The Label Makers celebrates independent record labels from across so-called Canada. This month’s featured label is Ishkōdé Records.
When I ask musicians and co-owners of Ishkōdé Records Amanda Rheaume and ShoShona Kish about the label’s biggest successes so far, Kish is quick to point to her partnership with Rheaume.
“For me, [our partnership] has a really powerful, vital place in my life where I’m always learning, and I feel such an immeasurable amount of support,” she says. “Amanda brings gifts to the table that are really different from my own, and this allows things to be possible that I couldn’t even imagine or never would have imagined were it not for this partnership. It feels like alchemy.”
“ShoShona is okay, I guess,” responds Rheaume before the pair dissolve into laughter. “It’s funny, we’re so busy all of the time, and so it’s nice to voice these things because it really is true, it’s a perfect partnership. I learn every single day from being in this partnership and also friendship with ShoShona.”
Kish and Rheaume first met in the early 2000s at the Ottawa Folk Festival, and as touring artists, they crossed paths throughout the years. But the catalyst for their friendship was a show in 2017 at the National Arts Centre. The show was a celebration of Indigenous women that Kish produced and hosted, and Rheaume played. They kept in touch afterwards, and one day Kish called Rheaume to ask if she was interested in joining a new project she was starting, the International Indigenous Music Summit (IIMS). After a couple of years of planning, Kish and Rheaume are, respectively, the artistic director and operations manager of IIMS; the first summit took place (virtually) in 2021. That same year, they launched Ishkōdé Records.
The idea to start a label emerged during conversations Kish and Rheaume had about the incredible amount of talented Indigenous musicians and how little support was available to them. “As we were moving in all of these spaces and organizing different things and doing our own music, the detrimental gap in opportunities in the music industry for Indigenous artists became clear,” says Rheaume. “Most, maybe all, major labels do not have any Indigenous artists.” When pandemic lockdowns halted Kish and Rheaume’s touring schedules giving them some free time, the label started to materialize.
Alongside Rheaume and Digging Roots (Kish’s band with Raven Kanatakta), Ishkōdé’s roster includes singer-songwriter Aysanabee and singer-songwriter and fiddler Morgan Toney. This year, the label released three full-length records: Rheaume’s The Spaces In Between, Digging Roots’ Zhawenim, and Watin, the debut album from Aysanabee.
When Kish and Rheaume first heard the powerful voice and songwriting of Aysanabee and Toney’s energetic fiddle-centric music — his debut album First Flight (2021) includes both original compositions and re-imagined Mi’kmaq songs — Kish and Rheaume felt an instant connection. But it’s more than just Aysanabee and Toney’s music Kish and Rheaume were drawn; they describe both artists as having the power to “move spirit.”
“The name Ishkōdé, which means fire in Anishinaabemowin, was inspired by prophecy,” Kish explains. “The binding concept that we wanted to come together with on this project was related to amplifying the voices that we felt were part of that Seventh Fire prophecy. In that prophecy, each fire relates to a different time or epoch. The elders say that now is the Seventh Fire, and it’s said to be a time of great turmoil and a crossroads where we are going to have to collectively decide whether we stay on the path that we’re on, which is the path of exploitation and disenfranchisement from community and disconnection from our birth mother the Earth, or we can choose to return to our teachings. We can choose to return to a more balanced relationship with our birth mother, the Earth, and to have deeper relationships with community and with one another. If we choose that path of returning to our teachings, we can light that Eighth and final fire. It’s said that the lighting of that fire will mark a time of eternal peace and harmony and unity.
“So when I think about these teachings, and I think about the role that artists can play in them, I feel really inspired, and it feels really urgent, to be honest about it. We came together around this idea of amplifying voices that can help us find our way to lighting that Eighth Fire.”
On their Instagram bio, Ishkōdé Records, whose distributing partner is Universal Music Canada, describe themselves not as a label but as a “music company.” It’s a more fitting description, the pair note, for the varied roles that Ishkōdé and their artists have. “Ishkōdé is about protecting our narrative sovereignty as Indigenous peoples, creating a safe space for artists, and moving out of an exploitive model into a collaborative model where we are creating collective abundance together,” Kish explains.
Ishkōdé’s artists are shareholders in the label and maintain ownership of their songs, and Kish and Rheaume see the flexibility of the label’s collaborative model as key in the label’s development. “We wanted to create a model that would be able to grow with us as we better learned how to interpret who we are in these spaces and create bridges in ways that were meaningful,” Rheaume notes.
“We’re still at the beginning of understanding how to shake up the industry in all different ways that I think are necessary. Not because we are Indigenous but because the industry needs to evolve and change, and new ideas are so important. Although Indigenous knowledge and ways of seeing the world aren’t new, they are new to these spaces, and I think that there’s a lot to learn and a lot to share in that way,” says Kish.
Listening to Kish and Rheaume talk to and about each other and Ishkōdé records is a joy to witness. They are deliberate with their words, leave space for the other, and excitedly amplify one another’s ideas. This strong bond and mutual trust is the foundation of their work together, and as they look ahead, they hope Ishkōdé Records sparks change and helps create more opportunities for Indigenous artists.
“I just want to hear Indigenous artists in every space that I go in. Everywhere I go. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Wow, look at that Indigenous person over there now!’ I want it everywhere and more integrated into society and the music industry,” says Rheaume.
“I think that seismic shifts are possible in the music industry, and I see Ishkōdé as a leader in shifting things and opening new possibilities,” Kish adds. “I’m excited to shake things up and make room for things that we haven’t even dreamed yet.”