Since March 2020, Cree musician Adrian Sutherland has been isolated with his family in Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation on James Bay, without the resources to professionally record music.
That is, until now.
Over the course of the pandemic, Sutherland transformed an old shipping container into a recording studio, which he’s called SeaCan Studio.
“There hasn’t been anything like this here before,” said Sutherland, who is a singer/songwriter and the front-man and founder of the band Midnight Shine.
Sutherland spent last fall constructing the studio in a metal shipping container, also known as a sea can, located in his backyard. He said it took about a week to finish the interior of the container with drywall and wood panelling, primarily on his own with the help of a few neighbours.
Sutherland is also using a section of the container to store items for others in the community.
Paul Wesley, an electrician from the community, installed the wiring and panels required to run lights, heating and recording gear. Wesley said he appreciated Sutherland’s creative concept for the container.
“They’re usually just used for storage, so people were coming to see what we were doing. It’s a fresh idea,” he said.
Wesley said community members had been tossing around other ideas for outfitting containers for living at camps in the bush, and that he was even considering it for his own family’s camp.
Wesley said folks in northern communities like Attawapiskat have always needed to be resourceful when it comes to housing infrastructure and storage.
Sutherland has been working on his debut solo album, which is slated for release in September.
He said recording this album has been different than any he’s worked on in the past because he was working remotely, while also learning how to edit and use music software.
“I’ve been able to actually take the time to learn all this stuff because nobody else is going to do it for me,” he said.
“You’re learning about how to do all the tracking and the mixing and learning about mastering and everything in between.”
Previously, Sutherland was teaching music at a local school. He’s hoping to have local youth use the studio in the future once the pandemic has ended.
“There’s a couple of younger men in the community that have expressed interest,” he said.
“There are plans for me to revisit how I can engage with young people again in terms of doing music.”
David McLeod, a radio broadcasting executive and member of Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba, said projects like SeaCan studio can have positive impacts for Indigenous artists navigating or looking to enter the Canadian music industry.
As is the case with most artists, he said, the subject matter of Indigenous artists’ music is inspired by their communities and their geographic territories.
“I think that we’re at a point where [audiences and music executives] are looking for a different sound, looking for new messages,” McLeod said.
“[SeaCan Studio] is an example of resilience at a community level and also an example of how Indigenous music is thriving. People are making it happen.”
McLeod, who is also the executive producer of the syndicated Indigenous top-40 program Indigenous Music Countdown, said he thinks many mainstream Canadian music executives may look at facilities in northern communities and believe producing high-end sound is impossible.
“But the proof is there when you press play on that track and that sound, the music starts.”