Don Amero is a First Nations icon. The popular singer/songwriter has just released a new EP, expanding on his newly found country sound.
Always the gentleman, Don is a fascinating interview.
Your EP is out. Tell me about it.
It’s called “Nothing is Meaningless”. It’s a funny title. People often ask me about that one. And that came out of a project I was involved with, an artist collective, and we were all asked to create different pieces of art around some biblical scripture, the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes. And so funny enough, I wrote this song called “Nothing is Meaningless”, which is really the opposite as everything has meaning. I just love this song so much, and that’s how it ended up on the EP.
And for me, I feel like I’m always the glass is half full kind of guy and always looking at life with opportunities and possibilities. So I thought I’d try to share that in a song like “Nothing is Meaningless”. After I wrote this song, I thought that’s a really great name for the title of this EP too, especially given the times that we’re in. I think we’re always looking for meaning in stuff. And maybe this is a bit of a reminder that it all means something, I think, if we’re looking for it.
I want to talk about a couple of the songs on the EP, and I want to start with “My Poor Mama”. That’s the dirtiest, grittiest guitar I’ve heard in such a long time. How did that riff get built?
Well, you know what? This is an interesting song because it was actually released already by one of the writers, Corey Crowder, who is one of the top writers in Nashville right now. Corey is an artist as well, so he put this song on a couple years ago, down in the United States. My manager, Mike Denney, loved this song and thought, why wasn’t it ever released up here in Canada? He came to me and said, “Hey, would you want to put this one up here?”
And I said, “Yeah, for sure.” And so we thought about it for a bit. And actually, I didn’t say, “Yeah, for sure.” I first said, “I’m not sure. I don’t really know where this fits into my story.” And then after hearing it, I was like, “Wait a second,” because My Poor Mama is all about putting your mama through the ringer. And if you had my mom on here right now, she would say, “Don was an angel.” But the truth of it is, my brother was really the devil on her back sometimes.
And so I thought about it. I was like, “Wait, this is really about him and mom.” And so I reached out to my brother and I said, “Hey, would you like to be part of this song?” He’s a guitar player. And he said, “Yeah, sure.”
So he actually came in and recorded this solo on this song, and he’s actually going to be appearing in the music video with me as well. So it’s the first time as brothers working together and yes, it’s a bit of a family affair. But the guitar stuff, to be honest, that’s Danick Dupelle, guitar player from Emerson Drive and producer extraordinaire here from Canada and working down in Nashville as well. He’s a monster on the guitar and really put some cool riffs down for this track for sure.
The other song I wanted to talk to you about is “You Can’t Always be 21”. It has an explicit and a clean version. Could tell me about that song?
It’s the very first time I’ve ever sworn in a song. Anybody that knows Don Amero, knows I don’t swear. But the line in that one is, “Now’s the time to get your shit together.” At first, I struggled with it because I thought, oh man, I’ve never had a little E beside my name before in one of my songs. And I thought, why didn’t they just say something else? Why didn’t they say, “Get your stuff together,” because universal radio can play it without any issues. And then as I thought about it more and more, I realized, wait a second, there is no better line that really emphasizes where you’re at. And if you don’t have your stuff together, you would say, “Get your shit together.” And so that’s why it stuck for me. But we knew also radio wouldn’t play it because of the swear word, so we had to make a clean version as well.
You mentioned, you’re both the songwriter as well as the singer. But what does it feel like when you have to edit songs like “You Can’t Always be 21 because of “content”?
It’s always a level of respect. I have to go back to the writers. There’s another one on this album called “Let You”, where I felt like in the chorus, there was a line in there that just didn’t sit right with me. And so the chorus goes… Now, I’m trying to remember what it was. There’s a line that was said. It’s about a two people meeting one night, and then they were really into each other. And one of them says to the other like, “I swear, I won’t hit the brakes.” Kind of like saying, “If I tell you we’re going to go all the way, we’re going to go all the way.” But in some way I struggle with that because it was like, well, no, in this day and age, it’s never okay. If somebody ever wants to say, “I’m calling it quits. I’m saying done. We got to stop,” whatever, I want people to feel comfortable to say that.
So I went back to the writers and I said, “I can’t sing the line, ‘I swear I won’t hit the brakes.’ But just change it to, ‘I don’t want to hit the brakes,’ as in like ‘I’m in total control of myself.’” It was just more like, with the #MeToo movement and people feeling control of their own bodies and all those things. So I went back to the writers and I said, “Can I change this lyric?” And they all talked among themselves, and they understood my logic behind changing the lyrics.
So it really is a sign of respect for the writers because they work really hard basically, sometimes on word by word. They really put a lot of effort in that. So it’s really a level of respect.
The last song I want to chat about is “I Hate That Song”. Is there a specific song that you’re actually referring to?
Well, it’s funny because I wrote this one, I’m going to go maybe say three or four years ago. I was up late, and I can’t even remember the song. I was listening to Jessica Mitchell’s album from a couple years ago, and Jessica Mitchell’s a fantastic artist and just an incredible singer.
And she gets you right in all the good feels, well actually all the sad feels. A lot of the times I’m listening to her songs, and I’m heartbroken by them. And I remember listening to it and I said, “I hate that song,” not meaning I hate it. I love this song, but what it caused in me, all the emotions and all the feelings of longing and pain and loneliness.
This EP continues your country sound. What brought you from folk to country?
I always say that it was a bit of a natural progression for me. It was never anything I felt like I forced. I come by it honestly. My dad was a bluegrass guitar player, my mom a country singer and still is. She still loves singing country. And I think back when I was a kid, they really had this desire to do something with their music.
But they never did get it off the ground because they had us so young and just priorities shift and change. And you can’t be the musician you want to be when you have kids when they were kids themselves. They were just teenagers. And so for me, I first of all started to learn and play guitar. I think even country songs, when you strip them down, can have a bit of that folk and roots kind of feel.
And so for me, it was just again a natural evolution. Once you get the band together, songs start feeling a little more country. Honestly it all just lent itself to me putting my foot more in the world of country music. Then it landed me the record deal with MDM when I had an opportunity to perform Church at the Country Music Awards a couple years ago.
Mike loved what I did, and it just started this whole trajectory more and more and solidifying my position as a country artist. But I often say when people say, “What are you?” I say, “I’m roots, country, pop, soul, funk.” It’s a little bit of everything in there. It’s all influenced that.
And I think the majority of listeners nowadays aren’t genre specific. They’re listening to songs that’s going to move them. To me, I’m less genre specific as a listener too, because I want to listen to music that’s going to move me, and that’s all over the map in terms of genres.
This year we spoke with Crystal Shawanda about her change from Country to Blues. She felt better connected with the blues, and it was more natural for her. Is that the same way it is for country for you?
Yeah, at the end of the day, I’m less concerned about writing songs that fit into some mold and more about how can I be my truest self and bring that to the table and still feel like I’m putting good quality art out there and blending all the things that I’ve learned that make me who I am up until now. And I hope I’m far from the best version of me as I keep building and growing as a person, as an adult, and as a father, as a husband, all those things. They’d all lend themselves to the evolution of me.
There’s no better way for me to say that. I keep saying that, but that’s really what it is. I venture to guess that one day there may be a soul record that comes out that I put together. All these influences are in there, and they’re all part of me. I’m more about, again, like I say, just music that’s going to move you. And if it moves me, I’m not so concerned with the genre.
You have a couple guests on the EP. Rhianna Rae Saj and Raquel Cole, how did they come become part of this?
That’s funny, because Rhianna sings on “I Hate That Song”. I didn’t intend for it to be a duet. I wrote it just as me and my guitar, and I said that’s how it was going to sit. And then I was talking with my producer friend, Roman Clarke, who’s a fantastic musician, too. And he said, “I think you need a woman’s voice on here.” And I said, “Yeah, who do you have in mind?” And he said, “Rhianna is coming into the studio tomorrow. Maybe I can ask her.”
And I’ve heard of Rhianna’s name. I never met her officially. But I said, “Yeah, let’s see how it sounds.” And he sent me back what she did, and I loved it immediately. And we’ve since met and had a chance to sing that song live together, and she’s fantastic. She’s also a local Winnipeg artist.
Raquel Cole and I both work with Danick Dupelle. So as we were putting “Let You” together, because “Let You” was initially a duet to begin with, so we knew we needed to find somebody else. And Raquel is an incredible artist and somebody I have much admiration and respect for. So when Danick said, “What about bringing in Raquel?”
I was like, “Absolutely.” I love what she’s doing. And we came up together in the last little while through the top of the country program, and now she’s the top three finalist, well deserved. And we snagged her for this duet before she got too famous.
You’re someone that’s very proud of their heritage. Tell me what it means to be Cree and Metis heritage.
It’s interesting because I didn’t always know that about myself. And that’s one of those things I learned along the way as a young man and looking at my roots and trying to figure out who I was. Sometimes in order to figure out who you are, you got to know where you came from. It took some soul searching, but that’s a major part of who I am.
I recognize that I have an opportunity to change minds and hearts and get on the front lines of being able to give people an example of what it is to be an indigenous person in the music world. And none of us look the same. Everybody’s different, and we all come to the table and have different offerings. So for me, it is a major part of who I am and a big part of what I want to share with audiences.
You’ve had one of the strangest moments of 2021 when you were asked to sing the national anthem upon the initial discovery of the 215 residential school children. You went ahead head with it. Can you talk about the decision to continue with it and your feelings during the performance?
I’ll be honest with you. That was a trying time, because of a number of different fronts, one, the uncovering of these children who the indigenous community has been claiming for a long, long time.
And so carrying the weight of that and also knowing that the whole country was now wrestling with the realities of this and a country that, to proudly sing a national anthem was really hard for me. I often say that I’m not a Canadian that’s ashamed of who we are.
There’s some shame about this country’s past that I think many of us are wrestling with and grappling with. But I’m not ashamed of the work we’re doing. I think there’s a lot of really good things. And so I thought, you know what? I can get up on stage and sing an anthem in a particular way. And so I got up, and essentially all I did was slow it down and I gave each word its moment in a sense.
I really wanted the listeners to digest what the song said. Because I think so many of us sing this song without really thinking about the lyric and don’t really think about what it means, because most of us have been singing it since we were in kindergarten without much thought. And so that was my whole intention there.
Since then, I’ve been asked to sing the anthem a couple of times. And I’ve personally made the commitment that I will not sing the anthem the normal way until everybody in Canada has clean drinking water, and that’s just a personal thing I’ve set that I want to see action in place for more justice and more equality.
I think that’s for me, one of the markers of being able to say I can sing this anthem in an anthemic way. That’s nothing to say or to take away from anybody who does sing the anthem. My kids and I, they go to school and they sing the anthem. I told them, “There’s nothing wrong with you guys in the anthem.” Truth be told, I would be at an arena and I would probably sing along in the normal way.
But in order for me to lead the people through an anthem, I don’t personally feel the anthem resides in me that way anymore.
Is there a lesson that you want people to take away from your performance and your decision to actually perform?
We can find peace. We can find our way to reconciliation peacefully. We did wrestle with it, the idea of not singing the anthem and taking a knee and just bowing my head and maybe not even being there at all. All those things felt divisive to us. And we just said, if anything, this country needs unity now more than ever. Not singing the anthem to me felt like it wasn’t unity.
The other thing was, a number of people did feel challenged by it. And a number of people said, “I wish you didn’t sing the anthem.” And I said, “That gave me opportunity to have conversation personally with them.” So a few people that came up to me and said, “Hey, I struggle with the way you sang the anthem.” And I said, “Well, let’s talk about that. What made you struggle?”
It really opened up doorways to have those deeper conversations. So for me, it was really just about a conversation piece, allowing people to think deeper about the lyrics, but also hopefully spurring them on to have deeper conversations with their circle around them.
As a songwriter, you’re also a storyteller. How much of your heritage inspires your writing?
That’s a good question. I get asked that now and again. So for me, I think I was alluding to this earlier, I didn’t grow up with much indigenous roots. I grew up as a city guy. My dad’s from Nova Scotia. So I have East Coast Acadian-European descent, and my mom is the Cree and Metis side. And for me, it was like, I felt like I didn’t really know what my identity was.
As I got older and began to do this work and search on who I was in my past or who our family is, I recognized that the indigenous roots. And I’ve always felt more of a connection there.
For me, the big connection is through the seven teachings. The Seven Sacred Teachings are, love, courage, honor, wisdom, humility, truth. There’s one other one I’m missing. But all those things, I believe, are part of my DNA, and they all shine through in my music and in my stories. I think anybody follows the thread of Don Amero’s career, I believe you can point out all those things in the journey.
Advocacy work is obviously important to you as well. Why is it so important?
I think I’ve been really gifted with an opportunity to have a voice that people, not all people, but some people listen to. And I think that people are receptive to what I have to share. So I feel like with that comes a responsibility to, again, take people on the deeper journey and hopefully inspire and encourage others to do good things themselves in the world around them.
And I think the only way I can do that is by sharing my heart and what’s important to me and not just the surface stuff. I think it’s okay to get together and have a good time. It’s okay to want to have fun. But really my whole thing is like, how can we continue to make your life better? How can we continue to make the world better by the works that we do?
And so that’s been my whole thing really, as I said it before, unity, create more space for that. And just allowing people to really grow and at least give them my ideas of how to grow, and that’s the best I could do.
Last question for you. Tell me about Music is Medicine.
Music is Medicine, that’s a workshop I started a number of years ago. I want to say four or five years ago. Honestly, that started with curiosity for me. I started looking around to find out what’s actually happening on a biological level in our bodies, when we listen to music.
I started basically calling all this research that other people did the hard work on, and I would just put their words together in a presentation and make it a bit of my own and share some examples of what music is doing for me, and share scientifically what’s happening.
Maybe it sounds boring, but really in the context of the way that I share it through songs, through stories, through videos, it gives people a deeper understanding that then music that we listen to actually has a deep physiological effect on us, and it’s moving us in really incredible ways.
But I don’t think many of us stop to consider what’s happening when we listen to music in that way. When we administer the music as medicine, it’s really quite cool.
I’m an avid listener to a lot of different kinds of music, and it all blends in differently in my day, depending on what’s going on. For me, I consider that medicine, depending on what I’m doing.
When I’m cooking, it’s different to what I’m listening to when I’m walking. And all that adds up, giving me a better experience overall in whatever it is that I’m doing.
My hope is just sharing a bit of that side of music, and getting people to think a little bit deeper about the music that we’re listening to.
Go to DonAmero.ca to check out tour dates, music and more.