SPOTLIGHT SERIES | Ila Barker on Reconnection, Vulnerability, and Trusting Your Gut

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Ila Barker (Photo by Rein Cabaquinto)

Welcome to Spotlight Series, a monthly feature shining a light on emerging local music makers in the stellar music community in Manitoba. Come back for regular new interviews!

By Cierra Bettens

When Ila Barker joins our Zoom call, she’s just returned home after shooting a music video in Cabo San Lucas. Between producing songs, releasing a new single, and mentoring youth, Barker is constantly on the go—but that doesn’t stop her from doing what she loves most. 

The Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe and settler the folk-soul musician grew up on a farm, where she spent her days singing songs among the trees. 

“I think that was one of my first biggest influences: really organic sounds, getting inspired by the way movement happens in nature and how it creates music,” she says.

Initially, Barker had no intention of becoming a musician; her plan was to study bugs. Nonetheless, years of playing guitar and writing songs grew on her, becoming her primary therapeutic outlet.

“I think it saved me in a lot of ways. It gave me the opportunity to process all the different things I went through in my life. It became a very personal experience,” she says.

After releasing her first album in 2013, Barker took an extended hiatus. During that time she found herself trapped in an abusive relationship. Breaking free from it allowed her to return not only to herself but to music as well. 

In her forthcoming album, Fool Under Water, Barker lyrically explores her experiences through water themes. The album, which is nearly a decade in the making, merges both old and new songs. 

“Water can be this powerful, energizing life force for us. It can be comforting and a really safe place, but it’s also something that has to be respected because it’s really powerful and in an instant, it can wash you away or take your breath away,” Barker says.

“Abusive relationships can also be like that, where they seem incredible at first... then suddenly, the rug is pulled from under you, and the current comes in and you start drowning before you even realize you’ve been swept away.” 

On June 3, Barker released her latest single, “Intuition”. Staying true to its name, Barker says the song is about looking inwards for answers. 

“The song is all about trusting your gut and listening to those spirit guides, whatever that looks like for each person,” she says. “For me, it’s when I smudge, and I hear my gut whisper to me and scream at me sometimes. I like to liken that to my ancestors looking out for me.”

For the past three years, Barker has been working with an organization called inPath on various Indigenous youth mentorship opportunities. Last Autumn, they reached out to Barker about getting involved in a project that would support young Indigenous creatives. From there, Barker, along with producer Brit Kewin, kickstarted Braided Voices, a project that showcases Indigenous established artists to budding Indigenous creatives. Having longed for more Indigenous representation as a budding musician, Barker holds the project close to her heart. 

“The point (of Braided Voices) is to have content with Indigenous artists so they can see themselves in the industry,” Barker says. “We really want to make sure these young folks coming into the arts sector know they belong, that they see themselves in these roles and think, ‘I can do this too’”.

While musicians are increasingly encouraged to hop on trends to gain traction, Barker says it’s more important for artists to stay true to who they are. Her best advice, perhaps, is echoed in the opening line of “Intuition”: trust yourself, you know best. 

Watch Barker's new video for "Intuition", premiered via Aesthetic Magazine, and look for her at the Manitoba Music showcase at NXNE in Toronto on June 15. 

Cierra Bettens is a writer, editor and student based in Treaty 1. She edits the arts and culture section of The Uniter. 

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