Coming home to herself: Missy Knott talks mentorship and music

After some time away from the Peterborough area, Missy Knott is leading Indigenous youth to music and healing

Missy Knott is in a new stage of her life.

The Peterborough singer-songwriter, known for her rich vocal tone and blend of country, pop, and folk elements, is back in the area after stepping away from the local spotlight she garnered over the past 13 years. Now based in Curve Lake First Nation, she’s keeping busy behind the scenes, supporting up-and-coming Indigenous musicians through her own record label.

When Knott launched Wild Rice Records, she wanted to do more than just sign artists and distribute their music. She’d long dreamed of creating a hub for Indigenous youth to explore music and the arts. That’s what the not-for-profit record label has become since it launched in 2018. Based in Curve Lake, the organization offers youth mentorship, recording and video equipment, and help with booking shows and online music distribution.

Knott’s Anishinaabemowin spirit name, given to her by an elder as a child, is manoomin gnomwe kwe, which translates to “singing wild rice girl,” she explained. Wild Rice Records gets its name from her own, as well as the manoomin that grows in and around Curve Lake.

“I was inspired by Crystal Shawanda, who had her own record label, New Sun Records,” she said. Knott worked with Shawanda on her EP My Sister’s Heart, which was nominated for “Best Engineer/Producer” at the 2017 Indigenous Music Awards.

“I was such a Peterborough girl”

Through the Wild Rice launch, Knott met former Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) CEO Jean La Rose, who asked her to help launch the network’s Ontario radio stations. She worked briefly at 95.7 ELMNT FM Ottawa and 106.5 ELMNT FM Toronto before coming back home in 2019.

“I gave it an honest try, but [it was difficult] navigating single motherhood in Ottawa, a big city, when I was such a Peterborough girl,” she explained. “So instead, I just took everything I learned from broadcasting and production, and brought it back home again.”

Returning to the Peterborough community, Knott worked with Trent Radio as its Curve Lake Community Liaison. She led the program “Amplifying Our Voices” featuring Curve Lake radio producers, which she hopes to upload as a podcast online. She wants to start a radio station right in Curve Lake, too.

“I have never lived on my home reserve before,” she said. Knott grew up in Peterborough’s south end, attending the now-closed Confederation Public School and graduating from Kenner Collegiate. When she was 19, her dad died of colon cancer and her mom moved back to Curve Lake, but Knott and her sisters stayed behind. “Because at that point, we had apartments and whatever [we were] doing with our boyfriends. My life just hadn’t turned [towards the reserve].”

But now that her life has turned to Curve Lake, she doesn’t seem interested in looking back. The pandemic and her time away from the downtown music scene has allowed her to reflect on how performing and partying always went hand-in-hand for her.

“I always wanted to be at the bar, I always wanted to be on the stage, I always wanted to be on a plane, I always wanted to be going,” she said. “I can make music at home, I can sing to my daughter [Lyrik], I can write music here. And for some reason, I always wanted to be out there.”

“I have been avoiding a lot of the downtown scene, mostly the bar scene, because I am personally terrified of it,” she continued. She said she is still “just destroyed” by the sudden death of Peterborough singer Charlene (Charlie) Earle, whose body was discovered in the Otonabee River in July 2019. “I’m so fucking confused how nothing has been done. We aren’t learning anything. I just wish for safety. Safety needs to be a resource for our musicians.”

“A full circle family for the arts”

Knott’s focus on safety, healing and recovery is integrated into her work through the record label, putting it at a unique intersection of trauma-informed care, harm reduction, and cultural incubation. Alongside the usual music business, Wild Rice Records collaborates with local organizations to serve both the label’s artists and the community. One artist she has worked with is reconnecting to his biological father from Curve Lake, while another connected to hip-hop music while navigating homelessness at the YES Shelter for Youth and Families.

For now, Wild Rice Records is headquartered here, in a spare room of Missy Knott’s Curve Lake home. (Photo: Will Pearson)

“I truly know that in the beginning of all this, it was kind of like, ‘What sort of support didn’t I get that I needed? How can I help these young artists get recognized in the downtown scene because they’re not 19 yet?’” she explained, touching on how the label has grown out of her previous projects, like the Stars of Tomorrow youth talent showcases she hosted.

The label also works with Cannabis Canada and Healing House in Roseneath to make medicinal cannabis more accessible, without taxes, to Curve Lake residents.

“It’s not all just music, because a lot of our artists need that type of support before they can really grow their talents,” Knott said. “We’re like a full circle family for the arts.”

Knott’s recent music work has involved re-recording and releasing her 2017 song, “Our Song,” and giving the proceeds to those affected by the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and relatives (MMIWGR) crisis. The funds raised from the song went to Savannah Taylor. Taylor’s younger sister, Cileana Marie Taylor, was taken off life support in March 2021 after sustaining severe head trauma from an alleged assault from her boyfriend.

“Recording that song and getting those words out, there was incentive with a little bit of money we get from the spins, we’ll give it to somebody local at Curve Lake,” Knott said. “So we continue to take care of her.”

“I will advocate for our youth and our women above and beyond anything else

Knott has never been one to shy away from talking about the effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma in her own life. Her own mother, Twila, witnessed her siblings being taken away during the Sixties Scoop as she hid under a bed. Later, Twila reconnected with her siblings, adopting her brothers’ children into her care alongside Missy and her sisters Erica and Tiffany.

“There’s versions of myself I had to forgive,” she said. She realizes now that her urban upbringing, with her German father’s insistence on living away from the reserve, left her ignorant about Indigenous histories and hardships like the ongoing residential school revelations. Now she works as an educational assistant at O’shkiigmong Early Learning Centre. “That’s why I’m home now, appreciating the children we have now, and making sure art is right there.”

Knott is also candid about how her past romantic relationships fit into colonial legacies of violence. She recently survived an abusive relationship while navigating career highs like playing the Havelock Jamboree.

“It was violent, and he didn’t understand mental health or anything about being an Indigenous woman,” she said, describing a previous partner assaulting her in a hotel room. “This is why I will advocate for our youth and our women above and beyond anything else. Because it is the scariest thing and it is the loneliest feeling.”

“I want to learn more and more about [these relationship dynamics]. I want Lyrik to have healthy relationships.”

Knott’s learning and experiences over the course of her life have culminated in what Wild Rice Records is today. She feels astounded that it has panned out this way, “but this is my spirit name,” she said.

A new stage to come

Reflecting on her music career so far, Knott feels some frustration with her tendency to work in duos with white male musicians.

“It’s so easy to get wrapped up in other people’s worlds, to walk down other people’s paths, and then end up in a place where you don’t want to be at all,” she said. “I just wish I could have tapped me on the shoulder and been like, ‘Girl, hang on for a minute, focus on you and what you want to say.’”

The pandemic has put some damper on her motivation to make music, but she hopes that she will be able to collaborate with more Indigenous artists in the future. She says there are also rumblings of a Curve Lake music festival on the horizon, with names like herself, Sean Conway and Tara Williamson being floated as headliners.

Looking to the future, Knott considers her output to date – two full-length albums and several EPs since 2009 – to be demos for what is to come. 

“I’m very grateful for the journey, but I think it is truly just beginning. I feel like I’m at an entire different level of peace,” she said. “I’m writing a lot and I’m taking my time with these next steps in music, because it’s so much more to me than just a duet.”

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