New Nunavik musician talks growth after playing 1st festival season

Johnny Saunders conquers nerves with support from audience, fellow musicians

Johnny Saunders performs on Aug. 15, the first day of Aqpik Jam in Kuujjuaq, accompanied by his band. (Photo by Cedric Gallant)

By Cedric Gallant - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Upon stepping foot on stage, the first thing many musicians must conquer is themselves.

At least, this is the case for new musician Johnny Saunders, who performed for large audiences at festivals such as Aqpik Jam in Kuujjuaq this month.

The 40-year-old decided over the past year to hang up his workboots as an electrician to focus solely on his music. Armed with his guitar and his original songs, he started to ask festivals across the region if they would let him perform.

Saunders was invited to perform on his first big stage in July, at the Salluit Festival.

“No matter what, you will be fighting your confidence before the stage. You will always be nervous,” he said.

“I don’t have a drummer, I don’t have a band. It was me and my guitar.”

Even though he knows his capabilities, he still questions himself before his performances but takes comfort in knowing other artists he met this summer feel the same way.

Saunders met Mark Adams, a young drummer and rapper who has performed more than 30 times.

“He was still nervous,” said Saunders. “It was a relief to know that even after 30 shows, or even 50 shows, you’re still going to be nervous.”

This made him realize it’s more about “what you do with the nervous energy instead.”

Nunavut metal band Northern Haze, known for their high-energy performances, were also part of the Salluit Festival lineup. Saunders said he was fascinated by how they acted before going on stage.

“I could not believe how calm they were,” he said.

“All of them were sitting with their foreheads placed on the neck of their instruments, eyes closed. After they had their moment for each other, the leader got up and they all hugged each other.”

Aqpik Jam was another first — Saunders was accompanied by a band. He had never heard his songs played by a group before.

“We came to soundcheck and after one of the songs I started crying,” he said. “I had never heard my song so profoundly before.”

Before his performance, Saunders was as nervous as he could ever be.

Partly, that was because just 30 minutes before going on stage he and his band were still making arrangements for the songs they were going to play.

“I did not think I was going to get that strong of nerves,” he remembered.

“But I was trying to manage the energy toward better positive thoughts instead of nervousness. I was telling people I am getting a lot of energy, instead of saying that I am getting nervous.”

Musician Willis Tagoona performed with Saunders that day, and Saunders said he was a huge help.

“I was thinking about who was in the crowd, my family, my friends, and Willis said, ‘No, don’t even think about it, it will get you emotional.’”

When it was over, Saunders said he wasn’t satisfied with his voice but he loved the experience.

“The crowd was generous, even if I did not give them a lot,” he said. “When it comes to my potential, the crowd still has a lot more to see from me.”

Now that he’s showcased his talents a bit around Nunavik, Saunders said he’s started receiving support from people who have heard his songs, especially one called Kajusilu, formerly named The Grieving Song.

“People pointed out to me the importance of the title and told me that you use the word Kajusilu often in the lyrics,” said Saunders. “I decided to change it to that, because it means let us continue, let’s keep going.”

All the feedback is helping to grow his confidence, said Saunders. And the more he goes on stage, the more he says he feels an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in his heart.

“I think I am getting addicted to that fear and satisfaction cycle,” he said, laughing.

“There is that fear before the stage, that nervous energy that takes over. Then you get out there and sing and the crowd responds to you.”


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