Leela Gilday brings me a baggy of fresh herbs from her garden when we meet in a downtown Yellowknife coffee shop. She says she’ll never get through them. She’s been away touring for most of the summer and she will leave again in just over a week for Déline, NWT—her mother’s hometown, on the edge of Great Bear Lake—to collaborate on a song and music video project with the Déline Drummers.
Gilday grew up in Yellowknife—she has a hello or a hug for half of the people who walk into Birchwood Coffee Kó. She’s been back since 2009, after living in both Toronto and Vancouver for stretches as she built up her profile. Moving home, like her decision to become a career musician, was not a difficult choice: both had to happen, despite the potential challenges.
“I’m a Northern girl,” she says. “The North feeds me and feeds my art, spiritually and emotionally. It’s where my family has lived for thousands of years and where the land has a powerful effect on me.”
Gilday is working on her fifth album, this time with producer Hill Kourkoutis from Toronto. They’re talking about the sound palette they envision for it. Right now, it’s leaning towards “dark folk.” Gilday will fly to Toronto to record the album and hopes to have it out by April 2019—five years after her last, the Juno-nominated ‘Heart of the People.’
But don’t think she hasn’t been busy. In 2017, Gilday organized and orchestrated the ambitious Gho-bah/Gombaa project in Yellowknife. Meaning ‘the first light of dawn’ in Dene dialects, Gho-bah/Gombaa was a show of resilience during Canada’s sesquicentennial and it brought together Indigenous artists to produce music and visual art projects for National Aboriginal Day. “People were celebrating 150 years of Confederation without acknowledging that was the legislative coronation of a system that has oppressed and systemically killed our people and taken our land,” says Gilday. Her goal was to allow artists to discuss what reconciliation looks like to them. “I wanted to facilitate that message and those voices, and also selfishly give myself that space to explore those subjects in a safe space,” says Gilday. “It was good. And we wrote some good tunes.”
She toured Europe this year with all the verve and adrenaline of her early days: “driving three-to-eight hours a day, all in a van, playing two-hour shows a night, 15 shows in 21 days.” Though she’s grown accustomed to a more humane touring schedule, this is a new market for her and one she’s always wanted to get into. She’s done much of the folk festival circuit in Canada and played theatres across North America. “I don’t know if I’ll reach a greater degree of success,” Gilday says. “I’m pretty happy with my accomplishments, I just want to reach more people with my music.”
What does she tell young, up-and-coming artists? “It’s not the fame you should be chasing because you may not ever achieve that. You’ve got to love the music.”
That’s what continues to excite her, with nearly 20 years in the music industry.
“It’s definitely a very rewarding thing to give yourself creatively to the world. I look forward to many more years of that.”
Listen to: Gho-bah/Gombaa performances at ghobah.com and reflect on their messages.