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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Old Soul Rebel brings soul (and heart) to the Capital Daily Festival

Journeys through cabarets, Canadian Idol, and care clinics have taught the duo how to rock responsibly

By Cameron Welch
January 15, 2023
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Old Soul Rebel brings soul (and heart) to the Capital Daily Festival

Journeys through cabarets, Canadian Idol, and care clinics have taught the duo how to rock responsibly

By Cameron Welch
Jan 15, 2023
Double Rebel. Photo submitted
Double Rebel. Photo submitted
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Old Soul Rebel brings soul (and heart) to the Capital Daily Festival

Journeys through cabarets, Canadian Idol, and care clinics have taught the duo how to rock responsibly

By Cameron Welch
January 15, 2023
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Old Soul Rebel brings soul (and heart) to the Capital Daily Festival
Double Rebel. Photo submitted

The roads that bring Old Soul Rebel to Victoria this Wednesday have taken its two singers to national TV, to a “guerilla gig” covered in bugs on a Revelstoke beach, to health-care work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, to cabaret shows across the continent, and to the Tragically Hip’s iconic studio in Ontario. In performances, the duo could be channeling raw feelings of pain and tribulation, or they could be wearing fake mustaches—or both. You’ll find them trading jokes and laughter on stage almost as often as they trade off powerful vocals in their blend of blues, rock and roll, and (of course) soul.

The longtime friends and collaborators are electric guitarist Leo D. E. Johnson (who uses they/them and was formerly known as Chelsea D. E. Johnson*) and electric banjoist Lola Whyte (who uses she/her and also goes by ᐅᐧᒪᐣ ᐧᐦᐅ ᓯᐣgᐢ ᐃᐣ ᐟᐦᐁ ᐨlᐅudᐢ / Woman Who Sings With the Clouds, a traditional name given to her in ceremony).

For them, the stage is a place to uplift themselves, each other, and audience members no matter what they may be going through.

Johnson and Whyte met almost a decade ago at a community house frequented by musicians and poets in East Van, a place whose eclectic and bustling arts scene “engraved rock and roll” on Johnson.

“Our worlds started colliding,” Johnson said, and after a few car rides and coffees together they were writing songs on the community house porch that the band still plays. They had a musical compatibility, but also related based on both coming from marginalized communities in a way that many of their peers didn’t. Johnson is Black, and Whyte describes herself as a mix of Cree, Ojibwe, Blood nation, and Italian.

“At first, we didn't recognize that,” said Whyte, “and then it started to pop up when we brushed up against people we didn’t relate to; we were like, ‘Oh, this is why we get each other.’

“Intergenerational trauma—you just don’t realize how much that’s informing how you move through the world,” continued Whyte. “My grandmother was in residential school, and it had a huge cascading effect on my entire family.”

But those things brought the duo closer together and have given them ways to relate to others in similar positions, both in the arts and in the Downtown Eastside where Whyte works in a clinic providing care—and understanding—for other Indigenous people, refugees, and others.

“It informed my daily decision to help and not hurt, hopefully,”  she said.

Old Soul Rebel’s music speaks to the experience of being outsiders, but also to pride in who you are and finding your community.

As performers, both members had already found out a lot of who they were as musicians by the time they came together. Johnson had been on Canadian Idol twice, between ages 16 and 20—an experience that changed Johnson from preferring theatre and acting to being a dedicated singer.

Whyte, meanwhile, had run and composed pieces for a cabaret show called Empire that toured North America with burlesque icons Dita Von Teese and Catherine D’Lish.

“The style of composition for cabaret is just like a visual explosion, and my brain loves that,” she said. It’s something she’s started bringing back in a “not so over-the-top” way by adding dancers to some Old Soul Rebel shows. That’s one of a few ways the band can expand; it has also incorporated drummer Michael Wilford.

A big break at a tough time

The partnership has taken the pair touring across the continent, and brought Johnson back to nationwide TV when Old Soul Rebel competed in CTV’s The Launch. In the reality show, Canadian music industry mentors guide undiscovered artists through a fast-tracked process of putting out a new release.

“We were just naturally ourselves in that setting … being in the now of the moment, because we were rock and rollers and then thrown into a television show that was very fast paced and this fresh setting.” Johnson said, remembering being whisked through wardrobe and shoots and interviews.

“We got to be really emotional and raw—and then we got the grace of not winning,” Johnson laughs. Both are happy to have left with a second-place finish and an overwhelmingly positive experience that “solidified that anything’s possible” and gave them confidence for everything that has come since.

But the time on the show was bittersweet; it coincided with some of Whyte's father's last days alive.

The duo were ferrying to a gig here on the Island when they got two calls: one telling Old Soul Rebel they had to fly to Toronto immediately to be on the show, and one telling Whyte her father was approaching the end. Whyte said that for a while she wondered if going east for the show, as her father wanted her to do, was the right decision. But through her spiritual practice, she had been prepared for the loss.

“Much like birth, [death] just happens when it happens” she said. “We’re all connected whether we’re physically distant or near, and I actually feel like my relationship with my father kind of deepened after he passed.”

A fellow First Nations friend gifted her two feathers that had been prayed on and taken into ceremony, and she gave one to her father as a way for them to meditate and send love to each other through the distance. One of the last things he told her was “the feather’s working,” and she takes some comfort that the man who wanted her to be there on the national TV stage has also been immortalized on it in her episode.

Helping people heal, on and off stage

That experience is one of many that have contributed to Old Soul Rebel’s approach to concerts as a place not just for fun but for people going through difficulties to have their spirits lifted and find comfort and community.

“When we first started out, for me anyway, it was about music,” Whyte said, “but now there’s so much more depth there. I feel a lot of care and concern for our audience.”

Music had always been a therapeutic way for Johnson to work through their own experiences, but that’s expanded to “wanting to not only uplift myself but uplift the audience and create a space of healing through music … sometimes it’s good to just really scream, and get an audience to do the same.”

The band tries to use music as a way to heal and help people both in the audience and beyond it. In coming back to performing after the pandemic shutdown, they dedicated shows to those who had lost loved ones to COVID and have performed several benefit concerts. Those included one for BC flood victims and one to help build Vancouver Island’s first dementia village, located in Comox.

Whyte has also become a medical worker—a plan of hers since childhood—at the Vancouver Aboriginal Health Society, a not-for-profit health and social services centre in the Downtown Eastside. She provides dental care to people who would not be able to access or afford it, and is passionate about trying to prevent anyone from being left behind by the health-care system.

“I deeply, deeply love it,” she said, “I’m happy that I can even for a brief moment, just kind of walk next to them … and just give people that space to take care of themselves.”

Whyte and Johnson pose together (left) and on the steps of the legendary Bathouse (right) with drummer Michael Wilford

That welcoming and uplifting vibe is also something the band wants to share how they operate in the music scene. Whyte said that in East Van and the Canadian music industry she’s seen both plenty of positive examples and plenty of behaviours she doesn’t support or want to emulate.

“I love that people come to our shows and that in a safe environment we can give those people our love. And then that’s our community, and those are the people I trust, and those are the people that I care for.”

A musical legacy of love and care is something they experienced first-hand while recording a self-titled EP at the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Studio in Bath, Ont., with the Hip’s longtime collaborators. Late frontman Gord Downie “left behind such an imprint of love” on the space that they could "feel his heart still just beaming and radiating so much beauty to us.” Feeling Downie’s legacy through his studio and close friends reminded Whyte of the Buddhist concept of kalyāṇa mittatā: a “beautiful friend” or "virtuous friend" who inspires you to do good.

An anthem for who you are

Out of those sessions came the self-titled song “OSR,” a mission statement of sorts for who the band and its members are. They didn’t sit down to write it and lay it all out in the studio, though. It emerged in pieces, traded back and forth, from all over: a Honda Accord seat in Victoria, Johnson’s bedroom, a beer garden in Squamish.

“We caught a vibe. We definitely caught a spell on us,” Johnson said, describing the song springing up from every part of their lives to become the anthem of Old Soul Rebel.

“It really did solidify our sound, and our approach, and sort of this badassery that we really walk with. Like ‘yeah, we’re gonna just show up and really tear it out and turn it on.’”

It’s a rebel ethos born not out of breaking anyone else down or striking off alone, but of knowing who you are and how you want to make a mark on others.

That’s an energy they’ll bring to the UVic Farquhar Auditorium stage at the Capital Daily Festival on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

*Note: Leo D. E. Johnson requested that we mention their previous name due to this being their first media appearance under their current name. Typically we would only present the current name.

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Cameron Welch
Newsletter Editor
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Old Soul Rebel brings soul (and heart) to the Capital Daily Festival
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