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Musician Leela Gilday on mid-career success

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Musician Leela Gilday won the Her Music Award this February. Photo Courtesy of Leela Gilday

Mid-level artists can face a fraught landscape. No longer considered emerging or lavished with awards targeted to their newer peers, a career can begin to resemble a long grind.

That’s not the case for Leela Gilday, who won the inaugural Her Music Award, on Feb. 6 in Toronto, a prize to support “female-identified artists building momentum.”

Gilday also recently served as music coordinator of the Arctic Inspiration Prize, recorded the theme song for the 2020 World Cup of X-Country Skiing and will be headlining Indspire Awards, the national Indigenous multi-genre achievement awards

Musician Leela Gilday won the Her Music Award this February.
Photo courtesy of Leela Gilday

It’s encouraging recognition after the September release of Gilday’s album, North Star Calling — an album she considers her best work.

“To be able to maintain your own self worth and identity and not be too disheartened through the years that’s something that I’ve faced my whole life,” said Gilday, who will perform at Snowking's Winter Festival on March 20 and is planning Indigenous arts solidarity event on Feb. 27.

The continued recognition is important to her, she said, because it signals the connection with listeners she strives for. She waited five years to release North Star Calling, carefully honing the material, wanting to make sure the record said something significant.

For a musician often attracted to social responsibilities, it makes her career worth it.

“I’m not saying, my music is going to change everything. But I know of at least five people (where) it has profoundly changed their life,” she said, referring to the fan letters she received. “And the ripple effect of those people alone makes it worth all of the obstacles and pain I’ve endured. Even if it was just one.”

Her work has recently grown to include more collaborative pieces, whether as an creative director or while co-writing songs.

At the Arctic Inspiration Prize, she curated performers representing all five regions of the Arctic, helping them write three original songs for the evening, one of which was an anthem dedicated to the nominees. They performed a sold-out show at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, with over 2,000 people in attendance.

It was the conclusion of months of work, and the first-time ever for pan-Arctic collaboration of 13 musicians, she said.

It was proof of concept. As an artist being from the North, being Dene, it makes for a healthier culture, she said.

Leela Gilday when she received the Her Music Award on Feb. 6 in Toronto.
Photo Courtesy of Leela Gilday

“Our voices don’t just enrich us ... they enrich all of us. Bringing my perspective to the table and sharing it around makes you richer and our community richer to have this diverse fabric of voices that are no longer on the outside,” she said.

“As a female music creator, and as an Indigenous person, we don’t come to the table with our own voices, we come with our communities.”

Her newer songs place a premium on healing and empowerment. That’s something she felt called to do, faced with the legacy of trauma.

While Gilday said there's a place for anger, especially in how younger artists articulate it, she went another way.

That’s reflected in her support. When she was a younger artist, she drew her confidence from her family and her community. She's added her own reasons to this list.

“After 25 years, you have to find a reason within yourself that what you have to contribute is still valuable," she said.