“Better Days Ahead,” a song on Amanda Rheaume’s fourth album, Light of Another Day, reminds listeners that the woman singing has been at it a long time.
The native of Barrhaven says she doesn’t remember listening to music much as a child, although she began taking piano lessons at age nine.
“Piano just didn’t seem badass enough,” says Rheaume, who eventually convinced her parents to let her try something else. An uncle gave her an oversized western-style guitar, which in retrospect, she says, was “probably the most difficult guitar to play.”
Nevertheless, the teenager put aside her New Kids on the Block tapes, tucked that guitar on one knee and began to create her signature folk-rock sound.
“I had always journalled or written poems,” she says. Putting melodies to those words became a welcome challenge made easier after she heard fellow Ottawan Alanis Morissette.
“When I was 15, Jagged Little Pill came out and it totally changed my whole existence,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the songs, lyrics and words. She became a big inspiration as a songwriter.”
Rheaume played her first real show at the Nepean Sportsplex in a band made up of high school friends. “I was super scared,” she remembers.
Around the same time, she started hanging out with an aunt who was a coordinator for Lilith Fair. At 16 she was rubbing elbows with the Indigo Girls and Sarah McLachlan. “It was that moment I realized what I wanted to do,” she says. “To be surrounded by all strong, smart women in the height of their careers in ’99 was a really cool introduction to the music industry.”
Though Rheaume later graced the stage at Bluesfest and the National Arts Centre, she says it was pubs such as Quinn’s that trained her to be the performer she is today. “I’d sometimes get stuck in a corner trying to play over the hockey games,” she recalls. “Playing those open mics taught me so much.”
Rheaume was learning about more than her music.
After a year at Ryerson University, she left school and hopped on a plane to Thailand to “find herself.”
“I didn’t really have boyfriends or any partners going through high school, and then I went away to Thailand for six weeks with my gay friend. I started having tons of panic attacks because of what I was realizing about myself.”
Laughing, she says the Ani DiFranco concerts she attended obviously had an influence. However, she says, she felt “old” when she came out at age 21. “I thought that something wasn’t quite the same as [it was for] my friends.”
Rheaume says it was her travel mate’s bluntness that snapped her out of it. “He turned and was like, ‘Honey, you’re a lesbian. Get over it.’”
She released her first album independently two years later, in 2003.
“I don’t really have a coming-out song,” she laughs, noting that while proud of her identity, she is not an artist who uses sexuality to sell “the whole thing.”
Rheaume had to find herself again after her Amanda Rheaume Band won Live 88.5’s Big Money Shot competition in 2008; the prize was $40,000 and the opportunity to write and record songs with Chantal Kreviazuk and Holly McNarland.
Rheaume says the experience was amazing, but she missed being a solo artist.
“It was the height of my rock career, but I realized I wasn’t being fully me and made my way back to the guitar.” Besides, she says, “being with a band makes touring more difficult,” and she wants to take her music to as many listeners as possible.
That ambition took her to Afghanistan to perform for Canadian soldiers twice in 2011, on Canada Day and at Christmas. “It was just so cool,” she gushes. “They know how far you’ve travelled to play for them.
“There’s not much music and joy there, so bringing a vehicle for feeling reminds me of why I do music.”
Live 88.5 DJ Jen Traplin admires Rheaume’s approach.
“Amanda’s always been very professional,” Traplin says. “I can remember being super impressed by not only her talent, but her confidence.
“She’s also a fierce businesswoman that has a lot more industry knowledge than a lot of bands in Ottawa.”
Rheaume is one of the most generous artists in the city, having raised thousands for, and performed in, each of the Babes for Breasts fundraisers. Partial proceeds from her acoustic Christmas album were donated to the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.
Rheaume says yoga keeps her humble and stress-free.
“I’m kind of addicted,” she says. “I love hiking, too. I know it’s kind of geeky.”
She looks forward to stopping in places like Banff National Park when she’s touring Canada. With hundreds of shows and just as many miles, Rheaume is forever grateful: “I have this moment whenever on tour where I’m like, “Wow, I’m so lucky to do this.”