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A renowned classical soprano, Deantha Edmunds excels at bridging the many dimensions of Nunatsiavut musical traditions and building collaborations between opera and Inuit performance. Her practice has expanded toward more original compositions with the 2022 release of her first solo album of original material, Connections. On the occasion of being longlisted for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, Edmunds sits down with us to discuss the new places her work is taking her.
Inuit Art Quarterly: What would winning the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award mean for you?
Deantha Edmunds: It would mean so much. As a writer, as a singer and as an educator, I try to use my voice to uplift others. There's so much lateral violence within the community. To me, it's of utmost importance that we uplift each other. It's not all competition. It's about connecting with our own light, and the light that we shine on each other.
The last song on my album Connections, “Life's Song,” I feel says it best. The chorus is “Ignite that gentle inner fire. Let it rise like voices in a choir. Flames dancing, bright and strong, keeping time with your life song.” The last words that I sing are “How will you be remembered?” I am accompanied by a string quartet, and my voice melts into the throat singers’ love song. That's what it's all about: How will you be remembered? You want to be remembered for the love that you gave.
Deantha Edmunds’ handwritten lyrics for “Life’s Song”© THE ARTIST
IAQ: Are there any future projects or collaborations that this award would allow you to do?
DE: It means a lot to me to work with youth. I would love to put together a choir of Inuit youth from across Inuit Nunangat to create a song together and then perform it, and release a video or recording. I think that would be so special.
IAQ: We’ve covered some of this before in the IAQ, but can you share how you got your start?
DE: Well, my dad was from Hopedale, NL, and my mother is Irish-Newfoundlander, from the east coast of Newfoundland. I grew up on the west coast, and our family home was full of music. Singing, to me, always felt like I was being my best self. I learned my first German classical solo when I was 12, and I was thrilled.
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher, a singer, a writer and a mom. I am doing all those things, and I feel really blessed.
It was later in life—in my 30s—that I found out about the history of classical music in Nunatsiavut. To find out that 250 years ago, Inuit were singing these great sacred works by classical composers, all in Inuttitut, meant so much to me. It's such a thrill and a privilege to have that in my ancestry, in my family, in my career, in my repertoire.
Now, I work to teach my daughter some of those traditions as well. She sings quite a few pieces in Inuttitut from that repertoire. It means so much to me to be able to pass that on and to celebrate her gift.
Deantha Edmunds performing Shanawdithit (2019) at Tapestry OperaCOURTESY TAPESTRY OPERA PHOTO DAHLIA KATZ
IAQ: You’ve reached a new point in your career. How have things changed for you over the last couple of years?
DE: I've always been a writer, but it really wasn't until the past ten years or so that I've been writing my own songs. So much of my career was spent performing classical music. Writing was more of a personal thing. Through songwriting, I really came into my own. I also spent a lot of time these past few decades teaching and mentoring young musicians. I was wanting to shift from that to using my own voice, through my writing, composing and performing. That's brought me so much joy and so many different opportunities in the past few years.
A few years ago, I wrote myself a letter and listed all the things that I feel I am, what makes me me, and what makes me happy. I'm at a place where I am celebrating all those different parts that make up me, and so blessed to have the opportunity to do so.
IAQ: You’ve collaborated with a lot of people. Do you have a dream collaborator?
DE: Jeremy Dutcher? I love him. I'm such a big fan. I think it would be magical to work with him.
IAQ: If you could have any superpower or talent or a skill, what would you wish for?
DE: I wish I could take away people's pain. Honestly, there are so many of us living with pain: emotional, trauma, physical. How wonderful would it be to take that away?
IAQ: What do you have coming up in 2023?
DE: I have a lot of different interesting things going on. I am going to be performing in Toronto on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I'm going to be doing something at the Stratford Summer Music Festival and touring a one-woman play called Stolen Sisters throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
There are at least three new pieces that I'm writing. One of them is an intergenerational project, where I’m collaborating with a young female Inuk artist who is a student in Nunatsiavut, who is going to teach me and two throat singers how to weave seagrass. We're going to create a piece weaving together our voices in those different styles, hopefully to create a video or a performance piece. I'm writing a piece called “Angmalukisaa” which means “round,” so it has a theme of rings: the rings that tell the age of a tree, concentric sound rings and ripples of water.
I'm writing another piece that's going to be published in a book about the REDress Project, by Jaime Black. It’s based on a song that I wrote that has to do with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People, and the life that it's had and continues to have.
I'm also writing a piece called “Song of the Whale,” a collaboration with a local composer and high school choir. That will be performed in June underneath the skeleton of a blue whale in the atrium of the new Memorial University Core Science Facility.
All of these pieces that I'm writing have to do with our treatment of the land, the water and each other, and how that will reverberate throughout the universe for eons.
Read interviews with the other longlisted artists.
This interview was conducted by phone in December 2022. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.