Leela Gilday’s people are Sahtú Dene, but she was raised in the South – at least, what Northerners consider the South: Yellowknife. Leela spoke with RPM about her music, her family, and not living in an igloo.
Leela: I’m from the Dene Nation up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. My people are actually from Great Bear Lake but I was raised in the South as we like to call it. I’m a Northern girl and I love making music. I feel super lucky to be able to do that.
RPM: How has being Dene inspired your music creation?
Leela: Being Dene is really just a way of life – something that’s really important to me. Just being raised in the North has influenced my music. As an artist, everything that you take in, everything that you are, influences your musical creation. I’m definitely rooted in the north and rooted in being Dene. You can also hear it sometimes in the rhythms that I use, or sometimes I base songs on traditional Dene songs – sometimes the way that my music feels is definitely reminiscent of traditional drum dance music. But I like to think of myself as being musically eclectic, it is in an important part.
RPM: When you were growing up what were your music influences?
Leela: Oh god, everything! When I was a little girl we lived in Edzo which is a small community outside of Yellowknife. It’s a Tlicho community, and I lived there with my Mom and my Dad. My Dad, who’s a white guy from southern Ontario, is a musician so he exposed me to a ton of different styles of music including big band, symphony music, and my mom really loved folk like Bob Dylan style American folk as well as country music and some pop. Though pop of the time, which is in the 70s, means a different thing than nowadays. Then of course we would always go to the tea dances so I always had traditional music in my ears. The really broad range of styles and the fact that both of my parents liked to sing to me and sing with me, really gave me a wide palette of sound to draw from.
RPM: What was it like the first time that you really knew that you were going to make music?
Leela: I think I always just knew . Singing just felt second nature, like breathing to me. So the first time I performed I did my own solo thing. I sang since I was a little girl in choirs since I was 5 or 6. I was 8 when first performed solo on stage. My dad played piano for me and I performed at our local music festival. I loved it. And it was as natural as a baby swimming. I just thought “oh this is what people do”. They sing and they perform and that’s all there is to it.
RPM: What was it like when you first left the mighty North to pursue music and do shows ?
Leela: I realized that I wasn’t as big a fish as I thought. I was 10 when I first performed at a professional level out of the territory – it was in St. John’s, New Brunswick – and after that I had a few festivals up until I graduated high school across the country. But the most striking part of performing in the south, and then when I went to study, was when I finally realized “oh I’m not the best singer in the world” and that was a good dose of reality. At the same time I realized that everybody’s voice is valuable and has worth – that it was a gift that was given and that I had to pursue it.
RPM: What was it like when you went back to the North to perform, once you’d won awards and done a lot of touring?
Leela: I felt pretty much exactly the same way about it as I did 15 years ago. I just feel lucky to be able to do it and I’ve always felt that the music is not entirely about me as a person. I feel like it’s a gift that I’ve received from the creator and it’s sort of my responsibility to share it, so I don’t have as much pressure on me as a person. If I’d thought this was all about me then that might be a lot of stress, but I don’t feel like it is. I just feel like I’m really lucky to do this thing. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices but it’s all been worth it.
RPM: What’s one incorrect pre-conceived notion that people have about people from the North?
Leela: Generally they think of us as fairly backwards and small town and that we still drive dog sleds to work and live in Igloos. A lot of people think that we’re a lot less worldly than we are which is totally untrue. The north is one of the most traditional places in the world I guess, because it was the last place to be colonized in this country, on this continent really, so people still hold a lot of their traditional ways and the language is a lot stronger. In terms of population, the Aboriginal population is about 50%, so that’s how I grew up – with thinking of that not being a minority but just being normal. The Dene, in the 1970s through the Berger Inquiry, stopped a multi-national pipeline going through our territory. It was like the first time an Indigenous people stopped a development like that, a multinational industrial development. I’m really proud of us as a people and I think that we’re a lot more powerful and educated and cosmopolitan than others think.
RPM: If it makes you feel any better whenever I go to California or to the States they think I live in an Igloo too.
Leela: There you go!
RPM: If there was one thing you could share with the world of Indigenous music culture, what would it be.
Leela: Support live music and look out for your First Nations artist – we’re out there and working our butts off. That’s what every musician wants – your love and support, not just by listening on the radio, but coming out to the shows and buying the records, stuff like that, we really appreciate that kind of support.