The creative process behind Zhawenim, the fourth album from JUNO Award-winning Indigenous husband-and-wife duo Digging Roots, is a compelling blend of the ancient and the contemporary. Singer-songwriters Raven Kanatakta and Shoshona Kish recruited Hill Kourkoutis, recent JUNO winner as Producer of the Year, to co-produce the album with them, as well as co-writing two songs, and playing multiple instruments.

“We had some ideas about growing the sound, and Hill was the perfect person to have on board to help us realize that vision,” says Kish. “When you’re into a journey like Raven and I, then I think the objectivity and clarity an outside person can bring is important.”

The recent single “Skoden” brought Digging Roots their first rock radio airplay, while other tunes continue the group’s tradition of drawing upon such diverse elements as folk, blues, soul, psychedelia, and their Anishinaabe roots.

“Folks have always struggled to put a label on our music,” says Kish. “I’m actually happy it’s undefinable. We seem to be moving to the beat of our own drum, in the sense it’s not exactly this or that. It feels authentic and right for us.” When pressed, Kanatakta comes up with “heartbeat music that carries sweet medicine” as a defining phrase.

In creating the material that appears on Zhawenim (the Ojibway Anishnaabemowiin word for “unconditional love”) Kanatakta and Kish drew upon the tradition of Anishinabek Songlines, one that uses the landscape to inspire music.

“We’ve been using Songlines for a long time,” says Kanatakta.” It started when Shoshona’s great aunt came over and told us about her residential school experience. She also talked about how we used to traditionally write music, which was following Songlines that follow the contours of the land.

“As a result, we have songs that come from specific geographical places. Sometimes I’ll just be looking at pictures of skylines and mountain ranges, as references to come up with a melodic idea. At one point our entire living and dining room were covered with six-foot to nine-foot landscapes that I had photoshopped!”

A work of many healing hands

A key track on Zhawenim is “The Healer,” a song with a message of universal love, featuring an all-star cast of Serena Ryder, Shakura S’aida, Alana Bridgewater, Amanda Rheaume, Kinnie Starr (co-producer of Digging Roots’ JUNO-winning We Are album), and Hill Kourkoutis. “That was an incredible experience,” says Kish. “It’s an ongoing learning journey to create voices with people who are so incredibly talented. We have the joy of working with Alana in our band on the road, and I’m just so honoured she’s chosen to support the work we’re doing.”

The songs on Zhawenim tackle such themes as Indigenous identity, climate change, and the residential schools tragedy. The latter topic is addressed on “Cut My Hair,” long a staple of the group’s live show, but only now captured on record. “We actually recorded it seven times before, but it needed to come out at the right time,” says Kanaktaka. “The song told us to wait until it needed to be born, and that came with the number of children being found. I believe songs have spirits and when you play them those spirits come alive.”

Digging Roots take pride in the increasing recognition of the Indigenous artists now creating vibrant work. “It is very exciting to witness and be a part of this groundswell,” says Kish. “I see the brilliance, innovation, and creativity coming out, first-hand, every day, and I feel really grateful to have access to that bottomless well of inspiration.

“Music really is a healing force, a medicine in our community. I feel honoured to be part of a songwriting team that’s talking about what’s happening around us.”

Beyond her own work in Digging Roots, Kish is now contributing to this groundswell as co-founder (alongside fellow Indigenous roots artist Amanda Rheaume) of new record label Ishkode, currently home to Rheaume, Digging Roots, Morgan Toney, and Aysanabee.