The Incredible Journey of Madisyn WhajnePhoto by Jen Squires Music Features Madisyn Whajne
There have been some remarkable Horatio Alger tales swirling up out of this year’s soul-crushing pandemic. But few feel as triumphant as the truly surreal story of Canadian crooner Madisyn Whajne (pronounced Wayne), who just released her dazzling power-pop debut disc Save Our Hearts after two decades of hardscrabble struggle, which even included going a personal round with the deadly COVID-19—alongside her husband and eight-year old son—this spring. “The virus went through our household, and we were sick for about 40 days, but we couldn’t get a test because we didn’t qualify,” she recalls, shivering at the recent memory. “I drove to the testing center so many times, and I got turned down every single time.”
For one three-night nadir, she felt like she had a 20-pound weight pressing down on her chest. Too frightened to go to the hospital, she quietly drafted her last will and testament one evening in bed. “And then I was too scared to go to sleep, because I remember thinking that I was not gonna wake up in the morning,” she sighs.
This was only the latest stumbling block tossed by fate into the Ontario artist’s cluttered path. Yet salvation came in the strangest of guises—as a kid, Whajne knew from her adoptive parents that she had been born Native American on Manitoulin Island, a member of the Ojibwe, or Chippewa First Nations tribe. But until two years ago, when she was informed of a class-action lawsuit initiated by Beaverhouse chief Marcia Brown Martel, she had no idea of the full extent of her heritage, and that she’d been part of her country’s notorious Sixties Scoop, during which over 20,000 aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their supposedly unfit mothers and rehoused in foster care or put up for adoption. She filled out the paperwork to take part in Brown v. Canada, and was stunned to hear that the judge had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, to the tune of $800 million, Canadian. Already-completed Save Our Hearts anthems like “Summer Love,” “Sweet Talk,” and “When Morning Comes”—which chime like “Crash”-era Primitives over a Modern English, circa “Melt With You” backbeat—were collecting dust on the studio shelf, until she was able to release them via her generous settlement check. It was unexpected, long-overdue justice. But poetic justice just the same.
“This record had already cost me a whole lot more than I ever expected,” explains Whajne, who sat on the project for two frustrating years. “So it was a money issue—it was mixed, it was mastered, but I didn’t want to just put it up on Spotify. I knew I wanted to do it in a certain way—I wanted to do videos, I wanted to hire good PR. Since this was my first record going out into the world, I knew it had to be exactly right.” When her money arrived, serendipitously, she didn’t have to think twice about how best to put it to use. “I was like, ‘Alright! Let’s press some vinyl! Let’s hire a team!’,” she says. “The government finally admitted to what they did, there was a big lawsuit, I applied and gave them all my information, and the money just kept coming in at the right time. So I guess it was all meant to be.”
And probably in more ways than one. If this underdog hadn’t lived the serpentine, up-then-down-again life she has, and spat out a slam-bang debut disc at 21, it wouldn’t glisten with the same keen hooks, clever recording techniques, and ABBA-confident vocals heard on Save, which synthesizes all of her early influences—Blondie, The Go-Go’s, Joan Jett,—with later ones like The Raveonettes and The Vaccines into a seasoned sound all her own. Her carefully-cultivated band is just as learned—her producer Jay McBride plays Peter Hook-melodic bass, longtime co-writer James Gray prods her to new heights with Will Sergeant-evocative guitar passages, and her husband Bobby Bulat (who until recently backed his older sister Basia Bulat) keeps everything crackling with a Killers-propulsive beat. Whajne plays Hammond B-3 and electric six-string, and has mastered the art of double-tracking her vocals. “I just sing on top of my own voice and we add less than a one-second delay,” she says. “And then we pan them at about 11 o’clock on each side, and then soak the mix in reverb, and it creates this really beautiful sound. It’s taken me a long time, learning to like my voice, but now being in the studio is one of my most favorite things in the world.”
Nothing about Whajne’s checkered past, however, would suggest a late-blooming pop star in the making, and it has so many twists and turns that she’s currently penning her autobiography just to map it out clearly. Taken from her tribe at age two, she was always told that her mother was an alcoholic and there was no other option afforded local child-care services. Not true, she later discovered, after which she made every effort to locate her birth parents, to no avail. “I never got to meet her—I’d outlived her by the time I was 34, and my father ended up passing before I got to meet him, too,” she notes.
But she was encouraged to explore her indigenous history as a kid, and she studied Ojibwe culture at Ontario Learning Centers, until she wound up studying the healing properties of plants and herbs with tribal medicine woman Mary Lou Fox. “It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, but it turned out that it was my grandfather who taught her everything she knew,” she says. “But I’ve always known that I was Native American, always just felt it deep in my bones.”
Restless, the artist left home at 17 and caromed through countless careers—in film and TV commercial production, as an art director, a video-store clerk, a vintage clothes buyer, and even a shop owner for a brief spell (Toronto’s The Mad Gypsy). For every step forward, there were two steps back—partnering in a vintage wholesaling company, she was left penniless when her boss drained the firm’s bank account and disappeared; attempting to find her Ojibwe folks, she was bilked out of all of her funds by a scam agency; soon after she opened her own outlet, she was informed that her street would be shut down for sewer repair for the next two years. Whajne—who christened herself with those curious first and last names—has had her identity stolen and gone homeless for a time, living in her car with no employment in sight (one employer actually took pity on her plight and knocked on the car window to offer her a counter job).
But along the way, the vocalist met Bulat, while they were both in separate outfits. And once they formed a band to play a one-off gig at their own wedding, with mostly Vaccines covers, she says, “I remember thinking, ‘Why in the fuck have we never done this? This is fun!’ He’s an amazing drummer, so I finally recruited him.”
Soon, Save Our Hearts was at last underway. And Whajne also got a Sixties Scoop bonus—once light had been shed on Canada’s dark secret, she learned that she had five Ojibwe siblings, out there in the world, most of whom she’s met and/or connected with online. “Two of them are in Winnipeg, and two of them are in Fort Erie, and then the fifth one—a younger sister who I haven’t found yet — is supposedly somewhere in Quebec,” she reports. She hopes they’ll all stay in touch.
Given all the trials she’s endured, it’s a wonder that Whajne has arrived at such a sunny, chiming, sugar-coated sound. But she confesses that the coronavirus experience did darken her songwriting skies for one somber new track, “Inside,” which she composed on funereal organ. “But then James took that song, put a freaking awesome beat to it, put some guitars over the top of it, and voila!,” she laughs. “Now it’s a beautiful, happy pop song! Even though the lyrics are very depressing…”