Although she’s the first to admit she loves her phone and the instant connections it facilitates, Hintonburg singer and songwriter Amanda Rheaume thinks that unplugging from technology and sitting around the dinner table, sharing stories and learning about your family history is a tradition well worth rekindling.
On her latest album, Keep a Fire, Rheaume has done just that. The album is full of her family’s stories and the intention behind its name is that we keep a fire alive for those who have come before us – both for their benefit and ours.
“When you look backwards, you can understand more about yourself,” says Rheaume who spent many hours speaking with her family, especially her grandfather, in the process of creating these songs and discovered that her urge to move on to the next interesting project and her love of travel may be hereditary.
Flying over the Northwest Passage in 2011, on her way to perform for troops at Alert, Rheaume thought about her Poppa, Thomas Arthur Irvine, who navigated the H.M.C.S. Labrador through the same waterway. “I knew he travelled through there, but until I saw the Northwest Passage myself, I didn’t think about what he did. Not everyone gets to see that body of water.”
Because he had already passed away, Rheaume couldn’t talk to her Poppa about this glimpse she’d seen of his life or hear about his travels on the remote waterway from his perspective. But the moment inspired her to ask her surviving relatives about their lives and about their collective family history.
“I called my Grandpa in Okanagan and asked him about his mother and about his brother. I spoke to his sister. We looked through old family pictures about growing up in God’s Lake where the planes would come in twice a year,” says Rheaume who describes this grandfather as kind, generous and warm. “I never met his mom, my Ojibwe great-grandmother, Stella Rheaume, who died a month before I was born, but a number of the songs are about her, and I really wanted to get them right.”
After collecting stories, Rheaume contacted her friend John MacDonald who hand built her favourite guitar. Slowly and thoughtfully, the two turned the stories into songs that would resonate for audiences across the country. “This wasn’t about the fast, easy song. It’s about telling family stories, but keeping them accessible. It took almost a year,” she says of the process. “I don’t think I could have gotten these stories into song without him.”
Audiences deeply connect with both Rheaume’s process and her music.
“After a concert, people often come up to me and tell me their stories,” says Rheaume who longs to find a way to share these stories. “We’re Canadian and I feel that, but I think we’re still trying to define what Canadian means. For many of us, we came over from somewhere unless we’re First Nations.”