As an indigenous Canadian growing up in a white man’s world, Forrest Eaglespeaker felt rootless, like one of the old growth trees of the great northern forests that had fallen to earth.
Life around him continued, but Eaglespeaker — now the principle songwriter, singer and instrumentalist for the Canadian rock band The North Sound — was paralyzed, in a sense. His mother was Blackfoot but had retreated from her people and her culture after mistreatment from Native men, including Eaglespeaker’s biological father. His white stepfather provided for the family in the northeastern part of Calgary, the largest city in the Canadian provide of Alberta.
“It was a part of the city where if you meet someone from a different part, and you tell them you’re from the northeast, they say, ‘Oh, I don’t go over there!’” Eaglespeaker told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I grew up around a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol and a lot of gang culture. I was running the streets around the age of 13, and I didn’t have a whole lot of structure. There weren’t a lot of places I felt safe, and I just found out that drinking was something I was good at.”
Alcohol, he added, became the balm for his tortured heart. The intergenerational trauma, the longing for identity, the restlessness of spirit that kept him always questioning his place in the world and the reason for it … alcohol quieted those things. But as it often does, it also ate away at the fringes of his creativity and his humanity, until he found himself caught between the Scylla of being too tired to keep living and the Charybdis of being too scared to die.
And that, he added, is when he found sobriety. The North Sound had been a project for several years at that point, but since he sobered up a few years ago and began the work on healing himself and his relationships, the band has thrived — and more importantly, so has Eaglespeaker. He remains committed to his art, but he’s just as fervently committed to using his story to make a difference, especially to young people who struggle as he once did.
“I get to work with youth, and that’s something I’m really passionate about,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of opportunity growing up, so where I’m at now is that I’m building an opportunity for myself in order to create opportunity for others. So when people listen to my music, I want them to feel like we’re connected, and that I’m sort of there with them.
“I want people to understand that whatever it is you’re going through right now, you can get through it, because I got through it. I got through this shit, and even though it’s tough and hard and painful, you can do it, too … because you are worth it.”
Forrest Eaglespeaker: Trauma begets trauma
It took a long time for Eaglespeaker to look in the mirror, say those words to himself and actually believe them, but then again, alcohol lowered its blinders at an early age. Although he was 13 when he started drinking regularly, he drank his first sips of alcohol, he said, when he was 4 and used to sneak the final drops of his parents’ empties. He took his first shot of whiskey with his stepfather when he was 7, and for many years, his household was an alcoholic one, he said.
“Both of my parents were alcoholics and drug addicts, but my mom was also sober for a lot of years and was an addictions counselor as well, so she wore both hats,” he said. “There were a lot of mixed messages that I grew up with, and it was a very controlling, yet very loose, household.”
Although he wouldn’t learn it until he was older, much of the pain he felt was passed down from those who had endured trauma because of their culture, their language and their skin color. Such intergenerational trauma, Eaglespeaker points out, includes widespread alcoholism among Native peoples who were victimized by the “Sixties Scoop,” a program that took indigenous children from their homes and placed them in Christian learning environments where they were forced to abandon the tongue and customs of their people.
His grandmother, he added, was a victim of that movement, which took place in Canada from the 1950s up to the 1980s.
“By the time she was 12, she had basically ran away from so many foster homes and so many residential schools that they stopped looking for her, so she was on her own at 12, hitchhiking across Canada and trying to find a place to land,” he said. “So she had a lot of trauma and a lot of unhealed wounds, so naturally she was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and then she raised my mom. And because she didn’t know how to be a mom, my mom became a drug addict and an alcoholic, and then the same thing happened to me. That’s how it’s intergenerational.”
Because of his grandmother’s lack of roots, and because of his mother’s emotional wounds caused by men of her native culture, the ways of Eaglespeaker’s people were missing from his childhood, and that void left him with a powerful hole he attempted to fill through drugs and alcohol, he said.
“My grandmother tried to teach me some, but she didn’t have a lot, either, because she was taken from her area,” he said. “So I grew up not going to powwows or ceremonies, not speaking my language, things like that. And there weren’t a lot of Native folks around me in Calgary, so it wasn’t until I was old enough to involve myself in my culture that I started getting into it.
“I remember being really young, in grade two or grade three, and I would pretend that I was speaking Blackfoot — but I would just be making up words, because I didn’t know how to speak Blackfoot. I always felt that distance, and I always wanted to be connected to my culture, but a big part of that was that I also grew up without my father, who is Blackfoot and comes from a very cultural family. I didn’t have either of those things present in my life.”
Music becomes a lifeline
Music became a lifeline for Eaglespeaker and would eventually become the bridge that connected him to his culture. When he was 12, his mother and stepfather enrolled him the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, a youth program that assigned him to play in the marching band. Although he wanted to play the snare drum, they gave him the bass, but it mattered little: He found his calling.
“All I’ve been able to think about since then is music,” he said. “I started off as a drummer, and I honestly think I would be in a much worse place if I didn’t occupy my time playing drums. Moving forward, I chose to play music over everything.”
By the time he was 16, he was playing in rock bands, and a couple of years later, he was fronting his own. Those were live-for-the-moment times, however, that mostly consisted of booking bar gigs where the band could drink for free, and supplementing it with additional alcohol during band practice, Eaglespeaker said.
“And any chance we possibly could after practice!” he said. “I wasn’t actually a great guy to be around. I had a lot of energy, but I was kind of a dick, and there were a lot of multiple failed projects from those days, because I was a lot to deal with.”
In 2014, he washed his hands of playing in other people’s projects and started The North Sound, around the time that he began to understand how music could serve as a vehicle for both his creative heart and the lifelong yearning he had for connection to his culture.
“Music became a bridge for me in terms of connecting me with my culture,” he said. “It took me a while to make that connection, but I began to see that stories, that oral tradition, that the music of indigenous people were such a deep part of ceremony, that it was how indigenous people have avoided complete genocide. I found the way to connect those two things together to feel like I am practicing the culture in the best way I know how.”
Back when The North Sound first started, however, he was still in the passenger’s seat, and alcohol was driving. In many ways, he acknowledged, forming his own band came out of a need for control, but the results were the same: a revolving door of musicians and a lot of resentment on his part for the shortcomings the band experienced.
“I felt like I deserved to be further along, to have the fame and the money that at that point in my life I was so badly craving,” he said. “I felt very entitled to it, and all that time, while all that was happening, my addiction was getting worse.”
Forrest Eaglespeaker: The darkness stakes a claim
In 2015, life threw a couple of knuckleballs that Eaglespeaker took on the chin, in the form of two deaths that took a bit of his soul with them: his stepfather and his grandmother. While his songwriting deepened and became more complex, what he did with those songs began to deteriorate, he said.
“The trials and tribulations of addiction created some pretty interesting things to sing about, but my sows weren’t going very great,” he said. “I was growing as a musician and a businessperson, because as an independent artist, you have to learn how to be your own manager, your own publicist, your own radio tracker, so even though I wasn’t gaining the prestige I thought I deserved, I was gaining a lot of knowledge.”
In 2017, The North Sound released the sumptuous album “The Valley,” which intertwines traditional Native tones and melodies with contemporary rock ‘n’ roll structures, built around Eaglespeaker’s playing and plaintive style of speaking. From the beginning, he said, he’s been forthright about his music and the man singing it, and that’s always helped endear him to fans who recognize his authenticity and return it in kind with unabashed enthusiasm.
“I’ve always recognized that there are two kinds of artists out there — artists who create themselves through a persona and live behind that persona; artists like Prince or David Bowie or Beyonce or Lady Gaga,” he said. “And there are the other artists, and they are 100 percent, unapologetically themselves, and that’s the type of artist I’ve always been. I don’t really do gimmicks and personas, and I’ve always been as honest as I could about myself.”
In those older songs, there’s a thread of melancholy shot through them all that, on this side of Eaglespeaker’s sober divide, is clearly the sound of a man approaching a bottom. By the summer of 2018, he and his North Sound bandmate, Nevada Freistadt, were a couple with a daughter, but their relationship was on the rocks. They lived in Saskatoon but decided to give one another space, and Eaglespeaker returned to Calgary, where he lived with his mother “to figure some stuff out.”
“And the whole time I was living in Calgary, staying with my mom, I stayed drunk for an entire month,” he said. “I don’t think I was sober for any of the time I was there, and I even ended up getting roofied while I was there. After that whole really dark, really sad month of missing my family and my kid and getting hammered and realized that I had made this mess, I went back home to be with my family again.”
Back out into the light
He was, he said, trapped between “wanting to kill myself and not having the balls to do it.” Freistadt quietly and lovingly pointed out that he had remained drunk for the first year of their child’s life. And while he had known he had a problem since he was 16 years old, that was the lightbulb moment, he said.
“That was the moment I decided to really be done done, with no excuses, and I was willing to do whatever it takes and go to any lengths to get sober,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, that my relationship wasn’t working because I quit working at it to drink, and that I was losing everything.”
His sobriety date is Oct. 5, 2018, and he knew exactly where to go, thanks to his mother’s period of sobriety. The family home had been well-stocked with sobriety literature, but he had carefully avoided trying 12 Step recovery during his struggles, because “to me, 12 Step programs of any kind were the end of the line,” he said.
“I always avoided those, because I knew if you went there, it was official — and so at the end, that’s where I knew I needed to go,” he said. “I knew I needed to find the right 12 Step program, and that’s exactly what I did.”
At his very first meeting, armed with nothing but the desire to stop drinking, he heard other alcoholics share who had something he so desperately wanted: some peace of mind. He listened, he took suggestions and he took every day one at a time, a simple formula he continues to apply today … and things began to get better. It wasn’t always easy, but it started with his music — his songwriting began to focus on things like hope, perseverance, love and healing. The first song he wrote sober, he said, was “Better Days,” an apropos title for a recovering alcoholic musician if there ever was one.
“Over the past two years, I’ve went from being a hopeless drunk to playing internationally, to getting signed to a record label (New Sun Records), to having No. 1 songs on the indigenous charts, to really making music that I love,” he said. “All those things I thought I deserved and didn’t have, now that I have some of them, I don’t crave them anymore! I’m focused on being a good dad, on growing as a partner, on continuing to be sober and growing and learning more.”
Forrest Eaglespeaker: Man on a mission
In the background, his 3-year-old daughter’s rambunctious laughter punctuates his point. He and Freistadt are expecting their second child soon, and this week, The North Sound is releasing a new single — “Heavy Heart,” which will be followed next month by a new full-length album, “As the Stars Explode.”
“The theme is sort of based around the intergenerational effects of trauma and healing,” he said. “It’s coming out soon, and we’re super excited, because we’ve been working on it for a while. But like a good alcoholic, I’m already working on the third and fourth and fifth records.”
He laughs — a genuine, hearty sound that’s reflective of that serenity he came to the rooms of recovery to find. His songwriting continues to deepen, as does he relationship, and the success he enjoys today has arrived when he can handle it.
“I’ve always said that if I had at 22 what I have now, there’s not a doubt in my mind I would be dead,” he said.
Instead, he’s used that budding fame to spread a message of hope and healing to others. In that sense, music becomes a bridge for them, just as it was for Eaglespeaker: a light on a path out of darkness, sometimes rocky and sometimes indistinguishable from the shadows that surround it, but there all the same for those who have the faith to take the steps. Or Steps, as it were.
“The power of having a platform was something I took for granted before, but I don’t take it for granted anymore,” he said. “I recognize that I’m very, very blessed to have that platform, that I’m blessed to have people listen to that music, who want to come see me play live, who want to stay connected with me. I’m blessed that they want me to be a positive piece of their day, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”