Geneviève Salamone bills herself as “The One Woman Symphony,” but even that could be a limiting description when compared to the true reach of her artistic vision. Releasing her debut solo album, Catharsis, a few years ago, she has taken that work and transformed it into a sprawling multimedia experience, with its story being expanded by way of video on her YouTube page and live performances, which she continues to take with her around the world. In our discussion she provides a deep explanation of her music and its personal meaning, which speaks also to the importance behind her advocacy work. To follow along as her story continues, visit Geneviève’s Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok.
villin: Hello, and welcome to the villin podcast. This episode was introduced by a track titled “Brave” by violinist, composer and activist Geneviève Salamone. She and I recently connected for a discussion about her music and upcoming projects, but also her advocacy work and the “why?” behind taking such projects on. And as you’ll hear, one of the things that should be clear as the episode progresses is that there really is no distinct line between those worlds, separating creative work and a mission of healing. It’s the same thing, and in my eyes comes from the same place.
This is an interesting discussion for a number of reasons, but for myself as a listener going back over it all, and then drawing the message out of it, it’s interesting because the conversation she and I had is in almost a reverse order from the dialogue you’ll hear here. When we met, we really dove in head first, and a big part of what we discussed centered around cultural and personal traumas and how they’ve informed Geneviève’s work. I appreciate and admire her willingness and vulnerability to speak about her own past traumas, which is built into that topic, but also her ability to do so in a way that lends informative context for the creative work she’s produced over the past several years.
That said, it would be a disservice to her talents to not give some props up front and celebrate the creative path she’s taken. Originally born in Florida, Geneviève graduated with a degree in violin performance from Montreal’s prestigious McGill University before landing in Iowa, where she played with the Des Moines Metro Opera and spent roughly a decade as first violin with the Des Moines Symphony. Her work has brought her to Paris Fashion Week, which we’ll discuss later on, to the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, and will soon find her returning to France where she is scheduled for a performance at the Cannes Film Festival. That is one hell of a resume.
Further to it, however, her music will also be taking her west to Los Angeles later this year, where she’ll be relocating to continue her work with a publishing company with which she’s already collaborating with on music for film and TV projects. While having also performed and recorded as part of a duo called Dueling Fiddles, the primary focus of our conversation, musically speaking, centered around her 2021 solo debut, titled Catharsis, and the work that followed and surrounded its release. That’s where we’ll start in, with Geneviève introducing the timeline which gets us to that point.
Geneviève Salamone: [I] just started playing with the Des Moines Opera, started playing with the Des Moines Symphony, then I just started kind of freelance performing. And then it wasn’t really until COVID hit that I got really invested in and composing music, because I found that I had a lot of free time. And, so when 2020 hit I started writing music and I never really looked back. I found out that it was something that I love to do and was like not bad at it and I just found that also it was a way for me to express a lot of emotions and feelings that I had a hard time doing otherwise through some of the trauma that I’ve overcome over the years.
villin: That trauma is part of what’s at the core of the rest of the episode; not the particular details of it, but more so an acknowledgement of the feelings that followed and how she ultimately channeled them into something positive. This includes learning how Geneviève was able to redirect the psychological wounds that have been a part of her life since childhood, but also the cultural and spiritual scars from generational traumas relating both broadly to her Indigenous heritage, but also those experienced locally within her own family.
We talk about a lot here without delving too deep into details of her lived experience, particularly when it comes to the topic of childhood sexual abuse, which is part of Geneviève’s story of healing. If you believe you might benefit from listening to a deeper dialogue on that topic, I recommend listening to her conversation on the Non-Essential Workers Podcast, where she provided greater context surrounding what happened and how she continues to rise above her past. Returning to our discussion, she incorporated parts of that background and history back into an explanation of her music, which included a response to one of the last questions I asked her, focused on how she thought new listeners should begin when looking for an entry point into her work.
Geneviève Salamone: Ooh, that’s a hard question, but the first piece I wrote regarding this topic was “Brave” and we filmed that at Jester Park, here in Iowa, and I had hung up red dresses in the trees and my mom danced. And that was beautiful because not only was that the first time I had ever seen her do our traditional Indigenous dancing, [but] she literally remembered it from not doing it after 20 years, and it just came back to her like second nature. And that was beautiful to experience firsthand and ever since then she’s been accompanying me and dancing with me at performances and it’s been something quite beautiful for us to share together on stage, actually. So that piece is incredibly moving to me, but I would have to say […]
I do love the one in Paris though, ‘cause that one kind of stems from the creation and the starting point of what that issue comes from. But the other one I did is called “The Unforgotten,” and that was a piece that I did in collaboration with Dante Biss-Grayson, an Osage artist and veteran base down in Taos, New Mexico who I have been working with now for a couple years. And I’ll actually be accompanying him to the Cannes Film Festival to premiere some music. But this was the first piece in collaboration I had done with Dante where he had written a poem and he sent me a recording of the spoken word performance of this poem, and I let his words guide the music. And I wrote the music to it and I ended up getting a grant from the Iowa Arts Council to create an entire visual to accompany it where I was also in the woods with red dresses, but Dante had designed this beautiful black silk cape with a red handprint on the back of it.
It’s just a very powerful visual and then actually on the reverse side of the cape it had his poem written on it. Honestly it felt like the spirits were with us when we filmed this. It was literally minus 20 degrees out. I couldn’t feel my hands but it felt so important for us to be there. It felt just really impactful to combine his words with music and the visuals and it created a really really breathtaking and emotional piece that we were able to share. We presented that at the Santa Fe Indian Market last summer, where it just, it was… yeah, it was really really a powerful experience and it just felt like we were all breathing together in those moments, where you could hear a pin drop, also. But I think it was… that was, I would say that’s my favorite one though. I’m biased! Man, it’s hard to pick, but I do really I really appreciate what went into that one, so “The Unforgotten,” I would say.
villin: Aside [from] what’s to be expected from an artist’s website, Geneviève’s provides an avenue to finding more information on organizations she supports, including the Great Plains Action Society and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in addition to resources supporting Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Stepping that back a little, she explained the when and why behind her focusing on those issues, but also a general sense of cultural grounding which has made its way into her work.
Geneviève Salamone: I think it was just very gradual. I have been on my own healing journey for almost ten years now, and I think that it was the start of that journey that I really dug in and acknowledged and accepted who I was. Because, I think, before that I didn’t acknowledge who I was because I just shoved any bit of who I was down into a box, because if I let that out I was going to feel the pain and emotions of the trauma I had experienced. I didn’t know how to deal with it. That’s called PTSD. I didn’t know what to do with it. And finally, when I was confronting that box of emotions, confronting that PTSD, it was when I discovered that who I was was actually quite beautiful and I found that just allowing myself to feel and be who I am and who I’ve always been is who I’ve always wanted to be. And I didn’t quite understand what that meant until I allowed myself to feel those feelings. And I found a passion for reconnecting with my Indigenous roots because it’s such a beautiful culture that is so deeply wound in community and love and art.
Also, my family, we’re a family of artisans. We’re all artists and I’m finding that I get it from somewhere, and it’s coming from my family. I mean, behind me here on the wall I have these snowshoes that–this is what my family makes on a reservation. They’ve been making these traditional snowshoes for hundreds of years, hundreds of years, all by hand. And every person in my family has a different specialty: my mom sews, I bead, I do a lot of bead work, and I also write music, obviously that’s what I do every day, but beading for me is my way of connecting with my ancestors and my people. I love it. It’s also kind of my old lady hobby at night, sitting in front of a Netflix movie. It’s great.
villin: From the outside looking in, and listening to the stories she’s told about her journey to this point, a big part of that reconnection process has included her mother.
Geneviève Salamone: She and I actually connected in our heritage because she had repressed it for a long time and I was discovering it for the first time. So, in a way, we were almost discovering it together, which allowed us to work through some of the traumas that we had experienced together. So it’s actually been quite a beautiful way for us to reconnect, you know, as mother and daughter, but also reconnecting with our people and passing on the ways for the next generation.
villin: Through learning about the connection with her mother it becomes more apparent of how the intergenerational cultural traumas align with the personal. For the uninitiated, the topic of residential schools relating to the Indigenous community is a really dark one, a practice which spans both time and space, dating back to the 1800s and taking place across Canada and the United States. The University of British Columbia’s First Nations & Indigenous Studies Program explains how this trend was sanctioned and supported by both the State and the Church, noting “[t]he system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages.”
Living conditions were often bleak, while abuse was rampant, “along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care.” The goal of this was simple, as it was once said: to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” In other words, to strip a people of their way of life by way of forced cultural assimilation. It’s estimated that more than 150,000 children were taken from their homes between the 1880s and when the final residential schools closed down. Therein lies an additional layer to the horror of this: This isn’t some ancient practice, or an act solely of prior generations with little connection to today’s society. The last of these schools closed in the 1990s. That means that children who were born even after I was were subjected to this horror. One such child who was raised in these conditions was Geneviève’s mother, though for the longest time she had no idea that was even part of her family’s history.
Geneviève Salamone: She kind of was taught to be ashamed of her indigenous ancestry and heritage. Growing up it was something that she was always very hesitant to share with us because as she was growing up she was taught to hide and repress all of that. She moved away from a reservation at like 18. And that was right around the time of–if you’re familiar with the Red Power Movement, this was aimed… the American Indian movement, it’s one of the biggest advocacy groups for Indigenous rights in the United States. There was a huge movement happening in the ’70s and ‘80s and she happened to move right at the time that that was happening. And that is unfortunate in the sense that that was the time that the government was starting to fund more projects and resources to go towards the renewal of our practices, of our language.
For example, we have a whole language program now. I take classes on Zoom for Wendat language. It’s amazing they only even just started the Zoom classes with this last year because of COVID and then opened up the idea to Wendat people who live all over the world. And I was literally joining with other Wendat people from, like, Puerto Rico and all over the place, and it’s amazing! Because we live everywhere, but not all of us have the luxury of being able to go physically in person. So the ability to provide it virtually is, in a way, keeping our language alive, because we’re opening it up to all the people who live all over the world. It’s quite beautiful.
So that kind of started at the time when she had moved away. For me, reconnecting with my heritage has been a huge part of my healing process. I felt like a lot of the time when I was going through my trauma I was repressing who I was, I was repressing a lot of those feelings and those emotions and learning more about myself learning more about my people and my family has been a beautiful way for me to reconnect.
villin: In hindsight it feels a little misplaced, asking an individual how a society might make an amends for an intergenerational process of systematically demolishing a culture through mistreatment of its people. The unbelievable cruelty involved here is still something I struggle to wrap my head around, let alone avoiding the darkness of mental rabbit holes connecting the past to today’s issues surrounding those who would force their similarly misguided beliefs on minority classes in the spirit of blanketing the nation under the rule of a Christofascist monoculture. It’s something I asked though: Is it possible for a wrong of this magnitude to be even righted?
Geneviève Salamone: That’s the complicated question right there though. I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that the Pope had come and there was this national acknowledgment of the fact that the Catholic church had played a heavy role in the residential school system, this was last summer. And it was very very much controversial [in] different ways. And I think it’s really important to look at that, at both sides of the equation here. Because a lot of survivors needed to hear that, they just needed to hear that admittance, they needed to hear that it happened because it had never been acknowledged by the church up to this point. The Catholic Church [had] never spoken of children’s bodies found in these mass graves all over North America. So this was the first time that anything had ever been publicly spoken, acknowledged. A lot of survivors needed to hear that.
Now the other side of the equation here is that a lot of people were very angry because they felt that it wasn’t enough. The “sorry” isn’t going to fix anything. And while that’s definitely true, you know, it’s at least a step in the right direction. And I don’t know if that’s even the right way to say that. It’s just a step generally speaking, you know, the fact that it’s just being acknowledged is something. It’s important if they really wanted to go the extra mile and actually show that they are sorry for the fact that they took our language–our culture–away from us, what the Catholic Church could do instead is actually to invest in restructuring our language and our culture through programs and in classes and community type resources, you know? That would be something that actually would make a difference.
Those types of actions that actually create change instead of just speaking about it, that’s where the two sides of the story come from. ‘Cause a lot of people are really upset that they’re like, well you can’t just say you’re sorry and that’s it. So that was a really important thing that happened recently and it’s intergenerational trauma, it’s grandparents and sons and the next generation that are all completely changed by these traumatic experiences. And, you know, I still feel it in my family. And I’m just trying to do my part to try to continue that by doing my part in learning more about my culture, learning more about our people, and how I can pay that forward. It’s been a beautiful journey, honestly, and I think every Indigenous person is responsible for taking that journey themselves.
villin: Geneviève’s journey finds her distilling a certain spirit into her music. And with each layer of understanding surrounding where it is that music came from, so too comes a more clear vision for what that music is and what it means to her. From my perspective there are a few themes that come through within that process. Reclamation is one: A reclamation of voice, of power, of culture, and of personal value. But also a theme of resiliency.
Geneviève Salamone: I was going to say I have a whole piece called “Resilience” where I climbed a mountain. I’m literally terrified of heights and I was shaking when I filmed that. You literally couldn’t tell because the wind was blowing, so you couldn’t tell how [inaudible] standing on top of this mountain, which I later found out was a lion’s den. That was scary after the fact but at the time I was like, “Woo, I can do this!” And I did do it! But I think for me that piece “Resilience” was symbolic because I felt that metaphor of climbing a mountain is what it was confronting my trauma. Because it took me 25 years to confront my trauma. It took me 25 years to say it out loud, to say that I was sexually abused for the first 15 years of my life. And at the time I literally could never say anything like that without completely breaking down in tears, without just having so much overwhelming amount of emotions. And it was just because I never allowed myself to feel all of the things I felt in those 15 years.
So I think it’s so important to break the stigma in the conversation because had I not felt embarrassed to talk about it maybe I would have done it sooner. You know, it’s something people are uncomfortable talking about, but the truth is so many of us are suffering and we never talk about it because we’re just afraid to have that conversation. I can’t tell you–in the work that I’ve been doing, in the last few years–how many people will approach me after a show or just send me an email. They just want to tell me that they were also a victim, that they also are survivor, that they also had experienced what I discussed and that they were too afraid to speak about it. But there’s something in strength in numbers and strength and coming together to overcome the stigma.
I only found my strength after I saw the the gymnastic trials with Larry Nasser and the US gymnastics team. I literally sat there for however many hours that trial aired and I felt overwhelmed with how many women just kept coming up and speaking. But I also felt that each time another one came up there was more strength than the previous and you could see it in the way that they were speaking that each time another woman would come up and speak about it it was just they were stronger together. And that inspired me to speak out about my own trauma. And the moment I spoke out about my own trauma I found out that several other people in my family had also been abused by the same person. And that allowed the healing to begin because we all realized that we were all suffering the same trauma but never spoke about it for 25 years. And suddenly when it was out in the open we’re closer than ever now. Because we’ve actually spoken about it, we connected, and now we’ve allowed ourselves to begin to heal from that. So that’s why I think it’s really important to speak about the trauma or just to make sure that people know that it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to be afraid, but just to know that there’s always help out there. […]
And for me, personally, it was the knowing that I wasn’t alone that made me feel stronger. Because, I don’t know, personally I felt like I was alone. I felt like I was the only one in the world feeling those feelings and, like I said, that’s a lot of times how the abuser will want you to feel because they know that you won’t speak up when you feel that way. And, again, all the more reason to break that stigma of silence; continue the conversation, speak about it! I speak with schools, I speak with a lot of groups that have experienced trauma, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience for me personally on my healing journey because it’s beautiful to see that I can connect with these kids that have, perhaps, experienced their own trauma. But the questions that they ask remind me why I’m doing this. You know, ‘cause they will ask, whoa, we’re not we’re not the only ones, like this isn’t normal, and you should talk about it. And it’s okay to talk about it. Continuing the conversation, I think it’s just incredibly important as far as making waves/changes for mental health.
villin: Channeling that connection through a sound is an incredible achievement. Sometimes the wordless sound of song has an ability to connect with parts of us in a way I don’t quite understand. It just does. So while on the surface it might seem strange to think of instrumental music as being a vehicle for such immense meaning, it’s really not that wild of a concept. Music is regularly used a therapeutic tool for both the creator and the listener, which is absolutely within the scope of Geneviève’s purpose with her work.
Geneviève Salamone: Oh my gosh, any beautiful piece of music, historically, has some kind of emotion–very strong emotion–attached to it, whether that be good or bad. And I can say the same for myself. And the pieces that I write, everything is very emotionally charged. I think as an artist we we find a way to use our music or art as a conduit for emotions. And I find it really therapeutic to take a really gross emotion–I don’t know if I would say gross, like my therapist would be like, it is what it is, don’t call it good or bad. That would be what […] I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s good to recognize it. Because a lot of what I was dealing with when I was first confronting my PTSD is: I quite literally could not tell you what emotion I was feeling. I had a diagram of all of these words that were associating with different emotions because there was so much happening that I could not sort through it. So, this was how I ended up writing my first album, Catharsis.
Each piece on the album is a different emotion. The piece, “Rage,” I wrote about the moment that I found out I wasn’t the only one that was sexually abused in my family. I break a violin against a wall in the music video. And I bought this violin on Facebook Marketplace. It was already–it had a giant crack down the center. But I channeled that anger and that music and it felt like a really healthy way to channel that really intense emotion. And that’s kind of how the whole album became Catharsis, which I guess for the record means the release of pent-up emotions, which is also really appropriate to this conversation.
villin: Even when I first reached out to see if Geneviève would spend some time speaking with me, I knew I had a bit of an agenda for doing so, based on my own personal relationship with some of the subject matter discussed here. I’ll try to keep this short, but I grew up in western Canada and for as long as I can recall, the country has elevated and celebrated the music of a band called the Tragically Hip. The lead singer of that band was a man named Gord Downie. Gord passed away in 2017 from brain cancer, and for a host of reasons his death was personally significant to me, and one of those reasons is relevant here. A year before he passed, Gord released an album (alongside an animated film and graphic novel) called Secret Path. Secret Path is very much a concept album, though it’s one rooted in reality, telling the story of a young boy named Chanie who died in the 1960s while trying to find his way back home after escaping from a residential school.
My hope is this doesn’t come off as transposing my own personal narrative over someone else’s story, because I don’t want that to be the lasting impression. But my desire to do this is based on my own experience, and my hope is this does for someone what Gord did for me. He began to open my eyes to an issue that had been hiding in plain sight. “Canada is not Canada,” he wrote in the liner notes for Secret Path. He continued, adding that “We are not the country we think we are.” I think that’s true here in the U.S., as well. When I first read those words they shattered me. None of us are who we are without the past having existed. That’s just a fact. No matter how little we might have personally contributed to the past, that doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to its consequences, whether that be privilege or hardship.
So much of my own national culture is wound around a global nice guy image, a veneer or a thin top coat over its reality, being that a significant portion of its citizens still reel from the effects of such policy as that which resulted in residential schools being implemented in the first place. Statistics backing this are incredibly damning. Indigenous women and girls account for roughly a quarter of all female homicides in the country, for example, despite making up a tiny fraction of the its population. And over half of the country’s children in foster care are Indigenous youth, despite not even accounting for ten percent of the country’s population aged 14 or under.
Gord Downie was a tricky, if not at times cantankerous human, though I looked up to him all the same. He knew his time was limited when he began to take on would become Secret Path and decided to dedicate himself to that project, to learn what he could, and to amplify that story. Gord called the album the best thing he’s ever done. He said he had to do it because it was good for his heart. I appreciate the opportunity to help share Geneviève’s story as she carries her own message of awareness forward with her. Incorporating such advocacy work into her art is something I admire, particularly when the subject at its core is of such a heavy weight. This recording doesn’t end where she and I concluded our talk, but almost where we began, touching on a parallel thought to Gord’s, speaking to the importance of using one’s platform, however big or small it might be, to do what’s good for your heart.
Geneviève Salamone: When I got invited to perform at Paris Fashion Week I knew that I wanted to take the chance to say something important on the fashion world’s largest stage. Because it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to say something like that at a place like that. So I worked with collaborator MEKA, who is a fashion designer from Seattle–based in Seattle–her name is Mary Kelsay. And we had connected a few months previously but long story short we ended up speaking and collaborating. We were both very much passionate about raising awareness for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, it just impacts a lot of people within our community. And if you’re not familiar with that movement, essentially Indigenous women, girls, [and] two-spirited people are murdered and go missing on a much higher rate than any other group of peoples. Even here in Des Moines we’re only a couple hours away from one of the worst hotspots for MMIW, and that’s Omaha. A lot of the hotspots you’ll find looking on a map follow where the oil is, so a lot of what are called “man camps” are hotspots.
Being a survivor of sexual assault and just being really passionate about my Indigenous heritage, I really wanted to speak up and out about this while I was in Paris. So I worked with this Indigenous fashion designer who had created this collection of red dresses. In Indigenous culture many of our cultures believe that the color red is the only color that spirits can see. So she designed this collection of red dresses that were going to be premiered at Paris Fashion Week and I wrote this piece of music called “For Our Sisters,” which included some spoken word elements, both in English and in French, because I wanted to make sure that the audience understood what it was about whether they spoke English or French.
But we ended up filming a music video at some of the largest iconic places in Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Gardens of Versailles. And it was incredibly moving to film at those locations because not only were we getting questions of what is this for, what is this about, oh, what can I do to help or learn more about this issue, we were educating the French people on their own history of the fact that they were amongst the original colonizers of Turtle Island. You know, very much that in the same fashion that we find in the United States and Canada that there are a lot of things not shared in history books–same thing in France, people had no idea what the impact of colonization had on the Indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada.
So it’s just a moment of education and using art–a very universal language–to connect different countries, different languages, different cultures together to understand this common issue, which is the fact that there are Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited people going missing at a much higher rate. So that was the performance in Paris. We premiered the music and then we also had filmed it at that time. And I later premiered that music video in Anchorage, Alaska–which statistically is the highest MMIW rate in the country. It was really incredibly emotional and moving to be able to present it there, just being very much at the ground zero of this epidemic. It was incredibly powerful, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. And it’s not that I was creating it to make people cry, but I was creating it because I want the people who know nothing about it to get angry. I want them to be sad. I want them to do something about it. I want them to feel so they can see what our people are experiencing every single day, and have been experiencing for generations and generations. So by creating this emotional content to raise awareness on this issue, we are in fact spreading awareness, we’re creating change, we’re directing any funds toward these non-profits that are actively on the ground searching for our missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. So, it’s just a part of the work that I’m really grateful to be able to do, because it really feels like we’re doing something, and helping keep the conversation going.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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