Playing it by Ear: Ila Barker’s Path to Advocacy Through Songwriting
“I think music is for everyone. It's such a connecting, universal language,” says Ila Barker, an Anishinaabe singer songwriter and artist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes having a musical vocabulary and theory can help you talk about music better, but you don't have to have that to enjoy it or to make something of yourself with it.
She worked a wide range of jobs until her uncle gifted her a guitar, sparking her love of music and songwriting. She learned how to play from youtube tutorials and charts. Barker realized it was a viable career choice for her and not just a fun hobby, but decided to go to university anyways for a Bachelor of Arts in Conflict Resolution.
“I knew that I loved singing. I knew that I loved writing songs. For me, it'd become such an intimate therapy of sorts.”
She learned about activism, non nonviolent conflict resolution, and nonviolent protest and felt out of place in her program, feeling like she wasn’t the right type of activist. She realized how privileged she was to be an artist who played shows on a stage with a microphone, where people listened to what she had to say.
Barker struggled in school, repeating a grade in high school because she spent too much time playing guitar and singing, something she doesn’t regret. She was homeschooled until grade ten when she went to public school. She couldn’t read music (and still can’t).
“My approach has been a lot more organic, doing what my ear tells me sounds right,” she smiles. Lately, she’s been playing with a band, collaborating with others on the music in her head, sometimes without the vocabulary to do so easily. Her first album came out in 2013, and the next nearly ten years later and the gap represented many challenges.
Between university and an unhealthy relationship, she struggled to keep a sense of self. Eventually, she was able to leave and that journey and its lessons became the subject of her record. Outside of that, like many artists, self-sabotage got in her way.
“I still believe in myself more than anyone else… It's really tough sometimes to just keep your head up and keep going.”
Therapy has helped Barker, who tends to self-isolate in times of trouble. “One of the biggest things I have to constantly remind myself to do is to go outside and be in contact with the natural world. Those are the moments that keep me connected to where I come from, and what's important to me,” she reflects.
Her advice to youth considering leaving their home community in search of work or school is to reflect on if it’s actually necessary. “I think that there's a lot of ways that you can do a lot of things from where you are, using the tools that you have. If you decide you do want to leave, it's really important that you have some sort of support system,” she advises.
If she could give a message to her younger self, it would be to dream a little bigger and shoot a little higher. She wishes she had been nicer and not so hard on herself and that she had trusted her intuition and her God. Barker found meaning in her struggles, but now knows how important it is to be connected to herself.
Throughout the pandemic, she worked incessantly after moving home to be near her family to rebuild relationships. She exercised and tried to stay positive. When she couldn’t, she would watch Netflix and be gentle with herself. She got COVID for the first time and ended up falling behind on things but she sees how in a colonial world priorities get skewed. “If I take a week off no one is going to be irreparably harmed,” she asserts. Sometimes she needs to show herself tough love to get things done, but sometimes she needs self-compassion and self-care.
Artistically, she’s inspired by life, watching people and taking in their stories on TV and online and by the youth she mentors. “That's something that I really think is important, having mentors that are not just further in their career, but are actually young and youthful, and will think of things in a different light,” she shares.
She’s trying to shine a light on Indigenous people through representation in her industry. “Especially being a white presenting Indigenous person, I feel like I have another level of responsibility to try and make as much as a difference I can for our brown and black presenting Indigenous relatives,” she remarks.
“I had this moment of grief where I realized I might not actually see the change that I'm hoping to see in my generation. It's possible we might not get there. I have to keep fighting so that the next generation coming up behind me has it even just a little bit easier,” she recalls. She’s in awe of the incredible youth coming up behind her and has hope for the future.
“I just can't wait until there's an Indigenous artist who gets to just do art, and they don't actually have to do activism out of survival, too.”
Sometimes she has to name the difference in her experiences. “I've asked some of my white friends, ‘have you ever been asked in an interview before what your whiteness means to you as an artist?’” she recounts. She is trying to open as many doors as she can for other Indigenous artists, hoping the next generation won’t have to and can just focus on being an artist.
“My music is my Indigenous identity.”
Ila Barker makes music to connect and she’s open to connecting with fans on social media. She has a special message for the Fireside Chat audience. “Dream big. The world is your oyster. It may not be presented as such all the time, but you really can have it if you want it. Maybe you won't get that massive, huge Hollywood dream or something, but I bet you'll go a lot further if you set a goal,” she counsels. After all, she believes music is for everyone and with that connecting, universal language she’s teaching youth and sharing her truth.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.