In April, I tried something new.

I stepped onto a stage (The Capitol, in Port Hope, Ontario) and up to the mic, and I spoke.

I didn’t sing. At all.

I talk a lot during my shows, you know that. Telling stories between songs has always been as important as performing the songs themselves. That telling makes bridges and offers moments of reprieve, a chance to respond to that exact moment, and a chance for us to know each other a little better in another way.

As important, but not the goal. I sing for you; that has always been why I take a deep breath and step up to the mic. It has always been my job, my joy, and the means through which to open my heart and yours. That exchange is a magical thing we do together.

Since my thyroidectomy last year, I have not performed. Instead, I’ve been writing, staying in one place (sleeping in my own bed All The Time!), and working as an associate producer in digital at CBC. It’s been a good year, one where I have missed and gained many things.

I had, not long after the thyroid surgery, performed at ideacity in Toronto last June, and as a solution to the problem of my shaky voice, I spoke for half my time and half-talked through the parts of the songs my voice couldn’t sing:

 

That was an unforgettable day, and I knew from then that my voice needed a break; a chance to recover.

In January, my friends at Greenwood Coalition asked me to be part of their annual Imaginate. I said yes. Then I panicked.

I wasn’t ready to sing. So what could I do?

Trying to answer that question became the conversation. I spoke to Nana Aba Duncan on CBC’s Fresh Air about trying to figure it out:

And then on April 13, I stepped out from the wings with no guitar in hand nor piano to turn to, and I told the ears and hearts there what I’ve been trying to come to terms with with my voice.

It was something new. And it was wonderful.

Here is part of what I shared with the audience that night.

Tonight in Port Hope! I’m really honoured to be part of this.

A post shared by Christa Couture (@christacouture) on

I’m going to tell a few stories about names. When my mom was pregnant with me, I was named Matthew. She was sure she was having a Matthew.

When I was born, and Matthew no longer seemed a fit, it took her a few days to think of an alternative. Eventually: Christa. Christa Faye. She thought it suited me, and she was right! I have always felt like a Christa. 

And I have always loved the stories behind names and the meaning of names. I want to know how your name was chosen for you, or how you chose it for yourself. Middle names are often ripe with backstory: there’s the great aunt the middle name is after or the first sight a parent saw on the day of your birth and so on. And there’s just something about these stories that I have always found so enticing.

So the story of my name Christa started with Matthew. But I also have another name.

My mother is Norwegian and Swedish, my father was Cree. And when I was two-years-old, I was given my traditional name.

In my Cree culture, in many Indigenous cultures, our traditional names are given in ceremony, and they speak to our role in our community. They speak to our gifts, and they speak to our duty to use those gifts.

My traditional name is Sanibe.

Say nee bay.

It’s not actually a Cree word because the elder who gave me my name was Arapaho, we were in that territory, and you work with what you’ve got… and so my traditional name is Sanibe. And it means Singing Woman.

At my naming ceremony, the elder Raymond told my family: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.” And that is a story that I heard over and over when I was growing up. “Oh Raymond told us, she’s going to sing a lot and she’s going to talk a lot…” I loved that story.

As Singing Woman, I have been writing songs for as long as I can remember. And for the past 15 years, I’ve been recording those songs and performing them on stages across Canada and Europe and doing my job — being true to my name.

Singing songs has been not only my job but also how I have survived the hardest parts of my life. I am a person who has experienced a lot of loss. The loss of my leg to cancer, the loss of my father, the loss of my two children who have both died, the loss of my marriage after that.

I write about those losses in all of my songs. And in getting to share those stories through music, I have felt seen and heard. And with grief in particular, which is such a lonely emotion, I have had moments with you where I have felt less alone.

Someone asked me recently, most specifically to the loss of my children: “How are you okay?” And that’s hard to answer simply because like anyone I’m not in a fixed state. Sometimes I’m okay, and sometimes I’m not okay, and that’s human. But I did say that time passing helps, and singing and writing helps.

Which is the reciprocal part of Sanibe — that the name speaks to what I can give, but it has also been a huge part of what I’ve received.

Now a year ago, I had two surgeries on my neck: one to remove thyroid cancer, and a second to address an arterial bleed that erupted. And those surgeries changed my voice. They changed my singing voice. I can still sing, it’s just different, and I haven’t quite figured out how to use this new voice. Earlier this year, I was struggling very much with that reality.

How can I be Singing Woman if I’m not singing songs? That’s the whole point! And I was actually here in Port Hope, on my way to meet David and Beth Sheffield to talk about Imaginate, to talk about this exact moment, and Raymond’s story that I’ve heard so many times came to mind: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.”

For the first time ever, I heard the second half of that teaching. I’d always heard the “she’s going to sing a lot,” that part is obvious. And I had thought “she’s going to talk a lot part” just meant that I was chatty.

But for the first time, it occurred to me, that “she’s going to talk a lot“ was also a part of being Sanibe. That it could also be part of why I’m here and what my role is.

I felt a huge relief to consider it that way.

So instead of writing songs, I’ve been writing my stories down, and I’m going to read one of them to you now. This is a story that I have told in songs, but it comes out a little differently on the page….

…at which point, I opened my notebook and read one of the chapters in progress of my book. Reading to an audience felt raw and new, exciting, too. But also familiar — it turns out stepping up to a mic and opening my heart doesn’t need a guitar or piano or melody to be the invitation to listeners that singing always has been.

I’ve been keeping this one to myself for a little while, but the time has come to finally release it: I’ve a music video for Alone in This!

It’s warm, it’s golden, it’s got a star-studded pretend band, and it’s directed by Gaëlle Legrand whose work I adore. We filmed in the lovely Berkeley Bicycle Club in Toronto, the video initially premiered on Beatroute (thanks folks!), and here it is:

About that band… that’s the dashing Gary Craig you see on drums in the video and he did play on Long Time Leaving. But, John Dymond who played bass and Steve Dawson who played slide (and 100 other instruments) could not be in the video, so I got the top-notch Derek Downham and Aaron Goldstein to impersonate them. Yes, even when people are pretending to play my songs, I aim for the best.

And yes pedal steel nerds you are correct: Aaron’s steel is a newer instrument than the one Steve plays on the album.

Now, not only is there a new video, there are a couple of new remixes of the song. Ever since I bought every single Tori Amos single in the ’90s I have dreamed of having my own work re-imagined. I am thrilled that Anishinaabe electronic artist Ziibiwan and Toronto dj Owen List both lent their talents to disparate, delicious versions. One ripe for spring, the other possesed of a deep groove. Get the single with the two remixes for free, here.

In related good news, Long Time Leaving has been nominated for Best Folk Album in this year’s Indigenous Music Awards. I’m in the category with a few friends and favourites, and I so looking forward to the party in May celebrating the brilliant work being made in Indian Country.

Otherwise, I haven’t been performing for a few months, since last June when I had a thyroidectomy that impacted my voice. So I’m very happy to get to share my music in these ways, this week. I may not be bringing these songs to you in person, but I am wrapping them up in old wood finishes and sweet spring birds. xoc

 

A year ago, I wrote a not-that-happy-happy-new-year song, and I think it still rings true, perhaps even more so as we survive and struggle and thrive and push forward into 2017.

Here’s to us, my melting snow banks and shining January 1st stars. I love you so.

 

To Us (Happy New Year)

Happy new year! I wrote this wee ditty yesterday with all the best wishes for a new year of mess and beauty. To us!

Posted by Christa Couture on Friday, January 1, 2016

Lyrics:

Oh, our human ways that we tally up the days
We fold the corner of the page to keep our spot
And then we act amazed to see a number change
Like it’s us that’s rearranged when it’s not

I’m not one to tell you, hon, “it’ll be alright”
Of course it might be, but here’s the rub: not tonight

So happy new year to choices, to losses, and divorces
To all the best intent that missed the mark
Happy new year to brilliance, to stillness, and to sickness
To that which didn’t kill us that made us hard

No I’m not one to tell you, hon, “we’re in the clear”
Of course we might be, but here’s the rub:
Probably not this year

So happy new year to resentment, to enjoyment, disappointment
To all the best laid plans we won’t pull off
Happy new year to the weary, to fury, and recovery
To that which doesn’t kill us that makes us soft

Yes, to that which doesn’t kill us that makes us soft

I’m not one to tell you, hon, “don’t give up”
But if you don’t you’ll get the joke that is yet to come

Happy new year
Happy new year
To us.

I’m writing. Not songs, for the time being, but pages and pages of stories. True stories: some of the ones I’ve been telling in songs for years are now finding a new place as I continue to try and understand and share the experiences, and some I haven’t told before.

As it stands, I’m writing a book about loss. And as I write and research, I’ve been reading many other books about grief and also memoir in general.

This week, a column I recorded with Shelagh Rogers for The Next Chapter aired on CBC about the books I’ve turned to.

You can listen to that interview here.

But let me explain.

hisforhawk-220 madeleine-thien-certainty-books100  hotwetandshaking-220

The first three — H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Certainty by Madeleine Thien, and Hot, Wet, & Shaking by Kaleigh Trace are explained in the interview.

But in case you skip the audio, the inclusion of the third needs elaboration because at a glance you are saying, “that’s not a book about loss, that’s a book about sex,” and well YES you are right.

I read Hot, Wet, & Shaking because I was looking at forms of memoir; I read it because it’s written by a disabled woman and as a disabled woman myself HOLY SMOKES is it hard to find our voices represented, much less on the subject of disability AND sex (gasp).

And there are ways that I have equated disability to grief — the space it can take in my days and the planning around it. So this book made it’s way on to the list for that reason as well.

AND Trace’s book empowers difference and different bodies. Which is pretty much everybody/every body. I felt really good about being in my skin after I read the book. You probably will, too.

theboyinthemoon-220  trauma_farm_220  year-of-magical-thinking-220

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown is a book I read at my son Ford’s bedside during the months he was in hospital. Brown and his family spend time navigating the medical system for their disabled son, and I felt comfort is seeing that part of my life reflected. It may not be a book about loss, exactly, but it is, to me, a book about adjustment, acceptance, and parenting.

When speaking about Hawk during the interview, I mention the inspiration I’ve found in books about the natural world. Trauma Farm by Brian Brett is included in this list as one of my favourite examples of that. I find the descriptions of life and death in the animal world refreshingly frank; I relate to the visceral presence of breath, blood, and bodies.

Brett is also very funny.

(I stayed at Trauma Farm, the actual place on Salt Spring Island, while on tour with C.R. Avery in 2012, before I read the book, so I had the delightful insight of knowing the sound of Brett’s voice as I read his words — not required to enjoy the book, I’m sure, but look up some interviews with the guy, he has warmth and character.)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is like the grief classic. I read it just a couple month’s after my son Emmett died and it was the first truly understanding voice I heard in those months. Her experience of loss, in this book, is that of her husband. It didn’t matter the type of loss: the blurriness of time, the in/visibility of the bereaved, all of it was “yes, yes, yes, exactly that, thank you for saying so” for me.

allmypunysorrows-220    whenthingsfallapart-220   paual

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Well, goodness. This book ties for first with Magical Thinking as far as Books That Best Articulate Grief and Chronic Trauma for me. It is full of dark humour, as a life filled with loss often is; it’s beautiful and it aches.

Sorrows, like Certainty on this list, is fiction. But I feel little difference between non- and fiction on the subject, and these two are books that grew out of lived experience; both are full of the author’s own heart break. What feels real is real in these stories.

Pema Chodrin’s When Things Fall Apart is a good, heart-opening approach to suffereing, though I must admit when I first read it, the hardships she was talking about didn’t seem hard enough. This book is perfect for ordinary heartache — not easy heartache mind you, but the kind we’re surrounded by. The book vibrates with compassion.

theheartandthebottle-220If you have, in your thoughts or on paper, written letters to a loved one, perhaps with the things you wish you could have said in person, Paula by Isabel Allende will reach you.

Lastly, the kid’s book The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is on the list as sometimes pictures and just a few words is all you need. There are many kid’s books about loss, and a lot of them bad. This is one of my favourites, as far as how we carry heartache forward.

And that’s the 10 that came to mind when I was asked to put together a list. I am always looking for more friends in books, and I hope you may find a friend in at least one of these, and if not, at least, a little joy or comfort. We can all always use a little more of that.

xoc

I love UnReserved on CBC. I really enjoyed my chat with Rosanna in April while on the Long TIme Leaving Canadian tour (though I had stopped in at CBC Winnipeg to record the live performance of “Alone in This,” the interview was done via studio link with me in Saskatoon) and was thrilled that they invited me back for an extended chat. This time, I got to talk with Rosanna in person in Winnipeg, hurrah!

The premise was to go through some of my musical loves – and it’s too bad (due to rights restrictions) you don’t get to hear the actual songs play in the online version – but from the first ever song I remember being inspired by, we also delved into loss (as ever), we stumbled upon our band name (Rosanna, when we takin’ that show on the road?), I read a passage from “The M Word,” and we got to unrequited crushes, too. All the ups and downs!

 

Chi miigwetch to the UnReserved crew, for having me back on the how, and introducing me to Wine Wednesdays at Moxies.

This piece got some unexpected attention online yesterday, and while it was the basis of that story I did on DNTO in 2015, I never really shared the written version two years ago when it won third place in Room’s nonfiction contest.

Perhaps it would have ranked better if I had employed a copy editor or known then how to reel in comma splices and better place modifiers… ahem. BUT, in all its grammatically error-ed glory, “Wallflower, Late Bloomer.”

Sitting on the edge of the tub I look at the large, red sore on my stumpthe edges of its oval shape roughen in the heat of the shower, small bumps push to the surface.

“What do you call your amputated leg?” H asked, years ago.

“Technically ‘residual limb.’”

“That sounds like something you can’t wash off.”

“Also stump.”

“Like you’re a tree?”

“Like part of me is.”

 

Read the full piece at roommagazine.com.

I love the CBC. I say it all the time, I know. And I LOVE my CBC broadcasters. (Mine!!)

When I heard Candy Palmater would be hosting a new daily afternoon show, I said “Candy for two hours every day?” I think it came out wrong to present company at the time.

“I’m nervous for sure. I feel like all my ancestors are leaned up behind me. When has this ever happened? When has a native person in general ever had the opportunity to talk to the nation for two hours a day? A native woman?”

…said Candy herself, “a gay native feminist comic raised by bikers” no less.

And that’s the thing; it’s huge to have that voice, her voice, every day. I love hearing it. So the chance to meet her and The Candy Show crew was a delight.

You can listen to the whole interview I did with Candy here.

I DO heart CBC! Outside the mothership in Toronto…

I have a new scar (I like scars). It was twice-made three weeks ago today. First, by a thyroidectomy and second, hours later, in an emergency procedure to address an arterial bleed, also known as “that time you were partially decapitated” by my dear (most inadequate adjective) Susan, who was there and who, by being there, may well have saved my life. Doctors had to reopen my neck at the bedside with me still awake, and it was one of the scarier medical moments of my life (a life that’s been riddled with experiencing and witnessing a lot of scary medical moments). Susan and I may have only just, respectively, stopped shaking from the surreal adventure.

We’re okay.

I’m okay. I’ve been incredibly supported by friends through this experience and that support has been a well of feeling love and home.

I can’t yet lift my head too high — so if we hug that’s why I’m resting my cheek on your chest (so cozy!) — and I’m navigating fluctuating calcium levels and new hormones.

Also, my voice. Truth is, I postponed this surgery until after my CD release tour in case it changed my voice. At inspection, my vocal cords are not permanently damaged. They are, temporarily I’m told, by use, changed. My voice is weakened, breathy, and pitchy (pitchy!!). Notes are airy and truncated. Some are out of reach. My voice is slightly unfamiliar and a little wild. I’m getting to know her and she holds surprises. She sounds like me. But different.

It’s only been three weeks.

In the moments that the doctors and nurses were addressing the haematoma, I was staring up at the ceiling thinking “I probably won’t die because there are all these people here to fix this, but I do need space for the pain.” Thank you mindfulness training for planting that thought. I was having difficulty breathing, and blood was pouring down my chest as the surgeon’s fingers pulled open skin, muscle, and pulled clots out of the cavity of my neck. I looked at Susan and saw her fear; I felt fear. I looked at the surgeon and saw his steadiness. I thought about not fighting the pain.

In a week, I’ll be playing a grand piano in Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of my presentation at this year’s ideacity. It’s a remarkable opportunity. And I’ll be showing up with the new voice. All I can do is invite that voice in, and invite others to receive it as I do in every performance. I can’t wish this voice were something it’s not. I can’t fight with it.

Easier said that done, but hey, what’s a practice of trying to be present without reminders of why? Because things can change in an instant.

After ideacity, I’ll be resting this voice and giving it time to return to/find new strength, singing softly to my garden and the trees that frame it, singing to you from here, maybe coming up with new stories of How I Got This Scar (knife fight? Bear attack? Sloppy vampire?), and plotting my next bold move.

xoc

Rather, “The Dead Ladies Project,” one of my favourite reads this year.

I’ve been telling everyone to read it, including CBC’s The Next Chapter. Listen to my review here.

Christa Couture is a singer-songwriter from Vancouver who recently moved to Toronto. She’s just finished reading The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries by Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin.

It’s a travelogue, it’s a memoir, it’s part literary criticism. Jessa is so smart, she’s the founder of Bookslut, which is a really good source for good reads. In this book, she’s also depressed. At the beginning of the book she’s suicidal, so she leaves her home in Chicago and travels to Europe with a single suitcase. She starts to trace the footsteps of dead artists, writers and composers.

…It’s so candid, and it’s raw. What I love about the book is that she’s looking in these cities, she’s looking to these writers and the work they made, and she’s looking in herself. It ends not really with any resolution, but with a sort of resolve that I felt comforted by. I felt companionship in getting to travel with her through this. And then at the end just that sense of having to keep trying. And that the pursuit of art might be the reason to keep going.

It was a 2013 tour in Germany that inspired the first one-line-for-each-place reflection once I got home, and I like trying to extract, or encapsulate, what stands out about each place — especially because once a tour is complete, there can be such a blurring of faces, backdrops, and events. There are also so many vivid and brilliant moments; some of them are still reverberating, shining, giggling, swaying, sighing in my thoughts and bones.

I like to pause and see what comes to mind — not unlike #ddnd on Twitter (“dear day not diary” and a daily highlight composition) — neither too soon after the tour, nor too long. Today is the day, friends, and I’m thinking of the dots and hearts we connected in song from the west to east coasts.

Duncan, your low hanging moon was not where I left it but how I remembered it, and your sun’s warmth was the first of its kind this year; you began.

Victoria, you represented 1996 and 2013 in beautiful women’s big smiles and a folded piece of newsprint with a picture of me.

Vancouver, you filled a room and my heart with every way and time that I know you, and I noticed your touch every single time in slow motion; you were hard to leave.

Ymir, your certain kind of magic was the solution to the long drive’s equation; you hung my poster — and I smiled wide for it — amid flour and sugar.

Calgary, turns out you’re younger than you look and you sound older than you are; your deft repair turned on lights below and ignited backstage giggles.

Lloydminster, your virtual and physical knowledge differed and we championed a comedian’s first, ending it all on a piano bench with white wine and a chorus of “Proud Mary.”

Winnipeg, you sidled up to the curb in a way to besmirch your near-perfect paralell parking reputation and were touched by the presence of Birds Hill to Berlin and back.

Stony Mountain, the first double, you sold girl guide cookies, belly sweat in your new dress, and talked about “the girls” while we exaggerated stories of potential.

Onanole, we drove into your April snow storm and, unplugged, planned musicals and heard of house fires.

Saskatoon, you won over the Statler and Waldorf of the joint and swooned in the arms of a baby grand, melting in her steel and wood.

Calgary, we returned, you beckoned from the hot tub after singing along.

Edmonton, we tried to nap in the “room for crying” and navigated puzzle pieces from the past, remembering the waiting of 7 years ago most.

Sherwood Park, you panned for gold in the Saskatchewan River and spun pure magic near changing walls.

Toronto, as my new home you showed home well:  replies from here, there, and everywhere I’ve reached my hand out to; you held and lifted.

Montreal, you were the best you’ve ever been, near full, smiling, and seeing at long last via Aurora and 73rd Ave.

Ottawa, your rainy Sunday slowed us all down, not to mention those stairs, but you’re always my favourite hiding place and I was glad to close my eyes and rest my head on your shoulder.

Cole Harbour, you were funny and lovely, setting up a new world with a three day life span.

Saint John, your sunset was just one of the warm faces in the crowd, and after the music your eyes-filled with tears as you told me of your lost one; I noticed what I missed about those stories, this time.

Fredericton, the background noise would come and go but we, a small but dedicated few, travelled its peaks and troughs together, glowing for each other; plus gin.

xoc