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IsKwé finally gets chance to live up to hype

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Winnipeg-raised singer IsKwé has never been a malleable pop star.

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Winnipeg-raised singer IsKwé has never been a malleable pop star.

IsKwé has been a woman on the verge of breaking out for a long time. And now, she's finally having her moment.

The Winnipeg-bred, Toronto-based trip-hop/soul artist -- whose name is pronounced iss-kway, meaning "woman" -- was twice featured as a One to Watch by Toronto's now-defunct street paper The Grid and was one of CBC's Top 10 Canadian Musicians You Need to Know, thanks to her stirring voice and compelling amalgam of hip hop, R&B and piano pop, informed by her Cree/Dene and Irish heritage.

But while the buzz was building, her much-anticipated self-titled debut album -- eight years in the making -- didn't come out until last October.

"It took forever," she acknowledges with a laugh over an afternoon beer. IsKwé is home for Aboriginal Music Week, which kicks off on Wednesday and runs through Sunday in various venues in the city. She's on an eclectic lineup that includes Juno winners such as local rock act Eagle & Hawk and bluesman George Leach, pop singer Inez Jasper, hip-hop duo Mob Bounce, producer Astronomar, local collective BURNT-Project 1, country singer-songwriter Frannie Klein and many more.

"By the end of it, I hated it and I hated it until the day it actually went to print and came back and was in my hands. Then it was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is my baby.' But up until that point I just loathed the project because it took so long and it was entirely independent and I was really learning the ropes in the industry -- both the creative aspects of being an artist and the business side of being an artist. Those lessons were just so taxing and expensive and time consuming, that's why it took so long."

Raised in a creative, artistic family, IsKwé, 33, spent a six-year stint dividing her time between Los Angeles and New York City -- trying, as so many do, to "make it in the biz" in the traditional sense. (She was even a former Canadian Idol contestant, making it to the TV round.) L.A. wore her down; malleable young pop star she was not. She's too strong-willed and outspoken, for one, and the music IsKwé makes is not the stuff conceived in boardrooms for maximum bankability. "I ain't got no energy to make it as a pop-rock star/even though I've been dreaming I'd go far," she sings on slinky, soulful single Slack Jaw, which made it to No. 1 on the National Aboriginal Music Countdown and was a regional finalist in CBC Music's Searchlight song competition.

And so, she left L.A. for NYC and eventually NYC for Toronto.

"I feel like I've set myself up for the path I'm on," she says. "I acknowledge that I may have made my path harder because of my opinions, and that's fine. I have zero regrets about the decisions I made. I feel like I walked out with my soul intact."

Looking back, the eight years it took to make the album were well spent. The record is up for a 2014 Western Canadian Music Award for Electronic/Dance Recording of the Year.

"It took that time because it took that time. Clearly I wasn't ready at Year 2. When I released it, I allowed it to have elements of those eight years. I didn't want to discredit the work I did in years 1 and 2 just because it took so long."

That time also helped crystallize her vision for a followup record, The Fight Within, which will be out as soon as February 2015. "I was able to pull out all the things I really wanted to keep moving forward with for the next one," she says. The new record will be more electronic and much more downtempo; ethereal R&B in the vein of the U.K.'s FKA twigs (a.k.a. Tahliah Debrett Barnett) and Hamilton, Ont.'s Jessy Lanza -- two artists who are taking the music world by storm. "I've completely abandoned the pop elements from the first album, in part because they were outside influences."

Her indigenous/Irish roots, meanwhile, influence her lyrics. For the new record, IsKwé was interested in thinking on a macro level. While her debut -- which was initially titled The Many Faces of a Love Song -- examined individual, personal relationships through the lens of a Canadian woman with a mixed background, The Fight Within looks at relationships within society.

"I haven't had to put it in a media pitch yet," she says with laugh. "It's an album about those inner conversations. There's a lot more political, cultural and gender references coming in, where I'm addressing issues in what I think are somewhat subtle ways. I don't want to hit people over the head with things. I still like for there to be room for interpretation in anything I do, but that's the root of where I'm pulling all of my topics from."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 D3

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