Wyatt C. Louis finds identity, community on debut album

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In January, Wyatt C. Louis was asked by Spotify to curate an Indigenous playlist.

It had them tapping into their musical DNA as a Plains Cree singer-songwriter, which included exploring the traditional powwow music that their father danced to when Louis was growing up in Wetaskiwin. It also allowed them to give exposure to both their own new material and that of artists they admire, including William Prince and Julian Taylor.

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“That opportunity has opened doors for them, for people to really pay attention to what they have to say,” says Louis, in an interview with Postmedia. “That’s really the best part of sharing other people’s tunes and sharing tunes that meant (a lot) to my father.”

Less than a month later, Wyatt was performing at the Coldsnap music festival in Prince George, B.C. They were greeted by Kym Gouchie, a Dakelh singer-songwriter and cultural liaison for the festival. She gave them a care package that included sage, cedar, a smudging shell and a feather.

“It inspired me to want to do more when I connect with Indigenous artists in these places, just looking out for each other,” they say. “It was just a really thoughtful gift and it made me feel like I belong there and I want other Indigenous people to feel like they are meant to be in this space. I tend to have imposter syndrome, so it was a way for me to step back and know that I was meant to be there. It really inspired me to want to do that with others.”

It’s all part of finding identity and community as an artist. It’s a running theme on Chandler, their debut album that gets its title from Louis’ middle name.

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For those familiar with the Calgary music scene, it may seem surprising that it took until 2024 for Louis to release a debut. After all, they have been an integral part of the community for the past couple of years. They were tapped to perform at the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s pandemic-truncated Summer Serenades in 2021 and will be part of the lineup this year as well. In 2020, they wrote and recorded the Christmas tune, Mittens, with jazz singer and composer Ellen Doty and performed it with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Their 2020 single, Dancing with Sue, received generous airplay on CJSW and CKUA.

In fact, Louis sees that song — which is also included on Chandler — as the starting point for the collection. It’s a breezy folk number sweetened by pedal steel and nostalgia that Louis says reflects the sense of belonging they found in Calgary. It may not set an exact sonic template for the rest of the record — which was recorded in Calgary’s Alta Sound with producer-engineer Colin Carbonera — but it certainly captures the spirit. Louis co-wrote songs with Hollerado’s Nixon Boyd of Toronto and John Ross of Brooklyn’s Wild Pink for the album, but there is a distinct sense of community and place on tracks such as the fragile folk numbers Oh Vibrant Sky, There and Bobtail Road.

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“It has really taken a long journey, that song,” says Louis about Dancing with Sue. “The pandemic was really strange, but I think the spirit of getting together and connecting in music and art really drove us through and we accomplished something we are really proud of. I knew this song was such a seed and such a foundation. Moving forward, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t on the record. It’s a little nod to the people who knew me in those formative years when I was first living in Mohkinstsis Calgary. I got inspired by the impact the song had on me with CKUA and CJSW really bringing it to light. There was a fire beneath it that kept me going: keep focused, keep writing songs from an honest place.”

Born in Ponoka and raised in Wetaskiwin, Louis grew up surrounded by music. Their Plains Cree father was not only a powwow dancer, but also loved classic rock and playing guitar in the family living room. It introduced Louis to artists such as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. He also joined the school choir, which gave the first taste of performing live.

“I remember being the only boy (in the choir) in Grade 4 and not really caring, just wanting to sing with people,” they say. “I remember going to the old folks home and performing there. My mother worked there at the time as a caregiver. Both my parents were really supportive of my music endeavours.”

Louis hopes to continue immersing himself in his Nehiyaw background and bringing it to the forefront in future songs and projects.

“There is a drive to continue learning,” they say. “I’m working one tune where I’m trying to incorporate Cree words that I’ve learned that also mean a lot to me. I’m trying to mix the two and make them co-exist.”

Chandler is out on May 24.

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