William Prince's lyrics and vocals hold his listeners and help us be better people.
“May your love be pure like an eagle
To the path that holds the light”
– “Seven” William Prince (single)
“I have heritage for days,” says William Prince. He's talking about his ancestor, the legendary Saulteaux Chief Peguis, who, says Prince, once asked Queen Victoria what she called her sons. She said, “I am the queen, so my sons are princes.” And he responded, “From this day forward, my sons will be known as Princes.”
William approaches his craft with the quiet authority and leadership that comes from knowing exactly where he belongs and who he comes from. He treats each performance as an opportunity to build bridges towards reconciliation, while recognizing the hardships still weighing down his people. He tells us that his head was set right on his shoulders by his parents who ensured he was raised in a home valuing respect, hard work, honesty, music, laughter and love. Though he originally intended to go to medical school, he was side-tracked by theatre and song-writing. We are so glad he was.
Prince's music is gentle, humble and kind. Graciously and earnestly his songs beckon each of us to be our best, most honourable selves. When listening to his music, you gain a distinct sense of being held and understood. His music assumes the best of you. You see yourself, and the world, as they could be, and most powerful of all, you begin to believe.
Prince sat with us under a thicket of trees beside Guelph Lake during Hillside 2017. We spoke about reconciliation, music, religion, the past and the future, while watching families and kids play in the water at the bottom of the hill below us. It was idyllic.
In a theme steeped in activism, Prince’s musical peers were Leonard Sumner, Sarah Harmer, Billy Bragg, Las Cafeteras and DJ Shub (formerly of A Tribe Called Red). To say that last year’s Hillside was profoundly moving is still a profound understatement. It was a classic Hillside transformative weekend where you could feel the needle of hope move to the positive. This year’s theme at Hillside is “Counter Hate with Beauty” (think about nation leadership to the south of us) and Prince’s latest single “Seven” is beautifully fitting. There’s no doubt we will be lifted by William Prince’s wisdom and spirit as we navigate Hillside 2018.
This interview began with Prince obliging our opening request: to spell his name and state who he is.
AJ: Checkity check check.
William Prince: W-I-L-L-I-A-M P-R-I-N-C-E from Winnipeg. Manitoba is where I reside and I’m so thrilled to be here chatting about my album Earthly Days produced by my very good friend and fellow song writer Scott Nolan and helmed by the engineering mixing and mastering of the incomparable Jamie Sitar from Outta Town Sound Mixing and Mastering. Real great people in my career and the basics of any other details that you might want to throw into the candid stuff we’re about to do.
What do you like to call yourself, are you a singer songwriter?
Definitely singer songwriter. People ask me what style music I play and it’s a bit folk country with a bit of gospel antiquity. The traditional framing of songs in that kind of vein, I’d say.
How is your Hillside going?
Hillside has been terrific. I walked in and did my main concert right away. Usually there is a bit of a build from the workshops to the concerts, so I was like, “I hope people are excited to come to this,” and then in the tent. I look from setting things up and all of the sudden there’s people there to take part in something. And that’s the way it’s been. I’ve been in Ontario for 10 days now. Different shows in Ottawa, Mariposa, and having some meetings and a performance in Toronto … and to come to Hillside, it’s so relaxing. It’s amazing to be here. The volunteers did an amazing job, the sound people have been spot on, so I’ve had a great time. And I’m starting to have more friends at each stop which is so awesome. That really makes the travel less lonely – and my best friend in the world is with me. We’re sitting here and I can’t believe [I'm performing] the songs I used to write around him in an old apartment.
Who is your best friend?
Adam Hildebrandt – he lives in China. He came to Winnipeg a few days ago and I flew him out to Ottawa to join me for the last bit of the tour in Ontario. Then I go home for one night, then out to Alberta and do it all over again. Hillside has been a really nice soft landing for things and the people have really made me feel welcome.
What have you found surprising or rewarding about Hillside?
More of the stuff I just mentioned. I love that I was slated for the gospel workshop. They were saying how it is one of the highlights of the festival. I’m kind of rooted in gospel music, so it was nice to sing songs that dad loved, and my mom loves to share that with people. A couple of folks came up and they said they appreciated that I did actual gospel music. I feel that can throw a lot of people. We assume when people play folk music, that they're rooted in some tradition of it, and they'll just have a [gospel] song good to go. But it’s not like that for a lot of artists. I’m thankful that I have something that I can share from where I come from, because my musical upbringing is rooted in that. My dad was a pastor and we sang all the old hymns and played funerals and wake services together up until I was 17. I probably attended over 100. I learned the joy of music in a not-so-joyful environment, and I think that’s why it makes for such a great feeling when it’s pure joy – I don’t think you can get anymore maxed out on joy and happiness when you come together for music at this kind of festival.
Were you nervous to play actual gospel music in a secular setting?
No, because it’s titled that, so you know you’re going in and it will be all right. Never nervous – more excited – and just wanting to deliver the most authentic representation of what my dad’s influence and my family’s influence has had on me. They [other musicians] were joking backstage about not knowing gospel and some of the chatter suggested that I might be the only one. Normally as the host I’d pass it off to someone else and play last to be polite – and I believe that’s how a lot of workshops should run. So I thought through the talk, “Oh, are we going to sing songs about Jesus?” There’s a respect I still carry for it and that’s important to me – setting your intention before you walk. You never know. There could be older folks in there who go there strictly expecting a touch of gospel, that could be the highlight of their whole Hillside, they could only buy a ticket for today perhaps. A lot is driven toward the younger generation, us us us. We need to cater to our elders, not just in an Indigenous community, but in all communities. So why not start with one of the oldest 100-year-old songs I know to set the tone that yes, we are entering a safe space where you can take in and experience the fellowship of music, because that’s what it is in church, it’s fellowship. And these things [festivals] become just like that: a big church. And it should be, it’s nice. I mentioned the connotations that come with slightly scaring people away – are we going to a church service – but would it kill you to go to a church service? So I thought if I did that song, I’d at least put it out there that yes, this is an environment for that, too.
Leah: I really appreciate it and maybe I’m secretly an old lady, but I was like, “Is this a gospel session? Should we really be singing about Jesus smoking weed in his van? I don’t know.”
I feel those things too.
L: Not to be judgemental.
No, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m glad you felt that way. It’s such a definitive thing, you don’t have to say you’re a Christian, just be a good person. Some guidance. I like to believe because it brings me closer to my dad and there’s some kind of author in play that’s helping me, because my path has truly felt somewhat divine. I haven’t had to trudge it out in vans and play to unappreciative crowds. I’m blessed enough to have crowds there for me that want to be there. And that’s how it has been from the start. That’s unheard of in a sense, and it took time, but I had patience and it built character. I seasoned my performance, my words, my intention so that when I'm brought into any area, I can set a standard by just being respectful.
What about your musical journey. Can you tell us about how you have come to this place?
Uh, well I started on guitar when I was kid and I didn’t like it. Then I played piano for a little while. I got to be about 12 or 13 and then I played more and naturally gravitated more toward my dad’s music – Johnny Cash, Kristofferson – just the way he sang. There was always a guitar in our house, so he would sing these songs from another life that would just floor me and I’d say: “You’re such a good singer, dad.” And that was my first impression of music. They also had a DJ business, and they would do these dance hall socials, so our house was stacked with records, eight tracks, CDs, and I was getting to the point that I would explore the CDs on my own.
I think as a young adolescent, we tend to gravitate towards the rock or rap genre to express how we’re feeling and I was a rock kid through and through. I loved all the rock alternative bands, I had a screamo-emo phase, that thing when you’re a teenager. But I always loved the classics, too. The Beach Boys were one of my first experiences of music. My mom listened to Whitney Houston and Anne Murray. My dad was all the old crooners and singers and kind of country western guys, because in the First Nation communities you’re kind of raised by John Fogerty and CCR and Johnny Cash – that’s huge in aboriginal communities. The old timers especially have, I find, not limited, but they just have their favourites because it’s what you’d hear literally on the radio in the 60s.
So again, talk about where our elders come from and it made me want to go back, and that’s where I’m at now I guess. I went through the growing. I started writing poems when I was in high school, my musicianship was not that great yet. I worked on playing guitar and getting better and turning those poems into song-structured things and being respectful of rhyme. Everything has been said and it’s up to you to kind of alter that to your own experience and make it unique again. I wasn’t satisfied with some of the earlier stuff I was doing so I just kept it and I showed my dad and I did some songs for his records. I wrote gospel songs for his albums because he put out three records and I played on them as a kid, so I was always in church building that. Then I played a little bit of drums, little bass and little piano and became an instrumentalist. Then I went to university and I started to take on the big city coffee chop dream. I’d play the odd open mic and do things like that; a lot of shows for free. And then it led to struggles to finally trying to make an album when I finally collected enough songs that were worth putting down to tape. The studio experience from my dad’s records was great and I took that to try and make it my own, but the studios went under. I have a classic tale of a guy running away with all my money, and then the second studio closing down and I’m just left high and dry and a touch defeated, like maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do, kind of feels like I’m being hindered because I’m supposed to keep pursuing my education to become a doctor. Because I got my degree in microbiology at Manitoba, wrote my MCAT, and applied to med school but didn’t get in.
Then a radio job fell into my lap where I was a hip hop DJ for a couple of years and that eventually led to a country morning show. But I always knew I had to keep writing music and playing. That led to performing in a play about the War of 1812 and I travelled all over Ontario as a singing, dancing, costume-changing Chief Tecumseh. That was where I was and what I did. In hotels I would still write songs all the time and I eventually wanted to collect enough. So then we went into the studio with Scott [Nolan] and Jamie [Sitar] and we made this record Earthly Days. I said [to myself], “regardless of all the shitty things that have come in my path and the hindrances – take them, lean into them, use them to build the character and the songs around you, and make a killer first impression.” I think that’s what we’ve accomplished. We didn’t waste our first impression and instead, in the generation of YouTube and “look what I can do, look what I can do,” keep something private until it’s good. If you’re good at something you’ll tell everybody but if you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.
Tell us about your dad. It sounds like he was a big influence in your life.
I’m always sharing about him unintentionally. We were so close. I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t have a very good relationship with their father the way I do. He was very open, though hard as nails, and raised in the old school of no nonsense. He led us as his children to be good people and honest and respectful and still soft-hearted and a jokester and affectionate. A hugger. I’d be 25 years old and he’d still kiss me on the cheek and until the day he died called me a sweetheart. You never stop being someone’s kid. It’s not shameful to be loved your whole life, you know. We’re not birds being sent off on our own. So my dad was always a part of my life and always interested in my life and wanted to know. Same with my mom. She was so selfless. Together they raised us in such a loving environment. I didn’t grow up in a household that drank, there was never alcohol around. So I could excel in high school, whereas my peers were dealing with parties and stuff in the middle of the night – not being able to focus on school. My dad wanted me to have the best leg-up in life because he knew the questions I would face in life now, and the things we’re going through with the ideas around reconciliation and 150.
We’re trying to bridge a gap, and he saw that this was going to be a challenge I was going to face later in life. He raised me to speak in a way that people would respect, and not look at me and minimize anything about me because of being First Nation or aboriginal. Because you know, sadly because of the consequences of residential schools and alcoholism and substance abuse and sexual abuse, a lot of people who are First Nations are suffering and don’t have an outlet so they’re viewed as people who are just street bums and cast aside in annoyance. And so for every negative stigma, I’m trying to make up for 10 thousand of them, 100 thousand of them – If we can go out here and spread a message of love and inclusion and sing songs that are inviting.
“And so for every negative stigma, I’m trying to make up for 10 thousand of them, 100 thousand of them – If we can go out here and spread a message of love and inclusion and sing songs that are inviting.”
How did your parents learn to be such good parents?
My mom was part of the Sixties Scoop and raised by Ukrainian parents. I don’t know how she turned out so incredible. It wasn’t easy for her. She was always alone, I think. And my dad suffered his share. He was flunked out of school in grade seven. If you listen to the song Eddy Boy, that’s my dad, it’s one of the tracks on the record. Eddy Boy. He had a really hard go. He was a dad at 17 and got kicked out of school because the white principle didn’t like that his daughter (who went to the same school) and he were friends, because he was afraid they would grow older and maybe be a couple, so he removed him from the school.
My dad was 14 and he would lie about his age to get jobs in the city. He stayed with his maternal mom, because he was raised by his grandparents, and so he went there and worked at a tire shop and then he got his education so he could at least get his grade 12. He was [a teen] fighting to raise his kids with no talents or skills like mine. Hard work was all you could do back then. He would literally lie about his age to get jobs. He was scrawny. He eventually opted to go to the mines because he heard that they were hiring and paying really well. So he had to leave his family behind, kind of like I do. I’m finding all these parallels are being unveiled as we go. Just the way his children came as a blessing, not as a plan, and he never gave up, not a day in his life. He went through this whole ringer before he died. He had heart failure my first year of university, and had a triple-bypass. Eventually he had a small stroke and went blind for a short period of time in one eye, and had complete kidney failure. My mom donated one of her kidneys to save his life and keep him going. Finally, he stepped on a stone and got gangrene on one of his feet, because he had diabetic complications. He lost one leg. Then the next year because of the neuropathy, and the trouble it was giving him to have one leg, they decided to take it. So then he was wheel chair-bound and lost his license. My dad was a driver in his young life and loved to drive in his early days. He loved to drive anything with wheels, heavy machine-operated before he eventually ended up working for the government for employment and immigration services in Selkirk, Manitoba. That’s where he met my mom at a coffee shop, just like I met my wife in the same kind of thing.
That’s a beautiful story. Speaking of truth and reconciliation, what does it mean to you and what does it mean for your community?
It’s tough for me to talk about this because first and foremost, I recognize that I am always a First Nations person, and I’m proud of that. My grandfather [ancestor] is Chief Peguis, that’s the reserve I am from. It was originally a settlement in Selkirk and was moved two hours north near Lake Winnipeg and Chief Peguis, back in 1871, was dubbed King of the Indians by Queen Victoria. At that time he had seven wives and decided to just have one and he asked the queen, “What do you call your sons?” She said: “I am the queen, so my sons are princes.” And being that kind of Indian he said: “From this day forward, my sons will be known as Princes.” That’s where my last name comes from, so I have heritage for days. You know, a lot of times the challenge is to prove how native you are, man! You know? Let’s show how much you live for the cause! I’m not in that business. I want to share songs; I’m a singer songwriter, I’m an artist. I’m a multiple CMA nominee and CMA, and a Juno winner for Earthly Days, Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. I find that when my influence is growing, then I’m ready to talk completely and whole-heartedly about what I can do as an individual to make those things better for everyone that it affects, because I see and I live amongst what it affects. It affects the people. My friend Leonard Sumner, he has such great forethought and passion for when it comes to this and I’m still learning from him, from people I’m friends with, Wab Kinew. I have friends that don’t take 150 gigs and ones that do because they see it as an opportunity to be a part of this and spread the message about what our people are and still are.
When I think of reconciliation, I don’t know if it’s a top level thing, if it’s up to us, the people, to want to reconcile. You can put posters everywhere and say “decolonize” and resist it and you can embrace it too. It’s not going to change people’s hearts if they’re not willing to see and become educated, so I respect the fact that it’s at least trying to raise awareness right now. It’s a talk, and a lot of Indigenous people are still living the exact same situation as when those posters and those campaigns began. Roads still need to be built, clean water still needs to be provided, housing needs to be addressed, and missing and murdered Indigenous women need to be located. They need to be taken as real people that have disappeared not just as people who might be out drinking anyway, or that she’s probably drunk, on drugs, a hooker – she's someone’s mom, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. We’re not disposable folks, we’re the first. So it’s the attitude of, “Well, let’s clear out the last of them.” It shouldn’t be that way. It should be, “Let’s show more respect. It’s this reconciliation, this movement of 150, this idea of an apology. Ah, my friend says, “I know you’re sorry” – show it. It’s up to us, it’s up to everybody to come together and to accept that. We’re not a downtrodden people.
We’re not disposable folks, we’re the first.”
I have a song about Tommy Prince where one of the taglines is: “I used to be brave” – both playing on the idea of a native brave – I used to be respected – the song “We Were Warriors Once”. When I think of that stuff, I try to think of the regality that we had at one point in time when we were uninterrupted. I find it arrogant that the people responsible for bringing about things like addiction, and who changed what was an organic livelihood, are the most frustrated with us – that’s what hurts. That’s what people need to understand. That’s why there is anger. That’s why people block the highways, because that’s what it feels like to be stuck in a situation. That’s not a direct quote from me; it’s something I read. In a highway protest, we’re hindering to try and show you that feeling of “I am helpless, I am stuck in this situation that doesn’t get any better.” I'm tired of hearing things like, “my taxes paying for their glamourous lives.” Let’s trade lives for a while. Stop saying that shit. That’s not at all what it is. Reconciliation is going to take a long while. But I’m glad there is at least a chat going on.
What do you think people should know?
Oh boy. I have a song called Seven that talks about the seven sacred teachings of aboriginal law and I think they should know that. So listen to that song and then you’ll know.
Leah Gerber is editor for A\J and Marcia Ruby is creative director. Each follows @willandhismusic on Instagram, and both enjoy the duet approach to interviewing musicians.
Seven Sacred Teachings
William Prince wrote his latest single “Seven” for (and some collaboration with) the Peguis Nation graduating class a couple of years ago. Prince told CBC at the time, "It became a bit of a song to my son, as well. If I went away, and could only leave this voice behind, what would I want it to say?" Listen to “Seven” on Prince’s page at the fiercely supportive Prairie Mix Agency site. [http://www.prairiemix.com/william/ ]
May your love be pure like an eagle
To the path that holds the light
Each one can wait the other out
Life is two wolves, good and evil, who you feeding?
Tell me are you in or are you out?
Don’t make a promise that you’ll have to break
Stand up for good for goodness sake
May your mind be vast like the ocean
Humility will keep your spirit young
When you’re looking far into the future
Joy bring peace to your life
Surrender your heart to the seven
Keep to the path that holds the light
May you find the courage to reconcile
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