With her two new singles “Child of the Government” and “Hush” and their accompanying videos, Canadian-born actress and musician Jayli Wolf is poised and proud of every inch of who she is. But her palpable self-possession and undeniable star-quality has been hard-earned, arising after many excruciating years spent coming to terms with some earth-shaking revelations around her identity.
Wolf spent most of her young life assuming her dark hair and tanned skin were the result of Mexican heritage, only to find out at eight years old that she was First Nations . This discovery—delivered by her estranged biological father who also had no idea he was indigenous—queued a process of personal exploration and reclamation that was later expedited by Wolf’s growing disillusionment with the Jehovah’s Witness community, the religion she was raised in and eventually left completely about a decade ago.
Understandably, the force of relinquishing her entire belief system and learning her true heritage blew Wolf’s world apart. For several years, she fell deep into depression and addiction before beginning to make music again—something that she’d loved since she was a kid, but wasn’t allowed to pursue professionally due to her religion. She charts this progression on revelatory solo debut Wild Whisper, out June 18.
Recently, Wolf spoke with Audiofemme about coming to terms with life after growing up in a “cult,” her indigenous identity, and bisexuality, which her latest singles so bravely and tenderly document.
AF: “Child Of The Government,” comments on the generational impacts of the Sixties Scoop—when, from the 1950’s into the 1990’s, the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church “scooped” more than 20,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children from their families and communities. I know you recently learned that this happened to your father. Was he able to get back in touch with his indigenous roots?
JW: Yeah, he did. He thought he was Mexican because the Canadian government and the Catholic church changed his adoption papers and basically said that he was not eligible for Indian status, that he was not Indian, and that’s part of the erasure, like what they’ve done with our culture. And that was part of what they wanted with the Sixties Scoop. He thought he was Mexican and if he never found his family he never would have known.
So, he went up North. I belong to the Saulteau First Nations community near Chetwynd, British Columbia, and he was able to get the adoption papers and find his biological mother’s name and then he went and found his biological family. He went and he actually lived up on the reservation for quite a few years after he found my biological family. He got to spend a lot of time with them, and I just made it up there two years ago to meet my family.
AF: Wow. So at the end of the video for “Child of the Government,” when you are standing with two elders—is that your father and your grandmother?
JW: That is actually my biological father but we got an actor for my grandma because of COVID—I didn’t want to fly her in.
AF: Fair enough. So when was that, that your father got reunited with his family?
JW: I don’t actually know – years ago. I haven’t been close with my biological father so it’s only been the last couple years that I’m trying to rebuild that relationship. We’re not going to be a typical father-daughter but at least we can be acquaintances, so I’m getting to know him again.
AF: Did he raise you? Tell me a little about your upbringing.
JW: I was raised by my mom’s family. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a little town called Creston, BC, and my grandma pretty much raised me. My grandmother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and my mom had me when she was like 15, so we lived in a trailer – my grandma, her five kids, and me. My grandpa too, but my grandpa, he was like the opposite of my grandma—a severe alcoholic, you know, drug addict. So it was a really weird upbringing. A lot of polarity. And I had no idea I was indigenous. I actually thought that my dad was Mexican. I had heard that he was Mexican. It wasn’t until he let us know that he had found his biological family that I found out I was First Nations.
AF: That must have been an astounding revelation.
JW: It was weird because when I was little I was outside all the time. I tan really easily, I get pretty dark in the summer, and [I had] long dark hair. Then all my mom’s family is like Danish—so blond, blue eyes. I always stood out in my little family. And then [seeing] my dad, it was like, oh, this is where my brown eyes come from, this is where my dark hair comes from.
AF: That must have been a huge identity shift for you to know you’re indigenous. What did that process look like for you? How does that make you feel, learning that information?
JW: Really, really good. Initially when I found out I was still a Jehovah’s Witness so it didn’t really mean a lot to me because the culture would have been something I never would have wanted to be a part of, especially spiritually, the Cree stories, the Star people. As a Jehovah’s Witness, that would have been very demonistic so I never would have honored my culture. And my growing up in a very white—like my mom’s side is Danish— so growing up in that, I had no knowledge of indigenous culture. It was life-changing to find out I was indigenous, but it really took reclaiming it and going back up North and meeting my family and reading and trying to connect with other people in my community… to be proud that I’m indigenous [and start] to understand it. And once I understood what my dad had been through and the history of everything in this country, the history of indigenous people, I was so much more connected to it.
AF: Totally! So, you went back two years ago to meet your family?
JW: Yeah. Two years ago I went up North and met everyone. Well, I already knew my dad but I went and met my grandma for the first time, my great grandma, all my cousins, my aunt. It was really cool because when I got to go back there, I started to learn about things that I never knew. Like, my cousin took me out in the forest and taught me how to forage for different plants and make different teas and my great grandma taught me how to make—she was making dry meat because she had her big dry meat rack, and she’s teaching me how to make pemmican. So, I got to learn a lot. She was teaching me words in Cree, she brought out her children’s book to teach me words in Cree. And hearing her stories about what happened to her when she was little and how they came to try to take her residential school… I got to learn so much just by meeting my family and I feel very grateful because I know a lot of people will never be able to make their way back home and have that connection.
AF: And you put all of that into “Child of the Government?” When did you write that song?
JW: I just wrote that song like 8 months ago, 9 months ago.
AF: Was that your first time really writing about your indigenous connections?
JW: I would say so, yeah, because I was thinking about my dad and it just sort of came out and I was like, I think this is worth putting into the world. I think this needs to be said.
AF: Did you know about the Sixties Scoop before learning about it in relation to your family?
JW: I had heard things from others in the community when I started to do the reclamation work. But [when] I really talked to my dad, sat down at the table with him, seeing his adoption papers, that really hit me, because I was like, wow, the government literally lied. They literally just took your indigenousness away. They said no. They put a big x, you know?
AF: What did your reclamation work look like? Is that how the community refers to reclaiming your tribal status?
JW: I mean, not for everybody. I think everybody has their own journey of reclamation. I would say for me it was a part of it but a lot of people don’t want to – a lot of people can’t get their status, first of all, because even if they wanted reclamation they have to be able to trace their roots back in such a way that the government can verify everything. Everyone has a different process of reclamation and for me, I did get my status, I did want to become a part of the community so I can vote and learn about everything that’s going on on the land that my family comes from.
AF: Backing up just a bit, tell me about your upbringing as a JW. Was there music in your life?
JW: We could listen to music as long as there’s no swearing or debauchery or anything that’s R-rated, but yeah, Jehovah’s Witnesses do listen to music. It’s just… I could never pursue music. I could never be someone who could go on the road and actually be a musician because that would take me away from God, so I never thought I would be a musician.
AF: Tell me more about that. Why is that considered being taken away from God? Because in some cultures, I know music is used in worshipping God.
JW: To be a Jehovah’s Witness, there’s so much time committed. We had our three meetings a week. I don’t want to go into all [the rules], because we’ll be here all day – the rules of being a Jehovah’s Witness are so time-consuming. You have to be stationed so that you can go to all your meetings and be a part of your little community group and make sure that everyone is watching out, like, if you’re doing good, if you’re behaving, if you’re following the rules. If I’m on the road [as a musician], that’s like freedom, right? I’m not going to my meetings, I’m not recruiting other people and going door to door and doing the responsibilities and that’s a huge part of serving Jehovah, serving God.
AF: Did you want to do music professionally from a young age?
JW: I thought about it a couple of times but never thought I could actually do it because I was like, I don’t want to displease God.
AF: Were you exposed to R&B and soul and the stuff you kind of draw on now in your music when you were in the religion?
JW: My grandma listened to Elvis and she listened to old-time music. I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of music. It was basically just my grandma would listen to the radio.
AF: So, what did leaving look like, and when did you leave?
JW: So, I’ve been [out] for a while, more than a few years. First, I’ll answer what it felt like. It’s like dying. It’s like you literally have to die and be reborn. You know you’re going to lose everyone you’ve ever known, your community. Everything you’ve ever lived for and dedicated yourself to, you’re going to lose. And then your belief system comes crumbling down. Like, I talked to God every day and I followed all these rules for so long. And then to be like—I’m free. It’s bittersweet. You’re scared because you have to let go of the hope too, of paradise. So, now I know I’m going to die, but also I’m free. It’s something that’s very hard to put into words.
AF: What motivated you to leave?
JW: I figured out it was a cult. As soon as I understood that it wasn’t real, it took months to really deprogram myself and be like, well, this is not based on the Bible. It took a long time and realizing it was a cult was like, well, I can’t live my life like this anymore. I need to do what I want to do and be true to myself.
AF: What exactly accounted for such a sharp change in perspective? Were you doing a lot of reading on the internet?
JW: I was just getting into trouble. I wasn’t following all those rules and I stopped going to meetings. I was getting ‘spiritually weak’ and falling away a bit and started to ask questions. I was lucky that there were people around me that came into my life that answered those questions for me. They had already left [the religion], so they helped me to start to deprogram.
AF: Was Hayden Wolf – your partner and musical collaborator in your other band, Once A Tree – one of those people?
JW: No, actually I helped him get out. We just met when I was leaving and then within a month he was out.
AF: That must help to have somebody close to you that can relate to being an ex-Jehovah’s Witness.
JW: It’s so nice. It’s a whole conversation you don’t have to have.
AF: Well, I also watched “Hush” and was really touched by the story behind it—how it’s a commentary on what you went through falling for a woman and realizing you were bisexual while you were still a Jehovah’s Witness. Where does that experience and realization fall into the process of leaving the religion?
JW: I actually had a relationship when I was still in the religion. We hid it, me and this girl. But we both would pray for forgiveness all the time, and pray that the feelings would go away. I’m really happy to say she’s also out of the religion now and we’ve reconnected. I’m very, very happy about that. And before I met Hayden, I was already out, and I started to open up my life and date whoever the fuck I wanted. And yeah, that was so awesome, and so, so freeing. And Hayden is amazing, we have a kind of open relationship, and it’s beautiful.
AF: Wow. So, is your sexuality received well in your indigenous community?
JW: Yeah. [They’re] so accepting.
AF: And as a Jehovah’s Witness that wouldn’t have been the case?
JW: No. That’s like the ultimate sin, to be gay. [It’s considered] immoral.
AF: So tell me about making “Hush.” Why did you feel like you needed to tell that story?
JW: You know what’s interesting? I didn’t actually feel like I was going to ever talk about my bisexuality and then I was just drinking wine and sitting around and I started to talk to the girl [I loved] and we started to reconnect and I was like, man, I do want to talk about this. So, that night I finished talking to her, and I wrote that song. It just came out. I just kind of decided, I’m never going to feel shame over any part of myself and I’m not just doing it for me, I’m doing it for the other people who are still in the religion or thinking about leaving the religion. I wanted to really look at every part of who I am and be proud.
AF: That’s awesome. So, I know you’re calling from the set of a new show that’s coming out soon on Disney. Do you do a lot of acting, too?
JW: Yeah, yeah. The show I’m doing now is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been acting for four or five years now and kind of booking little things here and there like CBC shows and then this movie [I’m in is] coming out in July. It’s called The Exchange and it’s got Justin Hartley and it’s got the Borat director and The Simpsons writer, yeah, so that’s coming out July 29th. And then the show that I’m doing, I’m going to be filming until August.
AF: Do you see your music and acting going together or are they two separate pursuits?
JW: I think they’re very different pursuits and I curve with it. Like right now I’m in acting mode, and when I get a couple weeks off I go back into music mode and then I’ll take an audition.
AF: I know you said that music has been a really important healing tool for you. Can you talk about that?
JW: Art in general is so necessary for anyone who’s doing healing work. I think you need to express it, you need to get it out in some way, whether you share that with anyone or not. Dance it out, sing it out, paint it out. I don’t know where I would be without art as an expression. For me it’s very cathartic when I make music, but also it shows me who I am – it reflects back to me where I need to do more healing or how I’m feeling about something.
AF: That’s powerful. It’s a mirror in a way. Tell me about writing songs for you. Is the process the same every time? Is it organic?
JW: I like to freestyle. The only way I can write is to freestyle. So I’ll either have a guitar chord progression and I’ll freestyle lyrics, or there’ll be a beat and I’ll freestyle over it. And usually if a song doesn’t come out in a couple times, I move on.
AF: Is guitar your main instrument? When did you learn?
JW: I’ve been practicing for a long time. My aunt lent me a guitar before I left the religion, when I was like 15. I’m not a pro by any means. I really actually need to get back to it. This summer I’m planning to start working on instruments again.
AF: Let’s talk a bit about this new EP. What binds it all together?
JW: It’s called Wild Whisper. It’s my personal story; [I] talk about being indigenous, I go in a little bit about the religion, my bisexuality. This word keeps coming up, but it’s just about reclamation of everything; of my indigenous culture, myself. It’s releasing shame. It’s me stepping into my power.