Back in 2015, Métis singer-songwriter Ella Coyes played folk music in regional parks, passing the hat for donations.
Fast forward to June 2022 — the once straight-ahead, guitar-slinging folkie has rebranded their image as Sister Ray. In June, they were notified Communion, their first album under the new moniker, was longlisted for the 2022 Polaris Music Prize.
Polaris is a major music award that honours and financially rewards recording artists who produce the Canadian Album of the Year. A panel of judges selects a recipient based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, commercial popularity, or record label. The winner receives a $50,000 cash prize.
“It’s so great. I keep telling family and friends it’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me. It’s really exciting,” said Coyes, a former Sturgeon County resident now based out of Toronto.
“The nomination is very validating and meaningful. There are so many great records on the list. And it’s nice to share with such great artists. I’m lucky to have a team that’s been so supportive.”
As one of 40 recording artists longlisted, Sister Ray was in contention with names such as Arcade Fire, Backxwash, Basia Bulat, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Tanya Tagaq, and The Weeknd. Unfortunately, their name was not on Polaris’ July 14 shortlist.
In an interview with The Gazette several days prior to the shortlist announcement, Coyes said they did not expect to make the cut.
“I don’t want to be self-deprecating. It's a fantastic thing. If I make it, I’ll be excited to share it with the people I made it [Communion] with. If not, I’ll have a nice party with my friends,” they laughed.
During their late teens and young-adult years, Coyes played a string of regional venues and festivals including Amplify Festival, La Crema Cafe, Arcadia, Edmonton Folk Festival, Cha Island Café, The Aviary, The Ale House, and Starlite Room, to name a few.
Their raw, yet powerful vocals could shift on a dime from quiet, deeply settled feelings to emotions of pain and sadness. Few listeners knew they were battling a dark period in their life that combined violence, family issues, and how colonization continues to affect their Cree relatives to this day.
In its totality, the new record is a vulnerable, outspoken collection of experiences that define Coye’s past. The intimate portraits paint both ordinary and consequential times in their life.
“While writing Communion, I was exploring my identity in a way that involved grief and insecurity,” Coyes said. “These songs were written with liberation in mind.”
Armed with a $25,000 Canada Council Grant, Sister Ray hired cross-border collaborators Jon Nellen, and Joe Manzoli (a.k.a. ginla), to produce their 10-track via Royal Mountain Records.
At their first meeting, the trio did not click.
“I didn’t have an idea of what I wanted and who I was musically and sonically. The second time we met, we were able to work in a more nuanced way. The music I love has intimacy and a sense of freedom. I wanted something that felt intimate and had space and room, but was also quite sparse with a lot of guitar and drums.”
Traditional Métis music Coyes danced to as a young child while their father played fiddle gives them freedom and provides a guiding light throughout the songs.
“I make sad music. My music is dark and there are a lot of themes that are dark. Visually for me, it’s not always pleasant imagery. I’m OK with that. The songs are sad, but there is freedom in expressing sadness, and they were written over a long period of time.”
Visions, for instance, is a breakup song. Crucified, instead, runs through the course of a relationship. Coyes had the idea for Violence while driving to Wabamun Lake after a crow hit their car, and Justice was written during the pandemic while examining what is right and choosing not to do it.
“My immediate goal is to tour as much as I can, and my long-term goal is to be the best songwriter I can possibly be, and put myself in a position where I can dedicate my life to that.”