Kym Gouchie stands rooted on stage, her bare feet connecting her to the ground below, the powerful beat of her hand drum connecting her to her audience.
The song is Cleansing the Highway, one that stands out for her.
“It’s a spiritual experience. I bring myself back to that highway, I bring myself back to the feeling of where that song came from originally. It came from a place of fear and my drum absorbed that fear and turned it into song.
“I really believe it came from the trees, the sky, the earth and it came through me.”
The song, which features her rich, powerful voice in fusion with the hand drum, was born during a walk in 2016 along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. The walk was to raise awareness of the girls and women who were murdered or last seen there near the highway. While the RCMP officially list 18 women and girls, First Nations communities along the way estimate much higher.
When the call went out for more people to join in, Gouchie responded and found herself walking a five-kilometre stretch by herself.
“I played it as I walked because I was afraid, so the chant and the melody, I kept repeating it.”
She took the song to her drumming family, the Kh’astan Drummers.
“We adopt other cultures into the group and our songs represent many nations.”
With help from Brenda Wilson, who was Highway of Tears coordinator at the time, and Jennifer Pighin, they added English lyrics to it.
“It makes it more of a universal song, then people can understand the song,” she explains.
While she plays guitar for some songs, she acknowledges the drum has the ability to open hearts.
Gouchie performed with her band Northern Sky at the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival; she also has a Southern Sky band, with members from the Okanagan and Enderby. She is from the Lheidli T’enneh Nation in Prince George, but is no stranger to the Shuswap.
Her great grandmother and grandmother – Neskonlith, lived on Birch street in Chase, where she spent many summers from ages 10 to about 17.
“I would spend my time between both of their houses, where I learned work ethic, picking fruit, hanging laundry, ironing it… just spending good quality time with my grandparents. I feel very fortunate – a lot of people didn’t grow up with grandparents.”
Feeling fortunate and grateful aptly describe an attitude that seems to envelop Gouchie.
Although her songs go to the heart of painful topics like murdered and missing indigenous women, grief and loss, domestic violence, truth and reconciliation, she does so without a focus on bitterness or blame.
“I’ve learned a lot just through life experience – I’ve learned to let go and do my best not to worry, just to stay grounded and to stay grateful,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning, even before I open my eyes, I’m thinking about what I’m grateful for.”
Her father was a musician, as are her brothers. Country music figured prominently in her home.
A jaunty tune, Over There, on the band’s new album, For the People, was inspired by her father’s death and pays tribute to him.
Lucinda Williams was the reason Gouchie decided to pick up a guitar and play, she says. She is a big fan of Patsy Cline, and her influences include Anne Murray, KD. Lang, Shania Twain and Buffy Saint-Marie.
“Buffy is my hero. Not as a kid, but as I got older. I’ve actually met her a few times. Now when she sees me she knows who I am.”
She’s been told by people she sounds like Joan Baez.
“I wasn’t familiar with her music so I’ve had to Google her.”
Gouchie was recently the recipient of a Canada Council grant, which will enable her to do a week-long song-writing retreat in Nashville with Linda McRae, a former member of Spirit of the West.
She beams happily as she explains.
“I’m so excited. I can’t believe it’s really, really going to happen.”
Gouchie first met her at the Heat Wave event in the Robson Valley where McRae invited her to join her for one of her songs. That partnership will be continued.
“I know we’re going to do some really exciting things together,” she says.
And, she is excited to be able to feel a physical connection to Nashville.
“To feel the ground under my feet and know some incredible artists have grown out of that.”
Not only does having bare feet or wearing moccasins connect her to the earth, Gouchie explains, it reminds her to be humble.
While she seems to have mastered humility, the combination of her rich voice and thoughtful lyrics still carries a powerful impact for her audience.
“As much as we don’t want to believe it, there are still people in this country that don’t know about residential schools, there are people in this country who don’t know there are thousands of missing indigenous women and men, so when I can get off the stage and have a conversation with somebody who has been obviously moved as they often have tears in their eyes, then I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
“I’m creating a voice for those who don’t have a voice. That was never my intention, but I’m learning that’s what it is.
“The stage is a place to share music, but it’s also a platform for me to convey a message that might not otherwise be received.”