Considering that Halifax-based indie rock band Wintersleep has become one of my favorites, it’s sort of funny how I first heard about them. I owe it all to 101.9 ROCK, a radio station in North Bay, Ontario, that plays a seriously delightful rotation. Where many classic rock or alternative stations repeat the songs you’ve heard a million times before, 101.9 plays a few of those alongside a much higher number of deeper cuts and new releases. It’s where you’ll hear AC/DC’s “Moneytalks” alongside Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” and Weezer’s new single “A Little Bit of Love” alongside Canadian artists who don’t typically get airplay south of the border, like Our Lady Peace and The Tragically Hip.
But first, let me rewind.
For years, my cousins and I had talked about doing a weekend together in the town of Nipissing. Our grandparents used to own a cottage along the water there—a rustic five-room abode with an outhouse—and we’d spend our summers exploring the back rocks, jumping off the dock, “smoking” chocolate cigarettes (all the rage), swimming in the lake, and watching the epic sunsets that start late and go long.
It was as magical as it sounds, and it’s gone on to develop the aura of myth. Nipissing might be my favorite place on this planet, and much of that has to do with the foundational time I spent here. Sadly, my grandma had to sell the cottage when I was a teenager—an action that still prompts sizeable regret among the cousins since we weren’t old enough and our parents weren’t in a financial position to take over managing the property.
Even without our beloved yellow cottage, the cousins talked about reserving a string of rentals at the beach site perpendicular to ours, so we could spend a week near—if not exactly at—the cottage and make new memories. Unlike other types of castaway suggestions (“Let’s get lunch soon!”) this one actually came to fruition in the summer of 2016. And so, nearly 20 years after I’d last been to Nipissing, I found myself on the beach one day listening to 101.9 on my cousin’s large red radio.
The choice of station was not my favorite…at first. I’d gone through a classic rock phase in my late teens and early 20s, but my tastes had broadened. At the time, I was living in New Orleans, and I’d become deeply enchanted by the music I heard there. I was not entirely interested in listening to classic rock, but that sentiment didn’t last long. Within a few hours, I came to genuinely dig 101.9’s mix. We all did. In fact, throughout the day, at least one person would comment on how excellent the music was. It added to the sparkle of being there together.
One song in particular caught my ear. I’d never heard it before and couldn’t place it among the familiar bands that soundtracked each day. It started with big drums pounding out a staccato-like rhythm before a drawn-out version of the millennial whoop let loose. The song encapsulated the outsized emotions I felt that week, reconnecting with family and a place so dear to me. I’d hear the opening “whoop” and feel my heart expand as I gazed out at the shimmer on the lake. By the third time I heard it, I was hooked—except I didn’t know what it was.
It turned out to be Wintersleep’s “Amerika,” the most popular song on the Canadian rock-radio charts for 11 weeks that year, but I wouldn’t find that out until I got back to the States. For the entirety of that trip, I’d listen for the tag—the intro or outro a DJ typically includes to name the band and song—but it never came (or I missed it). I could’ve Shazam’d it, but cell service was minimal at best. Instead, I wrote down the first few lyrics, thinking that’d be enough to seek out more information once I got home.
I was wrong. For some reason, “Amerika” became a difficult song to track down outside of Canada. At one point, I even ended up on 101.9’s website, pouring over the songs they’d played that day and cross-referencing what I found in the hopes that I could spot the one I wanted. All in all, it took about a week, and there were stretches where I thought I’d never figure out the mystery of that magic song. Sheer persistence proved otherwise.
I came to associate the song with Nipissing—with golden evenings and family joy—but it’s really about finding hope in an increasingly dystopian America. Wintersleep wrote and recorded it long before the 2016 election played out the way it did. When Trump entered the race, the song took off among the listening public because it seemed so apt. “What am I trying to find?/ Are you alive, oh my Amerika?/ Perennial with the Earth/ And freedom, love, and law, and life/ Perennial with the Earth/ My freedom, I don’t wanna die,” lead singer Paul Murphy sings in his reedy voice.
Once I identified Wintersleep, I quickly began combing through their albums. They felt like an indie rock gem. Where War on Drugs was nostalgic and Bon Iver ethereal, where Arcade Fire was conceptual and Spoon southern-tinged, Wintersleep delivered a hard-driving sensibility with touches of shoegaze. It was enlightened and raw. To this day, my favorite album is 2011’s Hello Hum. Wintersleep excel at capturing colossal emotions, and every song on that album lives up to the task.
Here’s a sense of what the band has come to mean to me: Hello Hum was the first vinyl album I played last year after moving into my new place, which I mostly chose to rent so I could crank up my stereo without disturbing my neighbors. My experience with Wintersleep deepened during the early days of the pandemic, when Murphy went live on Instagram, playing a selection of songs by himself. Something about hearing the music acoustically and reading fans’ comments felt connective, almost grounding, despite the swirl of madness happening the world over. I may have come to dig them thanks to the hue Nipissing added to “Amerika,” but that initial discovery has only unfurled over the years.
This week, I’m back at Nipissing. It’s been six years since I first discovered Wintersleep and five since I last walked the back rocks, swam in the lake, and gazed at the hour-long sunset. I made the trek alone in a bid to reconnect with myself and this lovely place after an especially tough breakup. As I drove the four hours from Toronto, I eagerly awaited the moment when I’d be within range of 101.9 so I could steep myself in the music that has come to represent summers here. I didn’t need to make another Wintersleep-sized discovery this time—doing so once felt lucky enough.