Last weekend’s Juno Awards established William Prince as a musician to watch.
The singer-songwriter from Peguis First Nation took home a Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year on April 1, in addition to a nomination for Indigenous Album of the Year. That same evening, his stirring rendition of “Breathless” for the Junos Gala Dinner and Awards “In Memoriam” had the industry talking.
Prince took a break from his Juno Week rehearsal schedule on Friday to chat about folk music, the songwriting process, and the Canadian arts scene.
His Juno-winning debut Earthly Days “was a number of years in the making,” during which Prince cut his teeth performing in various folk festivals around Canada.
Folk music has “always been a quieter genre,” he says. “It’s not a ‘magazine cover’ branch of music; it’s not a billion-views-on-a-video kind of thing. It’s quiet and it’s humble, in a sense.”
Prince’s sparse, poetic songs are inspired by the “everyday” lives of his family and friends. For instance, his early song “The Carny,” which he says “set the tone” for the rest of the album, was about one of Prince’s “very good friends” who took a summer job at a carnival. The track, which hit number one on Sirius XM’s National Aboriginal Music Countdown, paints a bittersweet picture of “carny life:” “Popcorn, soda, and caramel apples / Three weeks in, he couldn’t stand ‘em / Sleeping on a paper-thin mattress / Praying for early rain.”
His early songs started as “poems” which he would set to music; alternately, he’ll start with a guitar melody and add lyrics afterwards. Inspiration can come spontaneously, and Prince often finds himself recording lyrics into his phone.
“A lot of the time, I just kind of drive around in the quiet, and words come to me.”
By the time Earthly Days was recorded, Prince had “thirty songs to choose from,” which he then “whittled down” to the eleven that made the album. The final product, he says, includes “some [songs] that I’ve been working on for upwards of ten years, and some that just kind of happened during the month leading up to actually recording it.”
He initially struggled to record Earthly Days, and credits friend and producer Scott Nolan for helping the record come together. “I was a long-time fan of his and always loved his song-writing,” Prince says of Nolan.”
“He helped me fast-forward into a comfort zone of ‘It’s okay to play a little slower, it’s okay to be quiet and invite people in to listen to you and really hear you,’” Prince explains. “I’ve always kind of had a softer, slower approach to things in my own writing, and he sort of solidified that that was okay.”
Prince became a fan of Nolan’s music after seeing him open for Serena Ryder. The two met several years later at an Idle No More show in Winnipeg, and a friendship developed organically from there. “We didn’t discuss music at all [at first],” Prince notes. “As we got to be better friends, that’s when music started to naturally flow.”
“I’m very much inspired by my friends, my peers,” Prince adds, making sure to give a shout-out to Earthly Days mastering engineer Jamie Sitar and citing musicians Richard Inman (“a great singer-songwriter”) and Lynn Miles (who he called his “dream” collaboration) as inspirations.
“I’m so lucky to call these people friends,” he says. “They rub off on me in the best way.”
Prince says that his involvement in the Canadian folk music scene has taught him to “just be thankful and treat people with respect and love.” When you forge positive relationships with your fellow artists, he says, “they’ll want to work with you again” and will “spread your gospel for you.”
“If you’ve got a good heart, you can go a long way in Canadian music,” he concludes.
Prince, who was named Aboriginal Artist of the Year at last year’s Western Canadian Music Awards, was heartened to see the Junos change the name of his category from “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous” Album of the Year.
“’Aboriginal’ is kind of a definition given by the government [referring to] our potential that can be met through the government’s eyes,” explains Prince. “That’s sort of an oppression thing.”
He feels the term “Indigenous” is both less stigmatized and “broader,” encompassing a wider variety of music by First Nations artists: “‘Indigenous’ flows a little more over the fact that it can be traditional music, and it can be country music, and it can be the folk music that I do.”
Calling a Juno Award “one of the highest honours you can receive in Canadian music,” Prince said his own nominations provided validation “that my songwriting wasn’t a fluke.”
“Art isn’t a competition,” he stresses; “I’m in categories with my friends [who] I hope win.” However, being nominated feels “like a payoff to my friends and family and those people that believed in me the longest.”
That said, while he appreciates Canada’s “quite generous” arts infrastructure, Prince doesn’t believe that artists should count on “any one entity” to jumpstart their careers.
“A lot of onus has to be put on one’s own art,” he says. “At the end of the day, you’re going to make your career. It’s how much you want it and keep working at your craft.”
In the coming year, Prince plans to play a series of festivals in Canada, as well as some dates in Denmark and the U.K.
“I’d love to reach out to more places, play with more artists that I respect and admire, and just keep singing,” he says.
“That’s always the plan – just keep playing.”
Header image credit: Mike Latchislaw