The last few years have been a transformative time for Anishinaabe singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson. Even before the release of her debut album, Breakwall, Simpson had been awarded the Imaginative/Slaight Music Bullseye Award for developing artists. With the release of Breakwall in 2017, she revealed herself to be a writer of tremendous insight and power.
Classically trained on piano, Simpson picked up the guitar at the age of fourteen, but only began writing songs five years ago. For several years, she has toured as rhythm guitarist with her sister, poet and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
At the time of this interview, Simpson was preparing for summer shows, putting the final touches on her sophomore album, She Fell from the Sky, and entering into preproduction for a short film based on the enigmatic and stirring song “The Burnt Lands,” from Breakwall.
Simpson and I discussed songwriting, anxiety, the green path, and pipelines.
The Rumpus: How do you tend to write? Do you write with a guitar?
Ansley Simpson: It’s different for every song. Generally speaking, I write a lot. I carry a writing notebook with me, and I am constantly doing writing exercises every day. It’s what grounds me. I usually come up with an idea for a song, or I’ll see some really good lines starting to form and take that out to build a base lyric. And often I will be doing something on the guitar, a chord progression or a picking pattern emerges, and I’ll see which song matches. When they click, I’ll start working on them together.
When I started, it didn’t come easily. I had this idea that when you sit down to write a song it would just come to you, and that is what songwriters were: people who could just sit down and write a song. I realized that isn’t the case. It was really encouraging to hear other songwriters talking about how hard they’ve had to struggle—how it can take a year or two to finish a song.
Rumpus: Where do songs come from?
Simpson: I undertake the songwriting process as part of my spiritual practice. You hear songwriters talking about songs channeling through you, and I really think that is the case, now that I’ve gotten the hang of it. When I’m writing, I can tell the difference between a line that’s going to stick and a line that isn’t right for that song. It isn’t necessarily that the line is a good one or a bad, it might be that it just doesn’t fit that song. It often clicks and turns a green color in my head. So, when it’s working the music will hit this green image or feeling, then I know it’s locked in and I move on.
Part of being an Anishinaabe singer-songwriter is that I have all my Anishinaabe teachings to refer to. I often imagine it being like the Seventh Fire Prophecy, which involves a choice between picking the green path or a scorched path. The scorched path is what we’ve been taking up until now, which is burnt, and obvious and really clear in direction. The green path takes far more work to even recognize—it takes bushwhacking. It’s going through green forests and trying to find your way through that. That’s the image I work with when I’m writing.
Rumpus: Who are some of the writers you’ve admired?
Simpson: I grew up in a household where my dad played a lot of guitar and sang. For me, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. I grew up in a small town, and we didn’t have a lot of access to a huge variety of music. Leonard Cohen has been a consistent inspiration for me. And Ani DiFranco, I steeped in a lot of her material for a long while. I found it very empowering, as a lot of people did.
Rumpus: What would you say to someone who is just starting to write songs, or who wants to write but doesn’t know where to start?
Simpson: Just start into it. Know that you are going to write really horrible songs, and that still happens years after you’ve been writing. It is totally okay to write a horrible song because once you get those ones out, suddenly there’s a really good one. And even really horrible songs that might make you cringe and wonder “why did I write that?” might have three or four lines in them that you can glean and use somewhere else. Also, keep writing because it’s not an easy process, but it is worth it.
Rumpus: Do you ever get stage fright?
Simpson: Pretty much every time. I have anxiety in my background. I have PTSD reactions, and for years it was a real barrier for me to actually perform. That was one of the reasons I didn’t see myself as a performer until the last three or four years. Then one day I realized that wasn’t really going anywhere. Avoiding things in life was only making it worse. If I was going to stay at home and be anxious, why am I not out in the world doing things I love and being anxious? So, now when I get on stage, I feel it moving through me, and as soon as I walk on stage it’s like I can channel it outward through my voice and through my music. I usually feel quite good while I’m singing. It’s just taking the charge before you go on stage.
I was talking to Willie Thrasher, who is a legendary Indigenous musician, about how he eats very lightly because he has to allow the energy to come into him that he’s going to need when he’s on stage. When I asked him what it felt like, he said, “Well, some people just call it nerves.” That really clicked for me. As soon as I started to think of it as channeling energy or holding space, it allowed me to see it not as something fearful but as something beneficial.
A lot of people feel they can’t perform because they have “nerves.” But I don’t know one person who performs who doesn’t get nervous. I mean, we all say it—if you aren’t nervous that’s when you get worried because something’s off then. Luckily, I’ve always been nervous.
We all look for what we can do to calm nerves before we go on. I swear, no matter what show I do there’s a moment backstage when I’m like, “Why am I doing this? This is awful. Who would choose to do this?” Then I get on stage and play and realize immediately that it is actually a really special thing, a privilege to be a performer, to have an opportunity to share what I do with so many people and get their feedback, watch them absorb it and transform in front of you. It’s amazing. And then I feel great afterwards, and hungry.
Rumpus: What do you want your music to do?
Simpson: It’s a good question because I kind of got into this by accident. I wanted to record a few songs for my daughter to have, then it snowballed into [Breakwall]. The album was released and it did well and I started playing live.
What I got out of that process was a deep love of making albums. I really love making albums. I enjoy the whole process of writing it. I was very involved In the production side with the second album, with my producer. I’m interested in producing, so watching him and having all these production discussions around the second album was amazing. I like making albums that are different, that take a different approach to listening. I like albums that are not easily consumed. I want to continue to make albums that really excite me and that I want to see out there.
Rumpus: What can you say about She Fell From the Sky [set for release in early 2019]?
Simpson: When I started writing it, I realized there was a story in there. It unfolds over eleven tracks and wanders through time and space. It tackles a lot of issues that are in our minds on Turtle Island right now, for settlers and Indigenous people, environmental issues, pipeline issues. Basically, “where do we go from here?” It’s a re-envisioning of one the possibilities of where we could go, or how it might play out.
I was reading a lot of creation stories, and I got from my sister our nation’s specific creation stories around the time I was writing. These stories involve Geezhigo-Kwe, Sky Woman. In the original telling, Sky Woman falls to Earth and muskrat is able to grab a paw-full of Earth, which was put on turtle’s back, and then Sky Woman danced creation into being. I’m skipping over a lot. The Creation Story can take hours to tell. It can take weeks to tell. It’s the core of one of our stories. I’m only sharing a little bit of that.
It started when I wondered what Geezhigo-Kwe thinks of the Turtle now, and I got really sad. My goodness, this beautiful creation that she fell from the sky to facilitate, in order to birth the Anishinaabe people, what would she feel? And I imagine she would feel really sad that so many of us were killed off. I imagine she would be very sad about the state of the Turtle. You know, the Earth is really suffering right now. Then I started to imagine the story: what if she never disappeared? What if she lived one continuous life from the beginning, watching all of this unfold. I imagine she would not be in the best shape. The songs started to come from that idea. And then I asked myself what is Anishinaabe way to help, to be able to heal, to recover the land, the environment, Geezhigo-Kwe. Halfway through the album, that becomes apparent and begins to grow from that point on.
When I was speaking earlier about Seventh Fire Prophecy, I wrote the album trying to envision green pathways out of this.
Rumpus: What does a sustainable future look like in relation to Indigenous people, settlers, and everyone?
Simpson: That’s a big question. And I don’t know that anyone knows what that is yet. But what we’re doing now is certainly not sustainable. I think it’s about looking at absolutely everything we’re doing as members of this society as people who are on this turtle’s back and deciding if our actions promote health and life, or is it something that promotes destruction or isn’t sustainable for future generations. The decisions we need to make need to lie on the side of life. That means protecting the water, protecting the land. That means no pipeline. That means green energy choices. That means reverting lakes back into territories where wild rice can grow. That means ensuring that our wildlife, our game, are healthy enough to eat and nurture ourselves.
Rumpus: It’s astonishing that the other day, Canada bought a pipeline. Then Trump puts some tariffs on steel and that is the only thing anyone can talk about.
Simpson: Yeah. That’s reconciliation for you right there.
Rumpus: One of Justin Trudeau’s major platforms was to bring safe water to First Nations communities. And that was supposed to be within the first two years of taking office…
Simpson: And all that is happening is that one community will get some issues fixed to a certain degree, and another community gets placed back on the list. So, it’s a never-ending thing. A big overhaul needs to happen and it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much as this pipeline to do that. The cost of cleaning up [the Tar Sands] is more than the pipeline will ever generate.
Rumpus: If you could see any musician throughout history perform, who would it be?
Simpson: I definitely would go back and see Leonard Cohen a bunch more times. You know, I almost got to see The Ramones but I got grounded and couldn’t go. I still can’t believe it. I had tickets, and I couldn’t go. They brought me back a t-shirt. Maybe I’d go see that show.
Rumpus: Why did you get grounded?
Simpson: I did a lot as a teenager. But whatever I did was not worth missing The Ramones.
Rumpus: When you sang “Witness” at the Indigenous Music Awards I was a nervous wreck just watching from home. I think it’s so brave to perform a cappella.
Simpson: It was a bold choice, I guess. I really just thought that was the song that needed to be sung that night. I thought I’d have to fight for it a bit because I thought they’d probably want me to bring a guitar and do what I normally do. But I start most of my shows with “Witness.”
For me, it is such a good song to ground and focus. The message behind it, as I’ve been singing it and time has gone by, is this image: everyone is watching, and we need more people to engage. This is a song that I hope is inviting people into not just a conversation but into action.
It was nerve-racking for sure. Mainly talking to other performers before I went on stage and everyone had the same reaction as you. There is some comfort when you have your guitar. But I also know it is a really powerful song to just come out and sing, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Rumpus: How did you develop your finger-picking style?
Simpson: Completely unconsciously. I was a big Grateful Dead fan for a long period of time. I played along with a lot of the Dead stuff, and I think I picked up a lot of it through that. Someone told me I play in a waltz style, but it’s really a round dance. I’ll get my thumb going to delineate what would be a round dance, which is da-DA-da DA-da DA-da, and not just a straight droning. It’s not something I spend a lot of time figuring out any longer. For me, the guitar is an instrument I approached because I am classically trained in piano and I was burnt out with the classical approach. It is very rigid, doesn’t leave any room for even expression…you have to follow the correct expression written into it. One of the reasons I was drawn to guitar is that I couldn’t read music on it. I had to play it completely by ear, which I still do. I struggle sometimes to communicate with musicians what chord I am playing.
Rumpus: Is your family supportive of your creative work?
Simpson: Yeah, definitely. The reason I am able to do what I do is because my sister got me in her band just when I was starting out. That was a risky move. My first stage shows were her shows. I appreciated being able to learn the ropes through playing with her. And it’s such an interesting band to play in because we have to sit in specific places, sonically speaking, when she does spoken word over it.
And my middle sister, Shannon, keeps me grounded and gives the best advice.
My parents are both musical. My mother was a piano teacher and my dad played guitar and accordion by ear. They’ve been encouraging. At times, they think I have completely lost it, deciding to be a songwriter this late in life. I know they definitely worried about my choices, but they’ve always worried about my choices.
Rumpus: Will you be as supportive when your daughter decides she wants to enter the arts?
Simpson: I think about that a lot. I want her to be happy. I was talking to her last night, acknowledging how our ancestors went through so much, sacrificed their lives, struggled, suffered so that we can be here as Indigenous people. That’s why we’re alive. And she said, “Yeah, but we’re just sitting here watching a movie, Mom.” We both laughed. It was funny, but it’s true. Our ancestors just wanted us to be happy. I want to deliver her out into the world with as little damage as possible, like every parent, and hope she finds something that makes her happy. Although I hope it’s not something like a banker. [Laughs]
Photograph of Ansley Simpson © Aaron D. Mason.