It was midnight when Ash Nataanii left her music studio in downtown Missoula and drove to her close friend’s house. She plugged in her phone and pushed play on the song she’d been working on all day.
Watery guitar riffs and cathartic drums bled from the car stereo, filling her ears with raw self-reflection. Her voice sang back to her, crying transparent lyrics, “I shifted gears and held you in my womb, I laughed it off but started weeping elephants in the room.”
Her whole life she had every reason to not feel free, Nataanii said. As an Indigenous queer person growing up in Montana, she carried the weight of oppression, from the church she grew up in, from society, even from herself. “Empty Nest,” became an outlet for her to process her feelings, the regret and healing from abuses suffered in her life.
“It's a song about being a trans parent first off and about wishing for a better life for your children,” she said.
When the song ended, she felt like someone had punched her in the gut, energy plunging out of her, so magical and intense, she broke down crying. It was the first time she felt she’d properly represented herself and the first song for her new solo album recorded in her own studio.
She fundraised this fall, receiving enough support from the community to set up her own computer and recording equipment. The studio has been a longtime dream of hers. All she’s ever wanted was to be a resource in the community with the means to conduct and connect with her art.
“What makes Ash, Ash is a summation of everything that burned up in my previous life and now gets to be beautiful in its own sculpture,“ she said. One day, she wants to get her body's ashes pressed into a vinyl with a custom audio message. It's a real service, she’s looked into it and plans on setting money aside. The idea resonates into every fiber of her being and with what she wants to accomplish through Weird Spirit Recordings.
Nataanii’s very fight to survive in this world, the sentimental, dark and joyous intensity of it all, she describes as something sacred to all Indigenous voicing. She said that's what she wants her work with Weird Spirit to fundamentally be about, not just the empowerment of herself but all Indigenous people. Nataanii is of Dené descent on her mom’s side and Oneida lineage on her father’s side.
Her father is a minister, and she described her parents as very charismatic and incredibly conservative people. “They were huge into the satanic panic, I couldn't watch ‘Goosebumps,’ I couldn't watch ‘Power Rangers,’” she said.
They moved from Phoenix to Bismarck, North Dakota, and then to Great Falls when she was 15. She joined a worship team and had a hard time dealing with the white kids and the youth pastor because of blatant racism in the church.
She felt they were nervous about her inherent power. “I do firmly believe Indigenous people have a different type of spiritual makeup. We are closer to our land and feel a lot of energy from the earth, and a lot of energy around us all the time,” she said.
She knew how to use that energy to connect to a crowd. “Christianity has wounded me more than anything else in my life, but I was raised to do it and I did it well” she shared on her Instagram story.
The candid reflection came from her studio as she watched videos of her father preaching so she could steal a sample for a song about the death of her faith. She said listening to the song and her father preaching all night had made her feel like she was scoring a funeral. “My father was my refuge and my hero until I was 15. I will love that version of him, eternally. That part of my life is dead. I wish it didn’t feel like he died with it,” she shared.
Nataanii said she has been traumatized by certain parts of her religious upbringing, yet she believes despite the harm Televangelism and Christianity can cause, the values she was taught, for the most part, were not. She uses those skills to enrich others. “I live wanting to be a bed of soil for growth,” she said.
Just as she started to grow disillusioned with her faith at 15, she found the same kind of spiritual power in music. It was the best way she knew how to communicate what she was going through. No different than ministry, when Nataanii performs, she channels what she feels into people, the way a pastor does a sermon. “I never want it to be fake,” she said.
She stirs the energy of any given room, whether the audience is silently watching with fluttering hearts at a living room solo performance, or moshing to her punk band Fuuls.
The last show I went to before the pandemic hit, the last for many of us in the music scene, was an unforgettable Fuuls show. That April night, everyone seemed to come out of their seasonal-depression-hibernation, shyly greeting each other in the neon light of the VFW.
I usually stay far away from the mosh pit, I’ve been punched in the face or nonconsensually grabbed by the hips too many times, but Fuuls always make it clear what kind of behavior won’t fly at their shows. That night I was in good company. I threw myself in, dancing with violent bliss, jumbled in a washer-machine like motion, compressed by a mass of hyped up 20-somethings. Fuuls always conjures up rage inside me I didn’t know I had, it comes out in cathartic dance.
Nataanii has a brilliant balance of optimism and nihilism in her songwriting. Both can excuse apathy, but somewhere in between they boil down to restless resilience, a provocative release of emotion.
The members of Fuuls, Rob Cave, Aaron Soria and Nataanii are lifelong friends and have been playing in each other's musical projects off and on since they were in high school. You don’t get music like Fuuls without a deep chemistry and trust between bandmates. Just by hearing the full force of their sound, you can tell they have gone through hell and back together, and maybe more than just once.
In 2017, in my Montana Kaimin music column, All Ears, I described them as a “dynamic trio of contemplative souls, searching for emotional justice through their loud anxiety ridden rock. They express frustration with capitalism and patriarchy with a burning anger that sets fire to the stage. They dive into themselves with strength in conviction. Mental illness and existentialism are broached and coped with through cunning lyrics that allow for introspection and a release of emotional expression. Fuuls rise from the rubble of a chaotic world with ferocity and passion. They display a true understanding of the power in using their music as a confrontational tool against injustice.”
Their first record is a reflection of the political and interpersonal struggles Nataanii was going through at the time. Since then, she’s been processing the disillusionment of her faith and marriage. Being present with herself and vulnerable with her band, has allowed each of them to open up in the songwriting process.
Nataanii said this has led to the songs feeling more relatable to her bandmates and their collective writing more relatable to each other, all taking ownership. “We needed to be able to have a lot more authenticity on stage and a lot more authenticity in our work,” Nataanii said. When it comes down to it, they love heavy music, it’s what they grew up with. It flavors their sound as they peel back layers and get deeper, becoming even more socially conscious.
They are currently writing and recording their second album and it covers everything, from trans and queer rights to anti-capitalism and anti-facism, corruption of Chrisitan religion and televangilism. They speak to whatever’s in their world view.
“We shifted over to being a lot more mindful of each other's creativity. Being in a band together is a massive partnership, so our relationships improved, everything just got better… we hit a really good stride,” she said.
They have since added a new member. The band decided, if anything was going to be added, it had to add, and Nick Togliatti added. Nataanii described him as an intuitive and “curiously inventive” musician.
Togliatti is the former drummer of Dendrons, a Chicago post-punk band that built connections in Missoula touring over the past few years. Togliatti developed a relationship with one of Nataani's best friends, eventually moving here. Natanii helped him find a job, they had good chemistry and Togliatti happened to play the guitar. Since Natannii tends to play rhythmically, Totallyette’s drumming gave way to a guitar style that was a perfect fit.
A new member allows for even more fullness and freedom. “It was a real big joy to be able to explore the space around me physically for once, in a way I’ve been wanting to for so long,” Nataanii said.
The bedrock of a Fuuls performance relies on each member being fully present with their instrument and alive in the performance. They’re so engaged, even in livestream format in the time of COVID, they might as well break through your computer screen.
They brought this kind of energy to their set Oct. 17 on the Zootown Arts Community Center’s Social Distance Sessions, mounting the stage with a snide but tantalizing presence. Nataanii never waivers from how she is actually feeling on stage.
“We are Fuuls and we’ve come to ruin your evening,” she said before slamming into their upbeat hit “Dry Spell Caster,” a go-to warm-up. Before the song’s big dance break, Nataanii prophetically yells “The future is female!” thrashing about.
She later sang a brief and earnest cover of “Reflections,” from Mulan, before guitar interrupted in shrieking “Psycho”-like fashion, with bassist Rob Cave jaunting about with a skip-stomp motion. Nataanii curled over her guitar and the monitor by the drums caught fire. The song finished in a crash, leaving everyone momentarily stunned before putting the flames out.
Nataanii took the heat of the moment as an opportunity to address her audience. “We are a band that cares about community safety, I care about taking care of people and people being taken care of,” she said. She encouraged the audience to donate funds to the Montana BIPOC Mutual Aid Fund.
“As an Indigenous person, leadership in this country is jarring to me in general,” she said. Ringing guitar built echoing cathedral sounds behind her as she cussed out Donald Trump, the GOP, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte. Then Fuuls played a song with grueling lyrics pointing out, “I don't want to work 17 hours, seven days a week,” and “My boss is way too scared for me to get rich.”
The band went into their spitfire new single “Bloodmouth, a tune conjured by the boiling blood of the working class. Nataanii chants, “Boss makes a dollar while I make a dime, and that’s how I die on company time.” The drums have an insidious knocking. “I want my land back,” Nataanii sighed at the end, the room going limp with the absence of sound.
Fuuls encapsulates a lot of Nataanii’s righteous outrage. She said it’s a place for her audience to feel safe observing anger. But she needs different avenues for her different emotional states, hence her solo project and other musical projects.
“The context in which I write a song changes because life continues and changes the way we feel about things,” she said. At times, those things become more layered and enriched with the passing of time, the way certain leftovers taste better after a day or two in the fridge.
She’s currently revisiting songs from “Holy Totem,” her indie rock project started with her friends Brandon Murak and Aly Lindgren, who has since moved away. The project has songs that still feel relevant, but were never recorded, now Ash’s task is to capture how those songs live in this moment.
“I tend to think limitation is the best conduit to imagination,” she said, ”People have to get creative when they don’t have something.” Weird Spirit Recordings is just that to her, having access to what she wants to make. Her specialty is not so much in the recording but in the production, the deciphering of what makes a song.
The signature charm to Weird Spirit’s sound is a warm, homegrown whimsy. You hear it in the unreleased songs she has recorded for local musicians Kale Huseby and Kaylen Krebsbach. Nataanii has a special way of working and reworking a song to its bare essence. She encapsulates the intimacy of being brought right there into the moment of a song's inception.
Nataanii sees potential in others and helps them create their vision. She said there is something skill doesn't make up for in songwriting capacity and innate passion, adding the idea of music should not be mistaken with a “white and racist idea of genius,” but it should belong to everyone.
As a self taught musician, she resonates with this. The only reason she started playing was because she was hearing things she had to get out. “It's like shaking up a can of soda, it's going to explode” she said. She saw this in Fuuls drummer Soria, he wanted to play drums, she saw something immaculate in him. They broke into the coffee shop she was working in at the time for after-hours practice.
“Being born in a captive settler state ... I have always understood things from an Indigenous perspective, because that is who I am and that lends itself to being very anti-capitalist,” she said. She also believes the Christian values that left the biggest mark on her were anti-capitalist. “Jesus was very anti-capitalist” she said, laughing at the memory of telling her teacher she was going to start a student body communist party as a kid.
As an Indigeneous person, who hasn't grown up around Indigenous communities very often, she said “ having community and a substitute of family is important,” music is a way of practicing anti-capitalist mindset and creating family.
She wants to record a podcast at Weird Spirit called Melon Painting, an exploration of life through folk philosophy and spirituality. “I like being empathetic and learning as much as I can about someone in a short period of time … I want to use that for people to be seen for who they are,” she said.
Nataanii wants to be seen as helpful, to offer healing and perspective. She looks to her children, Simon and Joel, two 5-year-old twins, for hope and important reminders. “They teach me a lot about myself … they remind me of a lot of things that are both lost and still there,” she said. She always runs her music past them. She said they weren’t fans of Fuuls’ “Bloodmouth” because of the screaming, but they like “Ronin” because it sounds like “Power Rangers.”
“Family life and relationship is kind of where I am at right now,” she said, she’s been working throughout the year on finishing up and recording her solo album. She changed the name from “Hexistential Crisis” to “Exit Music for Exit Wounds,” because, “well things got better and they weren't so bleak anymore,” she said. The album will be released Feb. 5.
Though the music is very biographical, she keeps it veiled, all of the complex emotions with none of the context. “Sleight of hands” is a sentimental and saccharine song, hushed in anxiety. “Coming from a place where trauma has to tinge everything,” she said, “even the way we experience love,” she depicts “that feeling of being unsafe in a safe situation.”
Whatever kind of music she wants to make, be it country, emo or metal, she said it is owed to her because the world has been denied an Indigenous perspective. With Weird Spirit, she said she wants to show, “the intensity and fullness of life, and it gets to be represented and color everyone else's life.” She said it’s a way of being able to observe her autonomy through art.
“Nothing gets to tell me I don't get to speak any more.”