A group of women songwriters singing at the front of a stage

Songwriters of Cortes: A sharing of songs and experiences

Four of Cortes Island’s women songwriters, and one man, got together for an afternoon of sharing stories and songs on August 6. 

More than fifty people gathered under the big top in the Village Commons, in Mansons Landing, to listen to Denise Wolda, Josie Simpson, Juli Nelson, Brenda and DJ Hanson. 

The event was made possible thanks to a MicroGrant from the Cortes Island Community Foundation.

Image credit: Acoustic guitar – Photo by Sebastian Reinecke via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License). This podcast opens and closes with clips from Denise Wolda’s ‘Feel the Island.’ A live recording of Brenda Hanson’s Welcome song is played from 6:39 and 9:59 in the podcast above.


Brenda Hanson said she was surprised when Louis Belcourt sent her an invitation to participate: 

“It wasn’t expected, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I was actually really, really very happy and when he said that he was featuring four women, then I perked up even more. I thought that was so cool. Songwriting is such a personal thing and a lot of the sharing would come from very personal places,” she explained. 

Denise Wolda added, “It was unusual that songwriters make the effort to get together, share their songs and talk a little about the process. But the more unusual part was the fact that Brenda and DJ were there too.  Brenda commented on that too and talked about reconciliation.  It just felt like this tiny little step forward.”

“It was, as far as I know, Jemma Hicken’s idea. She put the four of us together and called it a Cortes Island Songwriters Panel. I was quite intrigued because the thing about songwriters is we never take time to sit down and see each other. We’re off in our own little worlds communicating with our muse. So to get together was an intriguing idea.

So Cortes Currents asked Jemma Hicken where she got the idea for this event.

JH: “This is a whole political story, a Cortes classic, but I’ll skip that part of it.  (Laughs) I will say that the seed for the idea was planted by my partner because he was watching me go through a bit of a struggle with the politics on Cortes, figuring out how to make some live music events happen on the island this summer. He had an idea to have an intergenerational story share, a place based story share, on Cortes.  I thought that was so cool and  I added in a songwriting spin as well because as a songwriter myself, I believe that songwriting is such a powerful tool for story sharing.”

“Then Louis Belcourt and I, who were co organizing the event, were chatting and we were talking about different songwriters that we could invite. I mentioned you, Denise, because  I really wanted to have you in the event.  Louis was mentioning some people and then we both paused and we were like, ‘maybe it’s best if it’s a woman led event.’” 

CC: Did many people turn out for the event?

DW: “Probably 50 – 60 people: not all at the same time, but probably 40 at once. They were very patient and could sense something deeper was happening. There were times when it was very entertaining, but there was also a sense of people, the musicians, songwriters, feeling safe enough to share their emotions and their deepest parts and that turned out to be very meaningful.”

JH:  “I think one of my favorite moments was watching Brenda and Denise interact. Two elders now in our society, I think Brenda maybe referred to herself as a junior elder in training or something, but on our island interacting through music. In one of your tunes, ‘I think ‘Feel the Island,’ you had  a nod to the First Peoples, and you looked over at Brenda and she was feeling really emotional about it.”

DW: “That, for me, was THE moment of the two and a half hours. In that song, I say, ‘I feel a closeness to the first ones, a thousand souls upon the bay,  watching sunrise from this shoreline, knowing they would always stay.’  As I was singing that, I aimed the energy directly at Brenda and DJ because it felt very significant.”

BH: “It’s an experience that’s really hard to put words to. It’s just so powerful, and you feel like the person  that’s singing or delivering the song is holding my heart in their hands. It was such a powerful vision and my personal vision was of our peoples thousands of years ago on our traditional territories, like Smelt Bay, for instance. Really powerful imagery came up for me,  like a little mini vision.”

DW: “She thanked me for that. She said that it helped her, which amazed me. I felt incredibly humbled by that.” 

Denise Wolda wrote ‘Feel the Island’ when she came to Cortes Island 30 years ago, but has changed some of the lyrics. This program opens and closes with clips from the original recording.

CC: Did Brenda sing the welcome song? 

DW: Yes. And it’s beautiful. 

“It was lovely to have the two cultures, I suppose you could say, come together on a stage. That’s the main reason I agreed to this interview, it feels significant to me. Brenda was so gracious and generous with her time and with her emotion. She shared her own songs and the songs of her people and was very open about what the Indigenous are going through, the Klahoose Nation.  It was just a joy to feel the sense that everyone there felt safe enough to really open up and talk. It wasn’t just a ‘song share.’ It was a much deeper sharing than that.” 

BH: “This was really special and sacred. It focused on local women artists on Cortes as a whole. It was just such an honor to get to sit with other matriarchs from different cultures and to be able to come together and be that open with one another and have the level of trust that I felt we had among us.” 

“I particularly enjoyed listening to them speak about their process, what inspired them, how the song came to be,  where they were, what they were doing. On a personal level that was a highlight for me to get to sit and listen.” 

“It could partially be because I’m missing doing music because I feel like  I’ve not been as active as I’d really love to be over the course of the last two years. 

“Another thing I think that many artists struggle with too, is trying to balance your responsibility in your work life, because  not everybody has the luxury of being able to earn a living doing what they love. I’ve always struggled with music taking a backseat to just working for a living. It’s been tough because a lot of times employers don’t want to allow you the flexibility to coordinate your schedule so that it is most workable for yourself.”  

“I think that’s part of it, but I think more so the loss of my father has more to do with it. Trying to navigate my own grief over the last couple of years has definitely impacted my life  in more ways than I expected, not to say that it’s something I ever really wanted to think about, but it’s a reality now.  It’s come, it’s here, and so I’m having to learn how to cope. That’s a really, really difficult thing. I don’t believe I have a healthy acceptance of it just yet.”

JH:  For me it was really amazing just seeing Brenda feel safe to share so much of herself and so many beautiful songs. But for me the highlight was just seeing her feel comfortable being vulnerable and I think she was taking up space in a really nice way.

CC: Neither Josie Simpson or Juli Nelson were able to respond in time for this broadcast

DW: “Juli Nelson I knew a bit from having spent  significant time with her a few years ago, but  didn’t actually know that she was a singer songwriter. We had not looked into that part of ourselves at all. Josie Simpson, I remember her as a tiny little girl in the public school, and I went in there to sing one time years ago. I had heard her at the coffee house at Hollyhock a few years ago, when we were both playing there.”

JH: “I had the idea of inviting Josie.  She’s been on my radar because we grew up on the island together, but we never really knew each other very well because she went to the public school and I went to Linnaea and then she moved off a few years after I moved on, I think.   We’ve  been living these slightly parallel lives because  we’ve both grown up on Cortes, and developed our musicality off the island and on the island, and then haven’t really gotten to know each other yet. So it was a real pleasure hosting her because it was a chance to get to hear her music live, which I hadn’t done before and I really like her songwriting a lot.” 

JH: “Louis Belcourt booked Juli. I had never heard her play until a casual open mic that we had a few weeks ago. She is just amazing. I really love her songwriting as well and I felt like her songs have this kind of transportative power, like they’re very all encompassing when you’re listening to them. She’s so vulnerable on stage, like really shares herself fully, and that’s really beautiful to watch always with songwriters So it was a pleasure to hear both of them.” 

BH:  “It was an absolute honour and privilege to be part of the singing songwriting circle, and I have a feeling that there’s going to be more of it and I’m really grateful for that. Really grateful to the community microgrant that was received to make this possible and each and every person’s contribution: Louis and his helpers and just everyone. Just to sit with powerful women, all colors, race and creed out of the equation, just there as singers, songwriters and as women and as matriarchs. 

“I felt really proud to  be part of the experience of that whole day. I couldn’t have asked for more beautiful women to sit with: They’re beautiful, they’re talented, they’re courageous, they’re smart, they’re witty, they’re fun and I’ve only just met them.”

Music credits for Podcast

Top image credit: DJ and Brenda Hanson playing at Songwriters of Cortes – Photo by Jemma Hicken

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