owl was nervous about being too political, in fear of polarizing their audiences.
“It’s a huge responsibility to stand up for your community and be the people speaking publicly about Indigenous issues … and to carry the weight of the backlash that may come from it,” Blackwood said. Their opinions on remaining politically neutral shifted after the band got kicked out of a mall during Idle No More protests.
“We had accepted this responsibility to be drum carriers … we don’t have a choice but to be political. It comes with the drum,” Blackwood explained. “On this album, we didn’t hold back at all. If we had a message, we sang it. Some of it is a little tongue-in-cheek, some of it is hope for the future, and some of it is, ‘This is not OK.’ It’s very unapologetic.”
“We sing about a lot of things people are afraid to stand up about,” Sharr said. “I think that’s what makes people grasp our music so strongly.”
“We’re no longer nervous … We’re working to help people who are still kind of nervous or fearful, to feel empowered to say something,” Barker added.
Their particular brand of empowerment is already reaching new audiences – a young fan recently said, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be in Eastern Owl.”
Having seen this group perform on a number of occasions, this writer can attest that there is a special sort of empowerment within this eight-piece band. Maybe it’s because their deep connection is both visible in their performances and audible in their music.
“We’re like a family, a sisterhood,” Blackwood said. “All you need now is some travelling pants,” I joked.
“Travelling moccasins,” Sharr fired back with a laugh.
Eastern Owl’s 2016 album “Not Quite Like You” and 2019 offering “Qama’si” is available wherever local music is sold. Keep up with future shows and releases on Facebook at facebook.com/easternowlmusic.