Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of artists nominated for an East Coast Music Award in the Indigenous Artist of the Year category. The awards show will be held in Halifax on May 3. This interview has been edited for length.
Carolina East (her stage name) is from South River, Newfoundland and Labrador. The 35-year-old musician is one of four musical acts nominated for an East Coast Music Award in the Indigenous Artist of the Year category this year for her self-titled debut album.
She is also nominated for an Indigenous Music Award for Country Album of the Year.
On April 3, her single, “That’s Okay,” rose to number seven on the Indigenous Music Countdown radio show with NCI-FM in Winnipeg, Man.
Reporter Karli Zschogner recently spoke with Carolina East about her music, background and her ECMA nomination.
KZ: Tell me about your experience growing up in South River. What’s it like there?
CE: South River is just a small town about 45 minutes outside of St. John’s, but all my family on my father’s side are all from that area so we grew up in a pretty close family setting. We always had the Sunday dinners with 15 and 20 people and music was always a big part of those events as well. My childhood in South River was fantastic, very music based.
KZ: Tell me about your Indigenous background.
CE: We are based in a place called St George’s, over on the west coast. It’s on my father’s side, the family name is the Fowler’s and the White’s over in St. George’s. We were late finding out our history. We knew we had backgrounds in the Indigenous community but we weren’t sure where they stem from.
It was about 10 or 15 years ago, a couple of my aunts really dug into our family tree and we found out we were pretty deep-rooted in this Indigenous tribe called the Qalipu Mi’kmaq tribe out of St. George’s. And it was pretty cool. It was exciting to figure that out, to find that information out for sure.
It was just too bad it wasn’t found out sooner. We knew it was obvious in a lot of ways that we were rooted in some way or form. But when we got the full confirmation, it was pretty exciting. We were happy to adapt that culture into our lives and make it part of our everyday life as well.
KZ: What are the things that inspired you to write music?
CE: I find music for me as a way to express the feelings that I have and the thoughts that I have in my mind. I’m not really great at expressing feelings in a way of speaking to somebody. Writing music for me gave me that outlet to tell people what it was what I might not have been comfortable to say to their face. I found it was a way to connect with people on another level because a lot in life in a lot of our experiences are shared in one way or another with other people as well. We go through the same things in everyday life. It’s a way for me to connect with people on a stage in a crowded room. Songwriting is definitely the outlet for those feelings.
KZ: Where do you get your inspiration?
CE: I was a late bloomer, I didn’t start singing and performing till I was 16, which is pretty late in music years. It was back in high school I did a lot of acting and I was offered the lead role in this play called “Adam and Eve”. In order to be the lead Eve, I had to sing a song. I sang the song and my music teacher and drama teacher, they said “you got something pretty special that we should work on.
Quickly after the play, we put together a band. I started playing on George Street which is a pretty famous street in Newfoundland. I started playing on George Street at 16 years old in bars, smokey bars. The rest is history. I haven’t stopped. I haven’t turned back since.
KZ: Why are you drawn to country music over other genres?
CE: If you listen to my EP, it’s got of afflictions of a lot of things. There’s country and soul, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of pop but I find the country style of writing is more the storytelling type and that’s what I love.
I love a beginning and an end to a story and I love to take people on a journey with me in the words that I wrote, particularly for those songs. And I find country music really helps me articulate those things.
KZ: You spent much of your time playing in local St. John’s bars. What inspired you to take your music a step further?
CE: Like I said, I’ve been playing in bars since I was 16 so going on 18/19 years. I love it. I love my cover gigs but I found that there was more that I needed. I wanted to be playing in soft seaters. I wanted to be playing in theatres, different festivals and events throughout Newfoundland and Canada and I wasn’t really going to be able to target another audience playing at 12 a.m. in a dark bar.
So when I met Rob Wells, my producer for my album and the one I’m writing now, he really pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone and try really hard to get to a bigger audience in Canada. He’s a big reason for all this to be honest with you.
KZ: In your song ‘That’s Okay” you talk about the social pressures around getting married, buying houses, and having bigger, different dreams to chase? Tell me more about this and your experience.
CE: You know, I have a niece and a nephew. Colby is 13, and Emily 15 and they are part of my inspiration in that song as well. Emily is a visual artist. It seems like people have this thing in their mind that there is a certain way you have to live your life and a certain time frame when these things should happen. You know me as a woman. I should be married and have children and a career in something else than music.
It was basically me expressing these feelings to Emily and Colby in that life doesn’t have a map. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Just because you go outside the lines doesn’t make it incorrect, it makes it your journey. There are so many things in that song that are important to me and that was the reason I wanted it to be the first single to be released from that album.
KZ: Can you tell me about your Indigenous background and how reconnecting has shaped you including in your music and interaction in the music industry.
CE: I’m really lucky. I’ve got a family and a support system in Newfoundland that really accepts everything about myself, my background, my choices in life in terms of my musical career and the places I’m going to go and have gone. I find it’s a privilege that I can call myself Indigenous and I don’t take that lightly. And I’ve really been accepted by the culture as well and I’ve really done my homework in ways that I can make my mark in this culture and in Newfoundland in general.
I was absolutely blown away from the indigenous community all over Canada (during) the release of my first album. It was so kind, so loving, warm and welcoming. It almost makes me emotional thinking about it because this industry is so cutthroat. It’s so difficult to really make your way in the music industry just in general.
KZ: What was your reaction when you heard you were nominated for an ECMA?
CE: I was driving in my car and my phone rang, Bluetooth of course, and it was my producer Rob Wells. He started playing this big piano song over speakerphone singing this congratulatory thing and I had no idea what he was talking about. He was so excited and he said ‘You got nominated,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said ‘You got nominated for Indigenous Artist of the Year.’ And I was like ‘No I didn’t’. And he said ‘ You did, you did’, and I got so emotional, I had to pull the car over. My mother and father were in the car with me too.
It had nothing to do with the fact that I was nominated for an award. It had to do with the fact that I belonged somewhere. I finally felt I was making forward motion that I didn’t think was possible and it was a whole plethora of emotion.
KZ: What does the ECMA nomination mean to you as an Indigenous artist?
CE: I hold my Indigenous culture very close to my heart. Again I feel like it’s such a privilege to be part of this community, I really do. To be accepted into that award category, it felt like I was home. It was where I was needed to be….and I hope I can continue to grow my music career in that community. That’s the biggest goal for me right now.
KZ: Will you be performing during ECMA week in Halifax in May? If so, when, where?
CE: I’m going to be there for May 2- 7. I have the showcase on May 3 at the Carleton Theatre for the Indigenous Stage. I’m on the East Coast music radio twice, the 3rd and then on Saturday evening. I will be playing at the Halifax Shopping Centre on May 5th at 2 p.m. and then doing the Morning Show with CBC Radio on May 4th, 7-8 a.m.