By David Owen Rama
Kym Gouchie believes that sharing your stories is the most promising path to personal healing and growth. Like many among us Gouchie comes from a troubled family background. Her father was a survivor of the residential school system, the resulting trauma from abuse led to alcoholism, then violence, which rippled through her family. A story revealed in her song Goodbye from her debut full length recording Northern Shining Star Woman, which she released earlier this year.
As a girl this tension in the family environment led her to act out through incidents of “juvenile delinquency” and she found herself repeatedly in trouble with the law. “I was just screaming out for help and made some really bad choices,”the singer/songwriter explains, speaking with me from her home on the Lheidli T’enneh reservation, where she currently resides with her mother, near Prince George, BC.
Yet there are numerous positives that come out about family experience when Gouchie gets comfortable enough with me to share her personal stories. She recalls how her parents would welcome relatives and other members of the community into their homes during difficult times. She also gives credit to her father for sowing the seeds of music within the family.
For Gouchie family is the central influence of her life, playing a powerful role in both her struggles and her triumphs. Now a 53-year-old mother of four grown children and several grandchildren (with two more expected any time), it was the birth of her first child that inspired her to take her life in a different direction. “That’s when life completely changed,” says Gouchie, “because having a child and having that responsibility was what I needed. It was a good distraction from the craziness and it gave me a purpose in life.”
She raised her children with what she refers to as an “iron hand” when it came to sobriety and would support her maturing offspring only when they demonstrated that they would work to support themselves. Now with her children independent she chooses to express her life lessons through the stories she commits to song. “Being a voice for young people I think is something that is paramount in everything that I do,” Gouchie admits. “And it’s because when I was a young person screaming for help, I can’t even remember one person who came up to me and said are you OK? Do you need to talk? And that was a huge gap in my life.”
The pressures of raising a large family placed huge demands on her as a mother and Gouchie stepped up to the challenge through mentoring and advocacy work that explored her self-guided approach through art therapy. She also faced great challenges years ago when she took on a job as a youth worker in Penticton, BC. At the time Gouchie was suffering from what she describes as a “severe panic disorder” that would keep her house bound much of the time. Yet she was forced to find strength in a hostile environment and win over the trust of a group of defiant youth (mostly girls) through a personal process fueled by tenacity and love.
“These girls were my inspiration and my motivation, and they started to accept me, and we started to love each other, and we started to support each other, they started to trust me.” After five years of this demanding work what Gouchie emerged with was a strong understanding of the characteristics and causes of mental illness and how deeply trauma erodes an individual’s health and well being in the form of post traumatic stress disorder.
Always a lover of music Gouchie spent much of her life incredibly self conscious of her voice, claiming that during her younger years when she was invited to join her father to perform on stage she was aware that she found it difficult to sing on key. But with the eventual popularity of karaoke Gouchie began to explore her voice and to build up her abilities through repetition. “It’s true, when you practice over and over again-it’s just like body building. If you go to the gym and you do the same thing over and over and over again you’re going to see results.”
Over time she slowly developed her confidence and started winning contests. A big country fan, Gouchie was motivated to enter at talent contest during Treaty Days up in Fort Nelson eventually tying for first place and winning tickets to go see Dwight Yoakam at a concert in Fort St. John on a plateau overlooking the Peace River Valley. From that moment on Gouchie was inspired to use her voice and share her stories through song writing.
“I really believe that my music comes from a very spiritual place and that’s how I write,” Gouchie explains. “I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a song today about domestic violence. It literally flows out in one solid piece, and it comes from this mystery place. I become the vehicle, and the song is born.”
This is exactly what happened to her when she joined advocate Brenda Wilson and three other women in June 2016 during their walk on the stretch of road between Prince Rupert and Prince George, known as The Highway of Tears. Wilson was making the trek to bring attention to the incredibly high number of Indigenous women and girls who had disappeared or had been murdered on that infamous stretch of road. By the time they had reached Vanderhoof by mid June, exhausted, Wilson had put the call out for volunteers to help them finish the final leg of the journey, and Gouchie responded to her call. This would be an experience that would result in the song Cleansing The Highway, a composition that Gouchie believes represents the voices of these lost women channeled through her as she stood meditating at the edge of the highway.
That spiritual grounding in her music has inspired many who have had the good fortune to be touched by Kym Gouchie’s live performances and she says it is now common for her to be approached by audience members who have experienced similar struggles and challenges in their lives.
“A lot of the difficulties I’ve faced as a woman really come out in my music, and I believe that every time we tell our stories we heal.” Acknowledging both her mixed European (Irish, English, and French) and her mixed native (Cree, Shuswap, Carrier) lineage, Gouchie says it all plays a collective role in her artistic process. “I have all these places to draw from and I have all of these ancestors and all of this ancestral memory inside of me. All of this blood memory flowing through me. And I really believe that this is where the songs come from.”
Originally published in BC Musician Magazine