Riveting Riffs Logo One Adrian Sutherland - Precious Diamonds
Adrian Sutherland Interview Photo One

There is a place named Attawapiskat in the very far north of Canada, in what is referred to as the sub-Artic zone. It is approximately 500 kilometers (a little over 300 miles) from the nearest town of any size. Some days your best friend may be a caribou or the sound of the wind. In the winter months ice roads are constructed and it links you to other small communities and at other times of the year if you want to get in or out, you have to fly. Located on the northern end of James Bay, Attawapiskat is the home of indigenous (First Nations) singer, songwriter and guitarist Adrian Sutherland. He joined me recently to talk about his new album, Precious Diamonds, scheduled for release on March 15 (2024) and his speaking voice is as smooth as smooth as his vocals when he sings.

Adrian Sutherland recorded two songs for this album in his native language, Cree and others, while in English, share from his life experiences and his heritage of which he is proud.

The album opens with the beautiful song “Notawe,” (No Taw ee), and it is one of the two Cree songs on Precious Diamonds.

Adrian Sutherland talks about the song “Notawe.” “It is a song I wrote in my Cree language, which is the language that we speak where I live. It is the first full Cree song that I have written, which is kind of odd, because I am fluent in Cree.

With the place I am at in my life it felt really important to me to write about the loss of someone’s father. “Notawe,” in my language means my father. I know a lot of people when they get to middle age start to lose people around them that they love. That is where this song came from. It is an emotional song for me. It is a heavy song. I lost my father many, many years ago. We grieve in different ways. Many of us get to spend most of our lives with our parents, but for me it is a different perspective, because I lost my father when I was a boy. The song was from two different perspectives.

Adrian Sutherland Interview Photo TwoYou can feel the emotion and it was a different song to create. I had difficulty singing in the (Cree) language too, because the songs come out sounding a little harsher than in English. It was a bit hard to find the pocket to deliver these songs in the emotional way that I wanted to deliver them.

As for the instrumentation, it is pretty simple, and I played the acoustic guitar when we recorded it. We added some horns in there, which made it more beautiful. They made it (sound) more exotic, and it is already exotic sounding in a way, because of the language, but when you add in the horns it takes it to a whole different level. I have never recorded any music before that was with horns and this is my fifth studio album. It was exciting for me to add that kind of texture to the song.”

We wondered if it was Adrian Sutherland’s idea to add horns to the song or his producer Colin Linden’s idea.

“It was Colin’s idea, and the thing is when you are working with a producer like Colin, you just never know who is going to stop in. That was the case with the horns. There is a gentleman (Jim Hoke) who happened to be coming by to pick up a baritone instrument, a guitar that he was recording on another record, and he is also a sax player. He recently played on a Bruce Cockburn album. When he came by Colin said I am working with an artist who is recording right now, would you be willing to put down some horns? He said absolutely. We set up and he had one listen, then he said I know what I need to do. He laid down a tenor and a baritone one and two. That was it and we were done. He is a great, great gentleman. He was so gracious with his time and what he added to that song made it what it is today,” he says.

Adrian how common is it for today’s generation to speak Cree?

“I think it is different where you are geographically. The far north bands tend to have strong language retention, because they are so remote and away from everything else. You still see the language in those communities. Where I (live) you still see strong language retention, because I am far enough north.

If you look at the map, you will see Hudson Bay and James Bay. I am on the top of James Bay on the west coast in Attawapiskat. As you go further and further south at the bottom of the bay, now the language retention is not as strong and you start to find that even people my age and I think I fall under Generation X, even for them their language retention is very low. If you go further and further (south) the loss of language is even greater. Even for my parents’ generation they have lost their language. The closer you get to urban centers there is a complete loss of language. There is almost a complete loss of culture.

Now, however, you are seeing a resurgence of language and a revitalization of a lot of things. That is very positive. Unfortunately, the very dark history that we have here in Canada with respect to the residential schools and the impact it had on our people is very negative.  We have experienced loss of culture, loss of tradition, loss of nomadic survivor skills, loss of language, loss of identity and it just goes on and on and on.

The language is going to survive though, because there are still many strong language speakers in the country. There is a lot of work going on across the country, from what I have seen. We are very lucky that the language has survived and most of the (First Nations) languages probably will survive. I am hoping our younger people will be able to learn their language and that they will speak it fluently some day,” he says. 

So how does a fellow who lives in the very far north of Canada meet up with a highly respected singer, songwriter, musician and producer, Colin Linden, a Canadian, who now makes his home in Nashville, Tennessee in the southern United States? It does seem like a bit of a reach, right?

Adrian Sutherland explains, “The connection was through Tom Wilson of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. I had done a concert series with Tom and a few other artists. He invited me out to open for their tour in March of 2019. We did five shows together and that is when Colin and I and the rest of the gang met. Those guys have been stellar to watch and to learn from. It was a great time hanging out with them and listening to them.

I expressed to Colin that it would be really great if someday we could record together. He said absolutely I would like to make that happen. Colin said, you can come down to Nashville and record in my studio. I said yes to that right away and let’s make it happen. Within a few months we were talking about recording and pre-production. The worldwide pandemic happened and that put a stick in our wheel. We decided we were going to have to work remotely and that is how that whole first album (working with Colin Linden), When the Magic Hits, came about. I worked in my space, and he worked in his.  

We were talking about pre-production and the songs through FaceTime. I was here in my home, and he was in his space in Nashville. That took place a few times over the course of a month. Once I had the songs ready, I sent everything to him, and he had some time to sit with them. We started recording. First, I had to build a recording studio, because I had no place to record. That took some planning and a little bit of money to make happen. We converted this forty-foot sea container I have sitting here on my property. We turned half of it into the recording studio. It took us two weeks once we got the materials, from start to finish. We got it powered up and we have heat in there. We have paneling, we have a beautiful floor, and the lighting is great. There is enough room for me to do what I need to do in here. Then I had to get the software and learn how to use it all. Finally, we were able to get to the point when we could start recording. Colin has been recording for many years, so he was quite capable of doing all this stuff. He is way more ahead of me in the game.

We worked together over FaceTime, just like he was in the room or in a booth somewhere, and he would be talking to me, as we laid down the bed tracks. We started building everything from those bed tracks. It took us ten days to finish that album. Everyone else on that album worked from their own space. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, because I have never done anything like that before. I was a little bit worried, because I didn’t know how things would turn out. By the end of it, it was obvious that what we just pulled off was quite remarkable. I was working in this sea container in this far northern village, and he was sitting in his space in Nashville. We had people in Toronto and different places, each contributing in their own way. The album turned out absolutely beautiful. It was music that I really enjoyed making. I did it for myself and I felt good about it. It just kept getting better and better and by the end of it was just wow, I can’t believe we did this under challenging circumstances. I have been calling my studio Sea Can Studio. Adrian Sutherland Interview Photo Three

Back to current album, Precious Diamonds, we wanted to know about the song “Rebel Spirit.”

He says, “The song “My Rebel Spirit,” is a little bit of everything. It comes from a place of my own experience. Sometimes I have not been able to fit into certain crowds. That goes with everything, not just music, but my whole life. When I left home, I was thirteen I went to board in the south, and I could barely speak English. That was very difficult, because it was really hard for people who come from where I live to go into a home and a place that was completely foreign to you. Then you have to speak a language that you are not used to speaking and people were not accepting of you. I have always been struggling to find my place and to find a footing in society.

I feel closest to something like a higher power, when I am standing among spruce trees one hundred miles from any other human. I feel the safest and closest to something bigger than us. (He chuckles and says) sounds kind of weird. When I wrote this song, I think part of me was frustrated, because sometimes I feel there are gatekeepers out there in the music industry. (He goes on to say that determine who gets in and who doesn’t get the opportunities.) I feel many times doors have been closed on me, because of where I come from. Being indigenous in this country is certainly not easy. We are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing things like, safe drinking water, adequate housing, we have crappy healthcare, and the list goes on.

You are coming from a place of disadvantage, and you are trying to climb out of all of that to make a better life for your family and for yourself. It seems like there are so many doors you have to keep banging on to try and change the circumstances.

That is where that song comes from for me. I thought I will just keep working hard, putting out music and I am not going to turn down any opportunities. I will keep accepting, as many opportunities, as I can. When I play in front of people, I am going to do my best to give them a good show, even if there are only five people there. I will do every interview that comes my way.

I have always felt like an outsider, and I have been thought of as a bit of a rebel. A few people in the industry have said that about me.”

While listening to Adrian Sutherland both sing and talk, one wonders, did he come out of the womb sounding this good?

Laughing he says, “Thank you first of all. I am proud of my voice, because I think that is my strongest asset as an artist. I am not the greatest guitar player, but I know enough to get by. My voice is something that I am proud of. I have never had any vocal training, but from a young age I have always loved singing and I would sing along. I always had a knack for melodies, and I think I may have gotten that from my mom, who was very musical. Most of her family were musical and played in bands and they sang. Naturally, I fell into all of that stuff at a young age. I think my voice comes from a place of trauma. Recently, I have been trying to use that in my performances and in my recordings. It is not that I want people to pity me or anything like that, but that is just reality. It has been a pretty difficult journey so far. I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me in any way, but that is where my vocals come from.

Adrian Sutherland continues, “For this album I wrote about the people I have touched in my life. There have been a lot of people in my life that have struggled with addictions and mental health. (A family member) is an alcoholic and she is homeless. Those experiences have really affected me in a lot of ways. There are difficult things in life that we all have to deal with in our own ways. “Left Behind,” is about those people who too often get left behind or are forgotten. They get pushed away, because of the not too good circumstances they find themselves in. It is difficult, because you want to help them, but sometimes you destroy your own life trying to help others get through those things. I certainly had my fair share of trying to find ways to help people.

In general, I felt it (the song) was important, because there are so many things going on right now in the world. Everywhere I travel I see people who are homeless. I see people struggling with opiates and it is such a sad thing to see.

What first sparked that song, was when I saw this young girl that I drove by, and she was just screaming and screaming into the air. She was crying. I think there is a line in the song that says, ‘all at once I heard you scream.’

Adrian Sutherland Interview Photo FourAs difficult as it is to try and help someone come off of being an addict or an alcoholic or to come off the streets, I always felt like we have to try and find ways to help them get out of that situation. No matter how hard it is, we have to have that compassion. If I had not helped some of my family members out of that situation, I don’t know if they would be alive today. If I am able and willing to help somebody close to me, then I feel I have some responsibility to do that.”

We wanted to hear Adrian Sutherland’s thoughts concerning whether or not he thinks his success in music will inspire other indigenous artists who aspire to creative careers, whether in music or another artform and to not be afraid to express themselves in their own language. 

“I think so. I think we are at the beginning of these doors being opened to artists like me. It opens up doors for other artists like me who are putting out music. Since the time that I started, there are just so many that I can’t even keep track of them. To see them going out there and (playing) their music and sharing their culture, I take pride in knowing this. Maybe I played a small part in educating some of those younger artists. I certainly have given my full attention to trying to inspire young people. Everything I have done is about inspiring young people and to give them hope. I tell them that I come from a remote, fly in community in the middle of nowhere. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but if you work hard and you are prepared to sacrifice and if you surround yourself with the right kind of people anything is possible. If you love something and you are passionate about it there is no limit to what you can do,” he says.

“The Storm,” is a sombre ballad and Adrian Sutherland talks about the real-life story behind it, “Part of what I wanted to do on this album, apart from the two Cree songs, I wanted to write one particular song about where I come from. “The Storm,” is (based on) true events that go back to my great-grandfather’s era. These are all stories you hear growing up, about how one year people were having a feast and the next year it was famine. There was a middle-aged man and there was a famine up here in the barren land in the tundra. During the winter months it is very hard to survive. They were starving at the time, and he decided he was going to make a run with the dogs. A dog team was their mode of transportation back then. His run for help was to a nearby community and it would be about a two-or-three-day ride. He made it to (another community). He said we need to go, because there are women and children starving. A storm rolled in, and they said we can’t go. We have to wait out the storm. He said we have to go, because they won’t survive another two or three days. This man was already in a weak state, but he left anyway into the storm. A couple of days later they found him, and the dogs frozen in the snow. They found his family and they all died, except one young girl. The only reason she survived is the dogs that he had left behind huddled around her. It was such a tragic event. The dogs saved the little girl’s life. She lived a full and long life. She lived here in this community. She passed away about a decade ago now, as a very old lady. We heard about this story a few times, while growing up.

I thought it was important to talk about those things. I don’t know how many people talk about them. I have heard about these stories and these types of harsh conditions. I grew up going days without food. It is something that I experienced in small doses.

It is where that song came from. It was nice for me to tell a story about where I come from and in a narrative way.”

We want to tip our hat, to the young First Nations dancers who appear in the video for the song “Precious.” They are, Jazzlyn Hart, Jordon Hart, Jrayden Hart, Lillee Hotomani and Barbara Nepinak.

“The young dancers were Winnipeg based. It wasn’t hard to find the dancers. There are quite a few indigenous people in Winnipeg. We just put a call out on Facebook, and we had tons of people replying. We went with a dance troupe that travels around and does demonstrations. We spent the whole evening with them shooting that particular scene when they were dancing with me up on the stage.

They were such a great group of kids, and they were so well mannered. They didn’t hold back anything, and they went out there and really danced. It was nice seeing them doing their thing. Hats off to them for making the video and the song better,” he says.

The title of the album, Precious Diamonds, draws its name from two songs, “Precious,” and “Diamonds.”

Both of those songs for me have such strong meanings. “Precious,” is a song about being oppressed. It was inspired by Black music that came out of the south. In some ways it is still happening today and in Canada I have felt oppressed. “Diamonds,” plays on the idea that we came from the stars and from the sky, as indigenous people. We were lowered from the sky through this hole above us. That is our creation story. Now we are getting into aboriginal lore. We each are precious in our unique ways. Some of us have differences, but underneath it all we are all the same,” he says.

That is a good place to stop, because it underpins who Adrian Sutherland and what he values most in life.

The album Precious Diamonds will be released on March 15 th (2024). You can watch the video for “Precious,” here and listen to the song “My Rebel Spirit,” here.  Please take time to visit the website for Adrian Sutherland. Return to Our Front Page

Photos by: Joey Senft

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This interview by Joe Montague  published November February 18th, 2024 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos and artwork are the the property of  Adrian Sutherland unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.