July 12th, 2024

‘I missed screaming about stuff’: The Jerry Cans’ Andrew Morrison on his solo project

By David Friend, The Canadian Press on March 9, 2024.

Andrew Morrison, a member of Juno-nominated act the Jerry Cans, says his new solo project "Echoes Of..." is a rejection of the "genre pressures" that often confined his Iqaluit band. Morrison poses for a portrait in his recording studio in Iqaluit, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dustin Patar

TORONTO – Sometimes Andrew Morrison felt as if his Nunavut-based rock band the Jerry Cans was suffocated by the expectations put upon them.

Twice nominated at the Juno Awards, including for breakthrough group of the year, the Northern Canadian act was a rarity in the homegrown music scene ““ a group of white and Inuk musicians performing in a harmony of throat singing and folk elements.

Yet their successes came with frequent “battles” over identity as Canada’s music industry tried to shape them to a certain mould, Morrison explained in a phone conversation from his Iqaluit home about a new solo project.

One of the greatest fights involved forces who thought it was better to sing mostly in English, rather than Inuktitut, on national stages and their albums.

“Sometimes it was overt and sometimes it was subtle,” Morrison said of the pushback to their language roots.

“CBC, marketing people, radio. Everyone was like, ‘What about English?’ And we were like, ‘No that’s not what this thing is about,'” he said, adding that he believes some progress has been made since those experiences.

It’s been years since the band performed live – most recently just before COVID-19 closures. Shortly after sole Inuk member Nancy Mike departed, their tour was cancelled due to the pandemic. They decided an open-ended “hiatus” was best for everyone.

But Morrison never intended to stop making music. If anything, the 37-year-old wanted to break out of the box he felt the music industry trapped the Jerry Cans inside for so long.

Doing so required him to confront a few crucial questions about himself, in particular: was it acceptable for a white singer to make a solo album in English and Inuktitut?

For a while, he wavered on the answer.

“Many times I wasn’t going to release this,” he explained of his solo debut, “Euphemisms,” issued in January under the name Echoes Of…

“Controversy about “˜white dude’ and all this stuff was definitely punching me down.”

Growing up in Iqaluit, Morrison made his foray into music as part of a childhood fiddle group before getting acquainted with his edgier side in a high school punk band. After graduation, he and his friends moved south to Peterborough, Ont., for their post-secondary education, forming the Jerry Cans in the mid-aughts.

Most of them dropped out, and upon their return to Iqaluit, they focused on their musical dreams.

Around 2012, local throat singer Mike joined the Jerry Cans, giving the band its defining characteristic. It helped elevate them to new levels of fame, which included a slot on the 2018 Juno Awards broadcast.

She was also crucial to Morrison’s learning of Inuktitut, which he says he studied in university and wrote songs in to understand better. When the two began dating, he immersed himself in the language under the orders of her late father.

But the more success the Jerry Cans found, Morrison said, the further they seemed drawn from why they pursued music in the first place.

“At certain points, we got away from our core values,” he acknowledged.

“We would get critiqued from small communities in Nunavut (saying) that we never played there. And I think that’s a valid critique.”

When Mike left the band, and the remaining members decided on their hiatus, Morrison began to seek advice from those around him about his next steps.

One of his most important advisers was James Ungalaq, a member of the seminal Igloolik rock act Northern Haze and a “musical hero” of his since childhood.

When Ungalaq’s band rose to fame in the 1980s, he was afforded an unparalleled perspective on the music scene in the North and its relationship with the rest of the country.

Morrison recalls how protective Ungalaq was of the local community when the two connected years ago as the Jerry Cans were on the rise.

It took many thoughtful discussions, and a passage of time, to solidify their bond.

“We’re musicians, we would talk about everything,” Ungalaq remembers of the early days.

“We both struggled with racism … Our cultures, they clash and some people get hurt along the way.”

Those interactions led to friendship and by the time Morrison was shaping his first solo album, Ungalaq was deep into retirement. It took a little coaxing for him to return to the studio.

“I said, ‘Hey, man, let’s just sing together and see what happens,” Morrison recalls.

“But then we really enjoyed it.”

Their Inuktitut-language collaboration “Inurulutuinnaujuguk” forms the soul of Morrison’s album. Together with Ungalaq, performing under the name Qiyuapik, they sing about the “keepers of songs,” who upon the arrival of white people found that “the songs changed.”

“I’m only human,” they sing, according to a translated version provided by Morrison.

“We’re only human.”

Those sentiments get to the heart of how Ungalaq describes feeling these days about the future of his community in the North.

“Pointing at each other is the past,” he said of laying blame for years of injustice.

“We’re starting a new generation and I think we’re on the right foot, stepping forward together. It’s really important to have my friend Andrew feel the same thing too.”

Much of “Euphemisms” is a collaboration between Morrison and other Arctic musicians, including Greenland’s Naja P and Igloolik artist Terry Uyarak.

With an ambient-rock edge, the songs address an array of issues, such as conflicts with the government and Nunavut’s staggering suicide rates.

By design, the 10 tracks veer from moments of tranquillity to crashes of rage that recall Morrison’s punk days. He said the unpredictable turns were meant to play like a rejection of the “genre pressures” the music industry thrust upon the Jerry Cans for so long.

“I missed screaming about stuff,” he said.

Morrison hopes Echoes Of… and the “Euphemisms” album play a role in encouraging other musicians to lean back into speaking out on subjects that matter.

He sees “a major lack of critical voices” in popular music today, and fears the protest song might be dead, even though he’s certain listeners want them in today’s turbulent world.

“I really believe in the importance of northern artists inspiring and expressing these very critical points of view,” he said.

“And as an artist, I simply represent that mixed bag of chaos in this city.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2024.

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