Growing from a specialized publisher to a larger, curated catalogue that grows daily, Toronto-based Nagamo Publishing is filling a void. Its desire: to strengthen Indigenous representation in the film and television industry. So far, the upstart company – which has grown organically over the past year-and-a-half – is succeeding. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

Nagamo’s goals include providing Indigenous composers with opportunities to showcase their talent, as well as giving clients access to their music, which spans all genres and all First Nations. The roots of this venture were planted four years ago, when well-known publishing house Bedtracks’ president and co-founder Oliver Johnson created a production library of Indigenous music called Storytellers. In 2020, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) acquired the organization, which has morphed into Nagamo Publishing.

“The original idea was to build a niche playlist of Indigenous production music to pass around to clients and producers,” explains Nigel Irwin, Nagamo’s co-Creative Director, and also one of its composers. “It was a great door for me to step into. At the time, I was making music, but I didn’t know much about production music… My role just grew organically.”

Until now, there was a lack of Indigenous production music easily accessible, and available, to which the screen industry could turn. According to Irwin, there are a couple of reasons for this untapped potential in the market.

“First, finding composers who are focused on production music is a very specific ask. Since most musicians go down the ‘artist’ route, the pool is already small,” he says. “Indigenous communities also feel like a small pool, but it’s growing fast; there’s just a bit of a disconnect when it comes to opportunity, and potential clients knowing what’s out there.”

Nagamo PublishingSecondly, there was the challenge of Indigenous composers seeing the opportunity as well. Before joining Nagamo, Irwin worked as a facilitator for Indigenous youth programs, and travelled to reservations all across Canada. “I would meet tons of talented kids, but none of them had the mind-set that they could move off the reservation and find a job in this dynamic and cool industry,” he says. “Part of Nagamo’s mission statement is to wave the flag and tell these future composers, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”

Thirdly, the Canadian music industry didn’t widely consider Indigenous representation before the new era of diversity, equity and inclusion mandates, which Irwin says ultimately is a good thing, allowing for “new people at the table.”

When it comes to Nagamo’s current catalogue, the roster is diverse. That, Irwin adds, is a big selling point. “The moment we tell them it’s Indigenous, there’s so much ground to cover,” he explains. “I like to compartmentalize our music into two broad categories: contemporary and traditional. For example, a Tribe Called Red did a lot for mainstream Indigenous exposure in the area of EDM/dance music, and that’s one style of music we carry in our catalogue.”

Nagamo offers something in many styles, to match any mood a film or TV production is after: from orchestral works and high-energy drum sounds that lend themselves well to epic scores, to acoustic music and traditional throat singers. Irwin name-drops a few of the artists with whom Nagamo is currently working: Jesse Doreen of Six Nations; Andrew Joseph Stevens III (a London, Ontario, based Mi’kmaw artist known on TikTok as Drives the Common Man); Mimi O’Bonsawin, a Métis artist with Abenaki roots; and Jacob Hoskins from Vancouver.

Irwin is also really excited about the recent signing of PJ Vegas — Nagamos’s first artist outside of Canada. Vegas is an award-winning singer-songwriter and trap-beat composer from Los Angeles, whose father Pat is a founding member of 1970s Indigenous American funk-pop band Redbone (best known for their hit song “Come and Get Your Love”).

When he’s not discovering new artists to add to the Nagamo roster (mostly via word-of-mouth these days), Irwin, who traces his indigenous heritage to the Enoch Cree Nation, still finds time to compose.

“As the face of the company my role is to curate and build, but I’m also given time to work on my own art, which is important,” he says. “I’ve got a few things lined up for shows coming soon on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It’s just so exciting… Everywhere we turn we get encouragement. People are really interested now in Nagamo.”

Since Toronto rapper Smiley released his new single and video “Over The Top,” featuring the Certified Lover Boy himself, how “over the top” has his life become?

“Oh, brother – very crazy,” says Smiley (born Alexandre Morand), on the line from Los Angeles. “It’s just so crazy to see the difference. For a Canadian artist, you get high in your city, and then you come to the States and you’re no one. And now it’s different. I’m getting recognized, I’m getting more friends out here. It’s really over the top, to be honest.”

Not that he’s complaining. “It’s all I ever wanted,” he admits. “But I know I have a lot more things to do; this is just the very beginning. This is my first initial song to American audiences.”

Currently in the studio working on a 16-song album featuring multiple producers (including Boi-1da), the rapper from Toronto’s Pelham Park neighbourhood is making the most of his opportunity: he’s cut out the excesses, works out twice daily, and has dropped his weight from 260 pounds to 220 in the past six months or so.

“I want to be running on tours,” says Smiley. “I don’t want a laid-back vibe. And the way I wanted for myself, I never had the time to really eat healthy and go to the gym.  But this is always what I’ve wanted.”

He’s also eating healthier… although he admits his attempts to convert to a vegetarian diet isn’t going smoothly. “When I go vegetarian, I can only do it for a week or so,” he admits. “I get angry and I don’t want to do nothing. I eat once a day. I’ve only eaten at three o’clock, and let’s say I eat salmon and eggs and vegetables. I feel great during that whole week – I feel light, my skin gets clearer, everything feels better. But then I get too hungry and angry.”

He laughs. “I want quick results, so I go on a diet for about a week, and then I go on another diet after that, which includes meat and stuff.”

Maybe his fitness regimen will one day create the buzz that his lackadaisical delivery style does, on such hits as “In My Zone” and “Moving Different.” The latter is what charmed Drake, arguably the world’s biggest music superstar at the moment, to take Smiley under his wing.

“I would say three years ago, I knew he was listening,” says Smiley, who Drake listed as an influence on Scorpion, and whose lyrics to “Free Baby” he posted when Pusha-T outed the existence of his son on “The Story of Adidon.”

“I know I have a lot more things to do; this is just the very beginning”

“Then when he was showing me all that love and stuff, that’s when I got the different love from America and everywhere,” says Smiley. “That was more serious – the real freak-out moment. That’s when I had to have a team around me, management, everything.”

Up until that point, Smiley had been toiling hard with his musical friends in the OLN crew, which included rappers MKsolive, Ryda, and Homie, as well as learning studio tricks from neighbourhood colleague Blacka Da Don.

Initially, it was trial by fire. “When I first did my first song, everyone was saying I was talking,” says Smiley. “They hate me now, but they used to hate me even more. I’ve been rapping five or six years, though at first, it was very bad. It was just like talking, basically. But over the years I’ve gotten better at mastering it.  I just got better, although it wasn’t anything I tried to do.”

Starting with 2018’s Buy. or. Bye. and his mixtape A Tape To Remember, then Road To Buy or Buy 2 (The Playlist), and – released through Warner Music – YYZ-LAX, Smiley has been industriously working on his craft.

“My first grooves were with guys from the neighbourhood, and we had a buzz from there in the city,” he explains. “We were popular and had a few songs where I always had the city buzz. It felt good, but then after the Drake push, it was a whole different story. It made me realize I could literally do this, not just for fun and games… that this could actually be something where I could take care of my family and friends.”

Drake’s presence has loomed large in Smiley’s career to this point, as evidenced by “Over The Top.” “Drake sent it to me,” says Smiley. “As soon as the boy sent me the beat, I was just in the car driving and I stopped and listened to it. He already had his part on the hook, and I cued the intro up – I liked the beginning – and I squeezed off something quick, just in the car.  After that, I just had to write a few verses, and then I picked the right ones.”

When it comes to his songs, Smiley works quickly at first. “If I’m really focused and I’m locked in a room by myself, I usually write a hook and a verse just to get the idea out there,” he explains. “Then, whoever’s producing will choose the songs that have the most potential and I’ll finish it. But just for a hook and a verse, it’ll probably take me 48 minutes.”

Smiley says he writes his ideas in the Notes app on his cellphone. “Alone in the studio, I’ll kind of freestyle, but  that’s not my specialty,” he says. “I like to just write in my phone Notes. I’m freestyling now, because sometimes you come up with some good stuff, y’know? [But usually] I’ll go through my e-mails as people send me beats, I’ll save it to my Notes, and then as I play it, I’ll start writing to it.”

Smiley, now part of Drake’s Warner-distributed OVO Sound crew, is eager to establish himself South of the border. “I feel like I’m unique,” he says.  “No one sounds like me. Once I release this album, too, they’ll understand me more.” And he’s grateful for the Drizzy career boost. “He put me in this position,” says Smiley, “and he’s been like a big brother to me.”

Feeling like I can be anything I wanna be, but I know I’ll always be my greatest enemy… I’m trying to break out of this feeling like I’m in a casket / I can’t get past it, all of this madness… I don’t wanna feel this come down — “Greatest Enemy,” The Strumbellas

When you’re living in hell, you’ll try anything that helps you even if it hurts /
I welcome the pain / Won’t give up the chase / I’ll find my way back to myself / The only way out is through, the only thing I can do is find my way back to myself
— “Back To Myself,” Serena Ryder

The coronavirus pandemic hit everyone in the music industry hard. Some experienced situational depression or bouts of anxiety, sadness or lethargy. Others, already clinically diagnosed, had their symptoms compounded by the uncertainly of a global health crisis.

The Unison Benevolent Fund, Canada’s emergency financial and counselling charity for the music industry, went into overdrive from the moment COVID-19 shut down the live music sector in March of 2020 – to ensure that there was enough funds in the coffers to support the thousands of people struggling with the immediate loss of their livelihood.

“In 2020, there was a massive increase in counselling services and calls into Morneau Shepell. It was more than double what we’d seen in previous years,” says Unison’s executive director Amanda Power, speaking about the outsourced HR well-being provider, now called LifeWorks. “With that said, looking at the stats for 2021, counselling services have actually started to decrease. We’re now at the point where we’re trending to where we were prior to the pandemic. I think people are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Over the summer, Unison also introduced Togetherall, a free, online, peer-to-peer mental health community that – like all Unison’s services – is anonymous. “Since we launched [in mid-June], we’ve noticed a good number of people using the program,” says Power.

Artist development funding body FACTOR (the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records) also has a section on its website dedicated to mental health resources, linking to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Arts’ Health Alliance, Over The Bridge, and Unison. And behemoth Bell Media – while often under fire for its potentially “triggering” one-day Bell Let’s Talk campaign – distributes funds year-round to mental health organizations and causes, out of its commitment  to contribute $155 million by 2025.

But how has the pandemic affected musicians who have already been clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder? Serena Ryder and The Strumbellas’ frontman Simon Ward have both bravely gone public with their struggles, and written about it in song, so SOCAN reached out to learn how they coped.

The Strumbellas had postponed tour dates in early 2020 – just before the global pandemic brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt anyway – but it wasn’t until February of 2021, and the release of the topical “Greatest Enemy,” that the band put out a press release revealing the reason: “[Simon] Ward realized that the depression he had been dealing with for the past 15 years was no longer something he could deal with on his own. Ward was hospitalized and placed under doctor supervision.”

“I took a hiatus from life in general, so being in COVID made it harder, but I became a hermit anyway,” Ward tells SOCAN.  “I was in such rough shape that I didn’t feel COVID as hard as others. I was sitting at home by myself for the most part anyway, so I wasn’t being social. I think my path would’ve been pretty similar.

“My strategies getting through COVID while in a depression were, I would go for walks, and I spent a lot of time with the kids and my wife. We played board games, always ate supper together, and I was as social as I can be. I meditated a lot. I did a lot of therapy.”

The one plus is Ward didn’t feel the guilt he normally would have for cancelling a tour. “Because of COVID, we couldn’t have toured anyways. so that was a big stress relief for me,” he says, adding, “I’m doing better, but I gotta be straight with you: I’m still in it.  It’s now been a year and, oh God, a year and eight months, and I’m still going through a depression. it’s the longest stretch I’ve ever had to go through. I’m better in some ways, and in some ways I’m the same.”

Ryder, on the other hand, is feeling brilliant, and for years now has used her past struggles to help others on their journey to mental wellness.

In 2015, she became a spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk. In a 20-minute segment on CTV’s W5 in 2017, Ryder opened up further about a tour cancellation in 2010 which started with “a super tight chest,” fatigue, and anxiety, and developed into a debilitating six months during which she was bed-ridden. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and deep depression. She also became a public speaker, supporting mental wellness, and won the 2018 Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award.

In March of 2021, Ryder released an album, The Art of Falling Apart, chronicling her struggles and recovery, song by song. Today she’s feels like a whole new person, since taking major steps towards her own wellness.  She was already prepared for life’s uncertainties when she cancelled a tour more than a decade ago, or had to delay album-tour-album cycles, so COVID didn’t throw her for a loop.

“For the last three years, I haven’t suffered from any really big ups or downs,” she tells SOCAN. “A lot of that came from how I chose to not drink alcohol anymore. It really changed my life; actually, all of the symptoms that I used to experience when it came to mental wellness really just fell off. It’s been pretty amazing.”

Stressing that everyone is different, Ryder explains that her own wellness regimen consists of yoga and breath work, specifically Kundalini yoga and its “breath of fire” exercises, “different things to just move my body around.” She says dancing for three minutes also helps.

“That was the biggest thing for me with mental wellness during the pandemic; I knew it was going to be a really difficult time for a lot of people,” says Ryder.  “And for people who haven’t experienced any mental health issues, they were starting to experience them, because there’s so much that was unsure. Many people started experiencing anxiety that had never had it before, panic attacks, or depression.”

Along with her “womanager” Sandy Pandya, Ryder started a record label, ArtHaus, and a four-week online wellness program called The Art of Wellness. It started in October of 2020, and they’re nearing their 20th edition. Each 90-minute Zoom group session is moderated by a different counselor — ranging from therapists to doctors —and participants can choose whether or not to be on camera, and are free to ask questions.  She calls it a safe space to heal.

“It’s based on finding your own personal toolkit,” Ryder explains. “Everybody knows what they need best. It’s just that there are people on the other side of it to help facilitate what you know you already need.” They also offer specialized sessions for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, as well as LGBTQ2S+ people.

“This time for me has been great because of all of the stuff that I’ve been through,” she says. “When it comes to mental wellness, I was able to be of service. That’s really been such a nourishing part of this lockdown for me, to be someone that can be there, and that knows what it’s like.”