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Ottawa’s queer folk darling returns to Bluesfest

Amanda Rheaume on music, family and calling Ottawa home

Amanda Rheaume plays Bluesfest Friday, July 11. The Ottawa native says her songs are influenced by her family history and universal experiences. Credit: Sean Sisk Photography

Amanda Rheaume has been making music for a long time. She began in earnest as a teenager and since then has enjoyed a successful career as a folk musician. But while she’s toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, Rheaume says she’s still happiest calling Ottawa home and, unlike many musicians, doesn’t feel the pull of bigger cities like Toronto and Montreal.

“When I was a teenager, I was always so excited to basically get the hell out of here,” she says. But despite spending a year in Toronto attending Ryerson University, she says she was never able to stay away from Ottawa for long. “I just always found my way back. I dunno — there’s just something really special about Ottawa to me, and it’s been a really amazing place to grow as an artist and to grow even as a businessperson.”

Now calling Hintonburg home, Rheaume says it’s doubtful she’ll ever really leave the Capital. “I go away so much that it’s just so awesome to be able to come back and live in a beautiful city.”

Rheaume began her Ottawa performing career by hosting open-mic nights in her 20s. “I was writing songs since I was, like, 15, but not really singing them out in public until maybe 18 or so,” she says. From open mics she moved on to playing in bars, meeting people and building up her business savvy along the way. “I really think that it was performing live so much that really pushed me forward.”

The “aha” moment that made Rheaume realize she wanted to perform came when she was in her teens and attending Lilith Fair in Toronto. Having an aunt who worked for the festival afforded her the opportunity to go backstage, where she got to meet Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks and the Indigo Girls.

“The Indigo Girls basically invited [me] onstage to sing ‘Closer to Fine’ with them,” she recalls. “It was kind of a moment that was defining for me, and since then it’s just been a lot of work — a lot of hard work and dedication.” 

On July 11, Rheaume will be returning to Bluesfest, treating audiences at the River Stage to powerful Maritime-inspired ballads that reference her Métis heritage. “I’ve travelled all over the world and played lots of different places; Bluesfest is one of the best festivals out there,” she says. “Every summer I always think, ‘We are so lucky to have this festival here.’ I’m not sure people realize how lucky we are, but it is unbelievable how amazing it is.”

She says Bluesfest has afforded her and other local artists the chance to play bigger stages and open for established acts like Ani DiFranco and Emmylou Harris. “Those chances are so — they’re once in a lifetime. So I’m really grateful to the festival, and I’m really grateful to [Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan] for providing me with those opportunities.”

Rheaume’s musical style could be described as a folky grit, reminiscent of Stan Rogers or Gordon Lightfoot. Her latest album, Keep a Fire, delves into her family history and its parallels with Canadian history. “The whole album and basically where I’m at with writing these days is I’m really interested in the story, you know. In the depth of the story.”

To write Keep a Fire, Rheaume talked to her relatives, transcribing stories about her grandparents and great-grandparents and turning them into songs. “I wanted to understand what was going on at that time, so that’s kind of what that album, Keep a Fire, is about, but as I move forward it . . . continues to be important to dig a little deeper and add as much depth and layers to a song and a story as possible.”

She says being queer has never been something she’s deliberately explored in her music, but she feels that many of the themes around relationships and insecurities are universal. “It still can be very uncomfortable and scary to come out, and I think that for me, empathy for that, the human side of that, definitely is in my songs because it’s something that I went through.”

“I think it’s really important to help people and to encourage them to feel connected to themselves and to those around them,” she says. “I think that being in the [LGBT] community and sort of . . . singing not necessarily directly about that, but sort of inclusion and empathy and forgiveness and loving yourself, you know — I think all that has affected me for sure.”

Rheaume says that getting to see Lady Gaga perform at Bluesfest was a thrilling experience for her and an example of the calibre of talent the festival attracts. “The thing is, when you just go down to the festival, you never know who you’re going to see and what you’re going to see, and it’s all amazing.

“There’s so much talent here and I think that it’s growing, and I think that Ottawa’s really made its mark on the map. I mean, it’s not Toronto; obviously, there’s way more people living there, but I think it’s important to celebrate the art that is here and to expose it to the general population . . . We have to celebrate what’s here and really make it known, in my opinion.”