Isolation is nothing new for Adrian Sutherland. All his life, the singer-songwriter and frontman for rock band Midnight Shine has lived in Attawapiskat, a fly-in town 220 km northwest of Moosonee, on the shore of James Bay. No one is arriving or leaving much these days. While Sutherland doesn’t actually enjoy being “married to his monitor” in the COVID era, he also doesn’t really miss flying to Timmins, then to Toronto, and booking a hotel, and fighting big-city traffic, in order to work with collaborators on his upcoming solo album.

While growing up, Sutherland didn’t know any other serious musicians in his hometown, other than his mother. After performing solo for 10 years, while at college in Timmins and at various community events in northern Ontario, he formed Midnight Shine in 2011, with members from Fort Albany and Moose Factory. The band’s current drummer hails from Norway House, Manitoba. Rehearsals have always been tricky – usually at 3:00 p.m. the day of a show. But that hasn’t stopped them from touring Canada, releasing three acclaimed albums, playing in Germany, and getting a lot of mainstream attention for their 2018 cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” with powwow singing and a verse translated into Cree.

Midnight Shine is still a going concern, although Sutherland released a solo single in 2019. “Politician Man” directly addressed the empty promises regarding his community’s ongoing water crisis—a crisis that got national attention back in 2013, the same year Midnight Shine released their debut album, and culminated in a state of emergency being declared in 2019. Although the 43-year-old bandleader had often addressed social issues, like Attawapiskat’s epidemic of suicide attempts in 2015-16, he felt a need to be more explicit and direct – both lyrically and musically.

“Trying to be positive, trying to charm everyone as Midnight Shine’s frontman, you gotta smile and be as polite as you can and win everyone’s love,” he says. “It’s tiring, because beneath it all, I’m struggling with things I experienced and trying to heal. As a solo artist, I have the freedom to express whatever it is I want to say.”

Water is life
The 2,200 residents of Attawapiskat haven’t had clean running water for years. They have to truck it to their homes from a water dispensary, which was recently replaced. The city’s water plant draws not from the Attawapiskat River, where residents wanted it, but an inland lake where organic material reacts negatively to chlorine, creating unsafe water. That’s been the case for more than 40 years now. What made it worse for Sutherland was when he visited the De Beers diamond mine down the river – population 300 – where the drinking water “was as clean as the water in downtown Toronto,” he says. “They were out there in the bush, as are we. They had state-of-the-art everything there. It’s like a whole different world, a 20-minute flight away from Attawapiskat. If they could do it, why can’t we? I’m in the dark like everyone else – and I live here, which is crazy.”

Sutherland does have a lot to say. He’s lived several lives during his 43 years: as an EMT for more than a decade, as a Canadian Ranger, a MusiCounts ambassador at his local school, a business owner, a grandfather, and a community leader passing on traditional knowledge (our interview had to be postponed because he was on a moose hunt for a week). He lived in a boarding home while attending high school in Timmins. He only recently, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, heard his mother speak about her experiences at the notorious St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany.

“Music… has always been a way for me to find a way through some of those experiences,” he says. “Writing about those things and sharing them really helps me in my own journey to become a better person, to heal. We have to talk about those things; we can’t carry them. Music is my way of doing that.”

It’s not the only way. With encouragement from Tom Wilson, who he met while touring with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings last year, Sutherland recently inked a deal with Penguin Random House to write a memoir, due out in 2022.

“Attawapiskat has been in the media for so many years, and been portrayed a certain way by mainstream media, but never by anyone who actually lives here, who’s been grinding it out here for years,” says Sutherland, who has also blogged for the Huffington Post. “I bring a different perspective. I live and breathe everything about this place, good and bad, and I want to touch on all that stuff, as well as historical stuff, how the Cree see the universe, and the context of what’s happening today.”