Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here. This month, we spoke with Indigenous Blues musician Brock Stonefish.
This month, we sat downwith Brock to learn more about how he pays kindness forward as an artist, a key moment in the COVID-19 pandemic that reminded him of the importance of his work as a musician, and his advice for emerging Indigenous musicians.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
Currently, I have been focused on promoting my debut album Turtle Island which was released in January 2023 and was produced by Gary Farmer, and recorded in Santa Fe. I also have the Indigenous Youth Guitar Giveaway Series otherwise known as the IYGGS. The guitar giveaway series is geared toward Indigenous youth who have a hard upbringing or difficult means of access to music. As we all know, our Indigenous youth carry the title of the highest suicide rate of any other ethnic group in North America Turtle Island so this is my way to address these concerns.
I am also a certified guitar luthier with a certificate of guitar repair and design so I’ve been accepting donations of used - gently used, some heavily used - instruments and I’ve been modifying them and giving them away to youth at various events like pow wows or different tribal gatherings. I started out giving away guitars at my own concerts and I still do that to this day.
If you were asked to suggest only one of your songs for someone to hear, which would it be?
This is always a tough question to answer. But I’d have to say it’s a song called Priceless and I’m not even sure if there are any YouTube videos of it, but I played it a lot live over the years It’s kind of like a legacy of all the variety of friends that I’ve had over the years, and it’s just kind of priceless, how you can’t buy your friends, and I wanted to write a song about something that money could never buy and that’s true friendship. It’s got a couple of verses and choruses with a country blues progression, and it will be featured on my next album.
Was there a moment that you experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic that reminded you about the importance of your work as an artist?
During the pandemic, I wasn’t playing music very much at all. I had stopped playing music for years, not on purpose, but at some point during the pandemic, I picked up the guitar again. I went out and I bought a classical guitar because my hands weren’t even working. They were kind of disabled from my diabetes and neuropathy nerve damage from having high blood sugar, so I went out and first bought a classical guitar and started all over. I trained myself to play guitar again, and I knew how to play a lot of classical guitar songs and flamenco guitar songs, so I just did a lot of Spanish guitar playing until I got my fingers back. Once I could play all the chords, I just started collecting guitars again and that’s when I started the Indigenous Youth Guitar Giveaway Series - because guitar saved my life once again.
It saved my life when I was 13 years old when I moved from the reserve to the city. I was really depressed because I didn’t understand the culture, and it was a real culture shock for me. I was a hockey player, and I couldn’t afford to play hockey anymore. I had dreams of being in the NHL, but I ended up finding music in the city of Peterborough. That’s where I moved and started out playing alto saxophone, and I really wanted to learn guitar because I was a huge Eric Clapton fan. I used to listen to the Unplugged album growing up, travelling to baseball and hockey tournaments. I was always told that Eric Clapton was the best guitar player, and I like that sound and I wanted to be like him. I started learning guitar songs from the Unplugged album, I just drove right into guitar at age 13 with difficult material because I just kind of skipped all the beginner steps and went right to the the more advanced guitar style.
But it saved my life and, you know, I was down and out when I was 13 and guitar saved my life. During the pandemic, I was down and out and I was feeling lonely. So I just decided to go back and start from square one on the guitar. I bought myself a nylon string guitar and taught myself and that’s how I got back into it. I was at the point where I could hardly play guitar because of the nerve damage in my hands from diabetes, but it’s gotten a lot better now. I was told by doctors that I would never gain feeling in my hands again, but I can feel the notes pretty well. I guess it was the pandemic that helped me get back into guitar playing.
2023 will be the fourth year that you have hosted The Indigenous Youth Guitar Giveaway series to help deliver high-quality musical instruments into the hands of Indigenous youth who otherwise might not have access. Can you share a little bit about how this giveaway was started?
I lost both of my parents, and both my father and my mother had a huge influence on the youth in my community. My dad would always buy brand new baseball spikes, a baseball glove and a bat, or a whole uniform for somebody on the reserve who might not be able to afford it. He was always generous in giving people rides to baseball tournaments and games and making sure everybody got to go. His name is Barry Stonefish, and he has a lot of native fastball tournament championships under his belt. He was always coaching the teams on the reserve and just encouraging kids to play baseball.
My mother was the same way she was known for pow wow dancing and she was the first native hoop dancer in Canada back in the ’60s, and so she moved to the reserve in the early ‘70s. She was raised in Detroit, but every now and then, I have people older than me approaching me at pow wows and different events telling me how much my mother influenced them, and they’ve been dancing all their life because my mother showed them how and she even helped some of them make their first regalia.
She was always encouraging our community members to stick with our culture and to learn how to dance and sing pow wow. I was raised around that, and that was really where I got a lot of my power for my singing, from all the pow wow singing. It’s really tough to sing pow wow, it’s like opera. Those opera singers really sing hard, it’s the same way with the pow wow singing.
A lot of the blues music I play is kind of vocally demanding, and that’s where that influence comes from, and that’s how I got the idea to kind of do what my parents did and to pass on what they were known for. They were always encouraging you to carry on what they knew and so that’s what I’m doing with my guitar giveaway.
I just wanted to do the same thing my parents did and just pay it forward with what I learned and what I was skilled at. I’ve toured all over North America with my music, and I want to pass on some of the knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way. So that’s what I do, I just try and give away these guitars, and I know a lot of kids were having a hard time in the pandemic. Everybody was starting to learn how to play music, so what better thing to do than just try and provide people with the tools and instruments to create music?
I don’t only give guitars away to youth only and I also give away guitars to people that are grown, that are grandparents who always wanted to play, or who are playing on a beat down guitar and, maybe, you know, I can just provide them with a nice playing guitar. I need a lot of financial funding for tools and a workspace because I just don’t have the room or the facilities to do a lot of these jobs that I started taking on. Some of these guitars are kind of on the back burner until I can get the tools to finish them.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to emerging Indigenous Musicians?
The one piece of advice I could give to emerging artists is to just focus on letting your music make you feel good. Just let the music make you feel good, nothing else. Don’t worry about the money, don’t worry about the partying or being on TV or billboards or anything like that. Just be proud of your music, and just let the music you create make you feel great.
Is there anything else that you would like to share? Do you have any upcoming work that we should look out for?
I’m going to be giving away a guitar over Labor Day weekend at my home community’s pow wow - Moravian Delaware Nation Pow Wow - located in Southwestern Ontario, where I now reside. I have a project coming up this fall where I’ll be recording at Jukasa on Six Nations and I’ll be recording and filming a music video for my new single called Her Crystal Ball, written by January Marie Rogers who is also a celebrated poet and playwriter.
I won 1st prize in the talent search for the Toronto Blues Society this past summer so I also have some gigs lined up as part of the prize for winning. In the meantime, I just trying to find radio stations and get in touch with the DJs to try and help promote my album and get as much AirPlay as I can. I also had a number one hit from my album that was on Sirius XM and Indigenous Music Countdown; it reached number one so I’m just focusing on trying to get more songs onto the countdown. I may even start recording my second album before the new year in Toronto.
You can look me up on Spotify, iTunes, YouTube and Pandora to download my album Turtle Island by Brock Stonefish. It’s got six songs on the album and I’m going to be working towards recording my second album before the new year, hopefully. I’m also going to be hosting or creating a pow wow where I’m going to be giving away guitars as dance and singing prizes, so keep an eye out for that next summer and it’ll be a concert as well. Anushiik Megwetch
Keep Up with Brock Stonefish
- Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/193U2zKJoAyVxATqBm9Ylr?si=98fd3841536047d1
- Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/ca/artist/brock-stonefish/1667071809
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFXr1kRrlW51nG4YA7ovd5A
- SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/brock-stonefish
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.