Amanda Rheaume is comfortable in the skin she is in

Amanda Rheaume. Photo: Michael Hurcomb

Amanda Rheaume moved to Toronto’s Little Portugal area in May 2017. You could say the move has been good for her. She certainly thinks so.

“I lived in Ottawa for 35 years. As a creative, I think it’s good to shake it up.”

She found a place on the top floor of a triplex with a sunlight and all the mod-cons. Settled in, she’s produced a new album, perhaps, she says, her most honest ever — and that’s saying something.

“Every time I put a record out it is my most personal album. But this one really is. There are more personal truths on this record.” The Skin I’m In comes out formally on Feb. 15. It’s her first record in two years since Holding Patterns. Before that was Keep a Fire which was n exploration of her Metis heritage.

“This one is more honest and less concerned about what people may think.”

Rheaume is turning 37 this year. She finds that, as time passes, she is more willing to take a risk like moving to a new city.

“That pushed me out of my comfort zone. I used to live in Ottawa where everybody knew me. I’d walk around and meet friends all the time.”

Skin I’m In, then, is about her.

She has been out as a gay woman since 2002 but she has realized that in her performances “I never sang pronouns. I would never reference an ex-girlfriend on stage. I have realized that I was actually kind of afraid for a long time.

“It has taken years of touring and going different places and having my best friends in the band reflect that back to me and say ‘Hey how come you never say she or her’.

“I realized I totally didn’t and I wasn’t sure why.”

So, for Rheaume, the song is kind of anamalgam of those experiences all pushed together.

It is also, on a broader level, a song about identity.

“I have fair skin and blonde hair. I don’t look Indigenous. I have been navigating this, not for my whole life, but for a couple of years.

“I am now starting to feel very strongly about myself lately, that I do belong in these communities and this is why and this is how I feel. We all don’t have to be the same. Just because you are a gay woman you don’t have to look a certain way. Just because you’re a gay man you don’t.

“Indigenous people don’t all look the same or act the same or have the same experiences. I felt finally that this was the time. It all came together in this song” recorded in Nashville.

She said she had to move to do it. In Ottawa she was so close to the community where people knew her as one thing.

The song has an accompanying video. It features different individuals all telling a story of identity. You can see it on her website.

There is a black man and an Indigenous woman. Two people take their shirts off and reveal something very intimate about themselves. One is a breast cancer survivor and another is transitioning.”

For Rheaume, the idea is people need to see it to believe it.

“We know about these things but unless they are in your life every day, people are not exposed to these types of realities.”

There is also a broader discussion of femininity in the video which Rheaume says “is important to me and what that means.”

In her time, which has included a lot of community activism, Rheamue has been involved in a charity founded in 2007 by Ottawa’s Ana Miura with help from Rheaume called Babes4Breasts in which recording artists fight breast cancer through music to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer prevention, education, and support. She also does a lot of work with an organization callled Darkspark which works with Indigenous youth. 

In Toronto she is living in a LGBTQ community where she has a lot of trans friends.

“I think it’s important to give visibility and give all of these stereotypes and barriers and pull them down. The people in the video hadn’t done anything like that before which made it even more magical and honest. We all just cried the whole day.”

The video also features a young version of Rheaume in the child actor Frances Fader who also sings the song in the video.

“She practiced and sang into the mirror and was just perfect. Overall the director let them do what they did.” The rest of the cast is Aria Evans, Nigel Edwards, Ali Eisner, Emily Piercell.

In some ways, the album and the video is even more pointed in the wake of the election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in Ontario.

But Rheaume says she is comfortable no matter what even though she admits she’s also a bit scared.

“Being scared about it coming out is a good sign. You know it means something.”

The production values on Skin I’m In seem more refined which Rheaume credits to the work of producer Colin Cripps, who in his other job plays guitar for Blue Rodeo.

“He’s an amazing musician and a fantastic songwriter. He can see the full picture of how songs fit together. We did a lot of pre-production and he it was the ultimate producer experience. He doesn’t show you what to do but he does sort of guide you along.”

As is usually the case Rheaume has a lot of co-writes on the album.

“I love co-writing. I learn something every single time. I love collaboration and love learning. I feel like it makes me a better writer with the opportunity to engage another brain. Also solo writing can be lonely.” Rheaume struggles with self doubt.

“That is a big thing with me. I have found that when I co-write, it shortens the time. It could take me forever to finish a record otherwise.”

She has battled issues of anxiety in the past including a serious panic disorder that came to a head in 2002.

“I was really sick, could not leave the house kind of sick. She needed medication and counselling and therapy. That’s a journey. So mental health empathy is part of my everyday.

After her sold out show at the National Arts Centre on Friday, Rheaume is on the road for some shows in Ontario before lacing up her skates and heading to the JUNO Awards in London where she will get on the ice with her hockey playing mates in the JUNO Cup.

“I’m gonna get a goal again,” she predicted with confidence.

Amanda Rheaume will be performing in the NAC Fourth Stage Friday night. That’s sold out. She will be in Kingston on Feb. 23 at The Mansion, if you feel like driving.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.