An older Indigenous man and young woman

Ann Mortifee: ‘Dreaming I am Ann’

(The first of a series of interviews with Ann Mortifee) 

Ann Mortifee is probably the most famous musician on Cortes Island, which is more of a compliment than it sounds like because there are a lot of talented musicians on Cortes. However from the start of our interview, it was apparent this story was about a lot more than singing. I had this bizarre feeling to lead with the question, ‘When did you start becoming Ann Mortifee?’ 

Her answer came out of the memories of a 4-years-old girl.

AM:  “It happened maybe a hundred times in my childhood. I had the same dream. I’d be standing somewhere looking into a bedroom and there’d be someone lying in the bed. I’d go, ‘Oh no, I’m starting to dream of her again.’ Then I would get this anxious feeling, ‘I’m going to get stuck there in the dream and I’m going to believe it’s real.’ This dream gets more and more upsetting to me. I can feel myself starting to fall asleep and that I’m in a dream.” 

Music in podcast: Opening – ‘Healing Journey’; 12:30 – ‘Nobody Gets My Child’; 25:53 to end – ‘Born to Live’. Image credit: Ann Mortifee – Photo courtesy Ann

“Then I fall asleep and I wake up in the body of a young girl who lives in Zululand. I looked down at my hands and I said, ‘these are not my hands, these are her hands.’ Then I couldn’t remember who I was. I keep thinking, who am I when I’m not dreaming I’m Ann?”  

“That was the template for my life, who am I when I’m not dreaming I’m Ann?” 

“I think we’re two beings. We are human beings having an adventure in this dimension. Scientists know now that we’re not actually material, we’re actually made of light energy. When we die, the body just dematerializes, but if you’ve ever been beside someone you love who’s dead, you know they’re not there anymore. They’ve gone somewhere.”

“I believe where they’ve gone is where we came from. So that piqued my interest. That’s why I’m looking for who I am, when I’m not dreaming I’m Ann. Like, who is the real person I am?”

CC: Go back to the four year old girl, what came next?

“My poor mother: I can remember going to her, feeling upset, and saying ‘who are we really?’ 

She said, ‘Darling, that’s a silly question. You’re Anna and I’m your mother.’ 

“But you’re not my mother, who are you?’ 

“She began to worry about me.”

“Apartheid has just begun. I grew up on a sugar cane farm in Zululand.  I had this wonderful experience of living in a white South African home, but all of  the people around us were Zulu or Xhosa. So I had this experience of seeing the world through different eyes and wondering where I fit in. ‘Why wasn’t I born with the Zulu people? Why was I born with a white mother and father? Why wasn’t I born over there?’ 

CC: How did the white people around you respond to this little girl with all these questions and statements?

AM: “They thought I was a dreamer and I said, ‘I am a dreamer, I’m dreaming you.’”

In 1957 Ann’s father, who was deeply opposed to South Africa’s apartheid regime, brought his family to Vancouver. Ann was 10. 

AM: “We did spend time in England for a while, but then Dad moved us over here. It was a totally different world from living on a farm in Zululand. I found it very difficult to fit into the white culture.” 

“I wasn’t very good at school. I couldn’t keep focused on facts and that’s been my lifetime journey to become more grounded, more sensible, more able to cope.”

“I became immediately interested in different religions.”  

“At 12, I went past a synagogue. Somebody was coming out of it, and I asked, ‘What is that building?’ 

“They said, ‘It’s a synagogue.’” 

AM: “Oh, what’s a synagogue?” 

“It’s a place where the Jewish people go.” 

AM: “Who are Jewish people?”  

“They’re the people of the Old Testament.”

AM: “Now that’s interesting, could I become Jewish?”  

“Some people do.” 

AM: “How do they do it?” 

“They usually take courses, and get to know what we think.” 

AM: “What are the courses?” 

“Well, you learn a little bit about the Hebrew language.” 

AM: “Hebrew language, could I learn?”

“So I started taking a Hebrew class after school. I was just curious about spiritual things from the beginning.”  

“My music started after my Jewish excursion.” 

She was working in a Christian summer camp. Ann shared a room with two other girls.

AM: “The two of them had been doing the music in the evenings. One of them (Christie) got sick and the other one asked if I would stay on and sing with her, because she didn’t want to sing on her own. 

“I said, ‘well, I don’t know how to sing.’” 

“And she said ‘Oh yeah, you do. You know all these songs.’”

 AM: “Yeah, but I don’t know what Christie does.”

“Yes, you do. You hear it all the time.  Let’s try these songs and you sing the melody that’s not mine.” 

“So I started doing the harmony with her and I stepped on the stage for the first time and I said, ‘This is where I belong.’ Really, I felt like this is where I belong. It felt very natural, so I must have done it somewhere before. All that summer I sang every night, and when we came back from camp, her mother gave her a new guitar for her birthday. She gave me her old guitar. I found a companion I could talk to, and share my feelings.”

Ann started performing publicly when she was 15.

AM: “I started on a dare from some of the girls at school. I went to what was then in the 60s and 70s, a hootenanny night, where anyone could get up and sing. You had to sing, I think it was three songs. So all the girls said, ‘if you go, we’ll give you a dollar each.’  I said, ‘but only if you come.’ So they came, and again, I just loved it.” 

Josh White Senior was in the audience, and he was starting to sing the following week. He asked if I could open the show for him. So they went to my mother and dad,  and Les Stork said, ‘I will drive her home afterwards.’ I talked my folks into it.” 

“That was it. People just started asking me to go and sing in their little coffee houses or their churches or whatever.”

“I was actually at the Bunkhouse in Vancouver, picking up my guitar and Les said, ‘are you going to the audition?’ 

AM: “Oh, what’s an audition?’  

“He told me what it was, and I said, ‘well, no, I wasn’t going to go.’” 
“He said, yeah, they’re looking for a girl singer. Why don’t you come with me? I’ll take you.”

AM: “I don’t think so.” 

“And he said, ‘all you have to do is sing one song.” 

AM: “What would I sing?” 

“Sing this one.” 

AM: “Okay.” 

“So, I go. I get the part.  It was ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Joe’ (1967) and I’m the singer playing the soul of Rita Joe.”

“Willie Dunn had been hired to write the music and often was not there during the rehearsal. So they asked me to start making up songs and I said, ‘What do you mean making up songs?’ I’ve never written anything by then. And they said, ‘Well, here’s the script. Just make up anything. We just have to see if music is going to work.’” 

“So I started. They started recording me and saying, take this home and learn it. That was how I became a composer. I never even thought you could make a life out of singing. I thought you had to do something like become a nurse or a teacher or something that I really wasn’t suited for.” 

“Rita Joe really was so perfect for me because I was so used to a different culture. Half the cast was native and Chief Dan George played the grandfather. I felt like I was really at home in Canada, finally. I understood more the Indigenous kind of way of being, the quietness of it. I became really good friends with some people in the cast.”  

‘Rita Joe’ ended up being asked to open the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and so I went with them.  While we were there, a producer who was putting on a show in one of the other theatres, asked if I would stay on and play in a show called ‘Love and Maple Syrup.’ ‘Love and Maple’ Syrup was a success.  I went with the show to New York.”  

“I stayed in New York for a while, worked in various clubs and so forth, and then I was offered a role in ‘Promises Promises’ (1968), as the lead. I was working with the musical director. I hadn’t signed the contract yet, but he wanted to see if my voice could carry it. I was singing one of the songs, ‘What do you get when you fall in love? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia. And if you do, he’ll never phone ya. I’ll never fall in love again.’ I went, I have to sing this eight times a week for three years! 

I had just come from ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,’ where I had seen that art could transform culture. It could make a huge difference in people’s lives. So I was going to sing, ‘you get enough germs to catch pneumonia, anf if you do he’ll never phone ya. I’ll never fall in love again.’ I went, ‘Oh my God. What if I die singing this song?’ I was  feeling really stressed, really stressed about it.”

“I had to go a few days later to sign the contract with the agent who was managing me at the time. so I asked him, ‘could I do it for six months?’” 

“He said, ‘no, it’s a three year contract. They’re not going to put all the energy into you and then have to do it again six months later. This is what any artist wants. You can be anything in three years, you can go anywhere, do anything. Every artist would kill for this opportunity.’ So, suck it up, sort of.” 

“While in his office, I was still torn inside. He was talking on the phone to someone and arguing why one of his other clients should have a 16th of an inch larger print in the program. He was quite intense about it. Then he says, ‘just a sec, I’ll check with my secretary.’” 

“He covers the phone and he says, ‘what are three television shows right now?’” 

Ann cannot remember all of the shows she mentioned, but one of them was the ‘Mod Squad.’ The agent returned to the phone, claiming that his client had a leading role in all three shows.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to let this person look after my life!?!’ He was lying so brazenly. It made up my mind for me, it was a gift.  The next day I left New York.”

I said, “I’m not suited to this and I think they could find someone who would really love it and it would be good for them.” 

He said, ‘you will never get a job in New York again.’

I said, ‘well, I’ll have to risk that.’

When she returned home, Ann received a call from Arnold Spohr, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, “We’re doing The Ecstasy of Rita Joe as a ballet (1971). We’d like you to come and compose the music.’” 

“I said, Mr. Spohr, I’ve only written four songs, the songs I wrote for Rita Joe. I’ve never seen a ballet, and I’ve certainly never written a score for anything.” 

“He said, ‘Well, we love what you’ve done.’” 

AM:’Yeah, but  I mean, really, ballet is different than a couple of little songs.’”

‘Well, tell me, do you love Rita Joe?’ 

AM: “Do I love Rita Jo? Yes, I love her.” 

“Do you understand her heart?” 

AM: “I don’t know if I understand her, but I love her.” 

“Well, why don’t you bring your heart to Winnipeg and we’ll see what happens.”  

AM: “That was how I got to write the ballet, I think I was 19 and it became an international hit.”  

CC: Where did you learn to write music? 

AM: “I just put feelings to music.” 

CC: Did someone else do the writing part? 

AM: “Yes. I’ve always had someone. My dyslexia never allowed me to make the connection between the dots on a page and the energy in the music.” 

“My career grew so suddenly. Underneath it all though, was always my deeper interest spiritually, in what are we doing here? Who are we? And yet it was happening simply by being at the right place at the right time. I never looked for a job once in my whole career. It just happened.” 

CC: How does Paul Horn fit into this story?

“The first time I saw Paul, I was probably 20 or 21, he was probably 40. We were recording the Ecstasy of Rita Joe, the ballet score. Jim Morrison, who was the producer of the album, hired Paul to come and play some extra music. I remember the moment very distinctly, a soul recognition happened. He walked into the studio and  I was taken aback. I felt such a connection with him right off the bat. He was very handsome and all of that, but it was way beyond that. He was very present. He was very strong and he had an energy about him that I’d never seen in anyone else.” 

“He played his parts beautifully. He stayed for the time and at the end he said, ‘is there anything else, Ann, you’d like me to do?’” 

“I said, ‘no, I was going to write an overture, but I didn’t have time and maybe we don’t even need one.’”

“He said, ‘well, we could improvise.’”

AM: “Oh, well, how would we do that?” 

“Well, I’ll play something and when you feel moved, come and join me.” 

AM: “Just  spontaneously?” 

“And he said, ‘Like having a conversation, like I say something, you listen, you hear me and you respond.” 

AM: “Oh. It’s that simple.”

“Yep, that simple.” 

AM: “Okay.” 

“So we were given a microphone that had two mics going in opposite directions.  I was looking right into his eyes.  He started to play and he closed his eyes. So I closed my eyes. I’m trying to figure out what’s the right way to do this.  It was the first take and it was just – everyone loved it.”

“He stayed and we listened to the whole album together and he said, ‘you wrote all that?’” 

AM: “All but those two songs. 

He said, ‘wow, and they’re so full of feeling.’ 

AM: “Well, you know all about putting feeling into music.”

“Yeah, but you’ve got a dramatic flair.”

“I had rented a farmhouse outside of Vancouver, an old one that was on a big farm in Delta, where the Reifel Bird Sanctuary is. Paul came out to visit me on the farm. We just walked all over the woods, all over the farm and we held hands walking. I made him a salad and I felt so at home with him.” 

“I just loved him as a person. I never thought that we could be together. He was married and I was in those days a ‘good girl.’ It was too bad! After that, Paul and I met on several occasions and some of them were very, very powerful for both of us. We would get together and we would go deep and talk about life and everything else.”  

“It wasn’t until years later, I was 57 and he was 75 when we got together. He often said, ‘wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have had all these years together?’” 

“But I think I would have just followed him around like a little puppy dog. When I first met him, he was so strong and I had to individuate in my own way. I don’t think I would have had the career I had  if we got together then.  I had such a profound respect for his artistry,  who he was and I didn’t have that same confidence he had. I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to.”  

CC: Let’s go back to Winnipeg. How do we get from Winnipeg to Vancouver? 

AM: “So I worked in Winnipeg writing the ballet and going through the rehearsals and everything. Norbert Vesak did the choreography. He really helped to develop my awareness. I was only 19 at the time and somehow not aware enough to know how deeply over my head I was.”

“When I would be stuck and couldn’t find music, I would say, ‘would you dance for me,’ and he’d start to move.  I’d just play my little guitar and then one thing led to another and then suddenly I would be totally swept into the feeling of his movement. He was actually choreographing. He was working on his piece and I was working on mine, and together we’d find it.”

CC: What happened after Rita Joe?

AM: “When I was doing ‘Love And Maple Syrup’ a show called ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ was on. I just loved the music. I just loved the words of Jacques Brel. He just opened a door for me and I said, ‘you mean I can be that dramatic?’ He wrote about anything he wanted to. How people found pleasure in bullfights, and they found power in Hiroshima or whatever. He was speaking on so many levels. It opened the door for me. I started to write about all sorts of things that I had never written about before. I really started to write more. My songs expanded tremendously.” 

Leon Bibb, who became a very dear friend of mine, brought Brel’s play to Vancouver.” 

“He said, ‘I heard you knew about it.’” 

AM: “Oh, I loved his music.”

“And he said, ‘do you want to be in the show with me?’” 

AM: “So we did that show, which opened theatres for Vancouver (1968). That was my first time  being more of an actress, because all the songs I was singing were intensely emotional. It just was a floodgate opening for me. We played for almost a year and that was where I really got established with comfort on stage, being many characters, letting things move.”

“After that Bill Millerd, who ran the Arts Club Theatre, asked if I wanted to do a one-woman-show. I’d never even thought about it but when I got into it,  the one-woman-show was a tremendous success and I fell in love with that model. So my concerts weren’t any longer just song, song, song, song, song, song. They became three songs in a row on a theme. And then the applause would come and I’d move into another theme.” 

“I was then asked to go to New York and sing Jacques Brel there. I didn’t particularly want to go back to New York, but I decided to go because I wanted to do a second album. So I had been given the names of lots and lots of different record company people, the top names in New York, but when I got there,  I could not bring myself to call one of the record people. I just couldn’t do it. So I continued doing Brel, thinking I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow.  I was only there six weeks. I finished my shows and was going to go on Monday. I got a call that the girl who’s playing the lead role in Brel is sick. Could I come in and cover for her, just for the matinee. So I go in.” 

“At the end of the show, a man comes in and says, ‘Ann, I loved your performance.’”

I said, “thank you.”“I’m a big producer in London.  I know it sounds vain, but do you have a record company?  I’m with EMI Records. I want to record you. Have you ever written anything yourself? Or you could just do Brel if you like.”

AM: “Yeah, I’ve written some songs.” 

“Okay, I’ve got to catch my flight. I’ve got to go, give me your phone number.” 

AM: “That was it. So I’ve met my producer. That’s what I mean, the serendipitous things that happened to me. Such a blessing. I went to London and worked with them. They brought in musicians from the Philharmonic and did my second album, Baptism.

“While I was there they had a lot of the large artists at this dinner party. I was looking down the table and I heard a voice, internally,  ‘if you go down this path, you will not fulfill your destiny.’” 

AM: “What?” 

“And it repeated itself, it was so clear, “If you go down this path, you will not fulfill your destiny.” And like, I wasn’t going to tell anybody about that. I was going to ignore it because here I’m doing this wonderful album.”

“I’ve got  a tour of the world offering and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I came back to Canada. They’re preparing for this world tour and something in me said, ‘this is not your path.’” 

“I fought against it really deeply, but I ended up driving down to Portland to visit a dear friend.”

“While I was there, I read a book, I think it was by Baba Ram Dass, and in the book, all I remember is a little scene where his mother had just died.  His father was grieving, and Baba Ram Dass kept getting his father to just pay attention to making the raspberry jam. When I drove back I realized, I’m thinking about this too much. I’ve got to not worry about it and know I’ll be led.” 

“On my way back to Vancouver, I went into Doug Edward’s house, who was my musical director in my touring. The first thing out of my mouth, which I didn’t expect, was, ‘I’m leaving music, and I’m going  on a pilgrimage.’

Links to other posts in this series:

Music credits:

  • Opening: clip from the song ‘Healing Journey,’ song and lyrics by Ann Mortifee, from the album ‘Healing Journey’ (1994)
  • ‘Nobody Gets My Child’ – song and lyrics by Ann Mortifee, from the Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1975)
  • Closing: ‘Born to Live” – music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Ann Mortifee from the album ‘Born to Live’ (1983)

Top image credit: Ann Mortifee with Chief Dan George while in the Ecstasy of Rita Joe – courtesy Ann

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