Frontman of Edmonton’s atmospheric indie trio nêhiyawak, Kris Harper (vocals/guitar), has been writing and fronting bands since he was 15. But it wasn’t until he began writing with his bandmates Marek Tyler (percussion) and Matthew Cardinal (bass/synths) that he started to explore his Indigenous heritage and voice through music.
“nêhiyawak was different from the start,” Harper says over the phone from Toronto. “I was really inspired by talks in 2011 and 2012 for Idle No More. It was like ‘OK, obviously I see the same things especially in the music scene.’ It’s very European dominated. The perspectives are really insular as opposed to being more accessible for people like myself—a young Indigenous person in Edmonton making music.”
nêhiyawak—which has a number of English translations such as “plains people” or “Cree people”—only jumped on the indie scene a few years ago with the releases of the minimalist (score for the film) ôtênaw and the starlight EP—a few tastes of the groups ethereal sound—but it quickly became a band that people kept on their radar.
Slowly playing intimate, yet bombastic shows at venues like the Sewing Machine Factory, having a few singles play on CJSR and CKUA, and earning a few Edmonton Music Awards, nêhiyawak became a word people associated with one of the top acts in Edmonton. Now Harper and his bandmates are gearing up for the release of their first full-length, nîpîy.
“In reality, when we first recorded that starlight EP, we intended to record a full length album and the EP was just tracks off of that album to help us build an audience and get our names out there,” Harper says. “This was like 2017, which feels like a lifetime ago, but we went into the studio and recorded 12 songs. We wanted to bring these ideas to a wider audience.”
nîpîy—Cree for “water”—seemed like the perfect title and theme for the full length Harper says. The album also begins and ends with two soundscapes dedicated to the North Saskatchewan River.
“You’re having to cross this river in Edmonton so much and it felt like an important part of where we are living,” Harper says. “From a language point of view, we are referencing where we’re from. I can’t imagine a conversation I’ve had more than the conversations around water. Even from a child. Drinking it, ceremonies—water is such a focus point. We wanted to take one of these sonic atmospheres and represent a piece of water.”
On a more metaphorical note, the album flows like a river, having moments of calmness and bliss like on the song “perch” and moments of reverb calamity and decay like on the song “open window,” a song that references the depravity and confusion of the Sixties Scoop.
“That song [“open window”] starts with spoken word from our parents and I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I asked my mom to say the first nêhiyawayan word she heard as a child. And she said kisâkihitin (gi-SAH-gih-tin), which is something like ‘my love is with you,’” Harper says. “The song is about residential schools and the history and what was kind of the point, which was taking away language. So we wanted our families to say these words that maybe a lot of Indigenous people haven’t been hearing for a long time.”
One aspect that Harper, Tyler, and Cardinal have taken to heart since beginning nêhiyawak is adhering to the protocols and teachings of their Elders when deciding an impactful band decision.
“We’ve never been in a position to teach, but instead amplify certain ideas,” Harper says. “The name [nêhiyawak] comes from Matthew’s father. We went to Marek’s mom, my mom, and Matthew’s dad and asked what they would want to hear from three Indigenous musicians … He said calling ourselves nêhiyawak puts this word into people’s mouths. For so long people have been like ‘Yo, I’m Cree,’ but looking into the details, that isn’t nêhiyawayan at all.”
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