Aren Okemaysim discusses roots-rock project OKIMAW ᐅᑭᒪᐤ

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Artist Aren Okemaysim gracing ears with his guitar playing. Bodie Robinson

A cathartic process with catalytic aims

Aren Okemaysim is a nêhiyaw/Plains Cree multi-instrumentalist and producer, originally from Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory. Nowadays, he’s situated in Treaty 4 territory in Regina. His roots-rock music project is called OKIMAW ᐅᑭᒪᐤ. The eponymous album was released in January of this year.

Okemaysim and I met to talk about his project, creative process, another album in the works, and much more.

What does the word OKIMAW mean?

It’s a Cree word for “chief” or “leader.” There are many different understandings and interpretations of the word, depending on where you’re from. I always wanted to infuse my language in my artistic practice. I thought the word sounded cool, too. Simple, memorable, and has a lot of punch.

What’s the best part about writing music?

Getting into that creative space, mentally. It’s an escapism tactic for me. It’s a way for me to separate my real life problems from the things that I enjoy. I can focus on letting myself be creative and enjoying the process. That’s what I live for.

So, your art is an escape for you. Do you hope that your listeners feel similarly? That your music can be an escape for them as well?

Actually, probably not. A lot of the content that I write, especially on this album, is reflective on ongoing societal issues. Mainly in our province, but also throughout North America, problems like race relations. But there’s a good variety in the album itself. You can get lost in the music if you don’t hear the lyrics. […] The escapism might exist somewhere in there, but definitely not in the lyrical content, which deals with real problems that people try to escape from anyway.

When you conceived of the album, what kind of message did you want to relate?

With this album, it was a cathartic process. I needed to get all these feelings out there, through the writing and music, while living through it. There wasn’t really a plan in that way. I just wanted to live in that creative space again, and let out all the real things going on inside. Those things also reflect a lot of issues people deal with in our communities, so people can relate to that.

How would you describe your sound?

Neil Young and Robbie Robertson are two of my biggest influences in writing this album. It’s folky, but there are definitely a lot more rock elements too.

Should we be expecting another album soon?

The writing is there. The music is written, from my side of things. But I want to get more people involved and share the creative reins. I’d like to see how the music I’ve written changes. […] A lot of the songs for the next album are very lyrically focused, because I was writing them with just me and my guitar. So the goal is to cut the fat and strip it down musically.

Do you consider yourself an Indigenous artist?

Yeah, but I don’t really like using the term. It compartmentalizes, and I’m not a fan of compartmentalizing art making. Publicly, I just refer to myself as an artist and extrapolate from there. But yes, I do happen to have Indigenous ancestry so it’s a part of who I am. However, I’m an artist first and foremost.

What’s the story behind the picture on the album cover?

Those two are my late grandparents. Kokum and Moshum, in my language. And then there’s me in the middle! I chose the picture because those two instilled a lot of inspiration in not just me but my family, and many other community members on my reserve. It’s also an homage to my upbringing. And the lyrical content is a reflection of my upbringing too.

It’s been said that a writer’s first novel is almost always autobiographical and deals with a coming-of-age story. Think of Joyce’s the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye. Considering this is your first album, did you have a similar experience?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t necessarily point to the lyrics. But, the process behind the album, definitely. It was the first time producing my own original music and leading a project of this kind. So, that was a brand-new thing, and definitely coming-of-age in that it was a big step in my creative career. It took my music to the next level.

You can listen to OKIMAW ᐅᑭᒪᐤ on Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp. You can find him on Facebook and Instagram at @okimaw.band.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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