– Story by David Wylie Photography by Suzanne Le Stage Photography
Kelly Derrickson received her first acoustic guitar from her grandfather.
When her Okanagan house was destroyed in an arson fire about 10 years ago, the guitar was one of the only things that remained unscathed. It became a symbol of inspiration after Kelly plucked it from the ashes.
“It was a sign for me,” said Kelly, who’s from Westbank First Nation.
From the age of four, her heart was filled with music. Educated at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, Kelly studied opera along with other styles of music during her childhood. She gravitated toward musical theatre. And during her teens, she even snuck out to play music.
“I was in so many bands that I shouldn’t have been in, playing with older guys in clubs with my uniform in my backpack, sneaking out of windows. That’s all I ever wanted,” she said.
In another life, Kelly could have been a lawyer, which had been her father’s dream. A force unto himself, Kelly’s dad is Grand Chief Ron Derrickson, a self-educated entrepreneur who led the Westbank First Nation for years.
Kelly felt the responsibility to fulfill her family’s vision of her future. She had a fellowship to the University of B.C. and even completed an internship in a law office.
Yet, music pulled at her heartstrings. She applied to the prestigious Berklee College of Music for Music Business and Performing Arts, and was accepted and granted a scholarship.
Her family was not initially supportive of that direction. She invited her dad to her first performance at Berklee and made him a deal: if he didn’t like her performance, she would go to law school. But if he liked it, he would give her his blessing to stay in music school.
The performance was a hit.
Since then she’s released two full albums and three singles, and has started the writing phase for her third album. Kelly’s music has been played on more than 1,200 radio stations in North America. She’s been recognized consistently at the Native American Music Awards across various categories, winning best female artist for two consecutive years (2017 and 2018). She won the 2015 Coachella Valley Music Award for best country artist, and her single “40,000 Ft. Over You” is considered the Best of 2016 in North America on the National Aboriginal Music Countdown.
She was recently nominated for two 2019 Native American Music Awards: for best indie single and best music video narrative for her latest song release, “We Are Love.”
Her style has been uniquely described as “country tribal rock.”
“A lot of my music has a message,” said Kelly. “The lyrics may be self-explanatory to me or to the next person, whereas the lyrics might feel like something different to you or to somebody else.”
Her songs are often an honest perspective on the challenges facing Indigenous communities.
“Suicide Song” — from her second album, I Am — is a look at the crisis facing First Nations young people and was co-written with her dad.
“My dad was in residential schools and he was the one who really wanted me to write this song,” she said.
It was the last song she was set to record for her album I Am. But Kelly said she was exhausted and wanted to wait until her next album to record it. However, her dad encouraged her to dig deep and find the energy, explaining that as a kid he’d had thoughts of suicide.
“My dad being one of the strongest personalities that I know, I couldn’t believe that. It completely broke me and gave me the energy and the power to write the song the way it should be,” she said.
“Look at how many kids there are out there — and it’s not just our native population — there is so much bullying and stuff going on in schools. I think that every little kid needs a chance. I really wanted to create hope. If I save one life then I’m doing what I set out to do,” she said.
Kelly said Indigenous people face constant criticism because of the colour of their skin.
“You’re told you’re not good enough and you never will be. What the hell is the point then? Why live?” she said, adding “Suicide Song” communicates that everyone has a unique purpose and gift.
The video for “Suicide Song” has been re-released as a cross between a music video and a mini-doc. It’s one of seven videos she’s releasing.
Kelly wants to accomplish through music what her father has achieved through leadership and politics.
Her song “Idle No More” is a social commentary about the First Nations’ rights movement that caught the world’s eye in 2012.
Kelly’s latest single, “We Are Love,” is a rock anthem celebrating the feminine and honouring White Buffalo Calf, a female First Nations deity responsible for teachings such as the Medicine Wheel, Four Colours and smudging.
“I really suffer for the human condition and I have eternal heartbreak,” said Kelly. “My heart breaks for animals and how we are interacting with and raping the Earth. It really affects me deeply. I’m trying to balance that with my everyday life and throw that all into my music in one thing but have a great message to give everyone where we can figure out how to deal with that in a positive fashion and through love. I think love is the answer to do all that.”
Kelly now travels between her home in Palm Desert, Calif. and her home in the Okanagan.
“I’ve lived out of a suitcase my whole life. This is the first time I’ve wanted to stay in one place,” she said about Palm Desert. “Kelowna’s my roots. I always come back there and I’ve always kept a home there.”
She’ll be performing at the Native American Music Awards in November. For more information and to listen to her music, visit kellyderrickson.com.