Hi, my name is Rik Leaf. For 20 years I've been a Producer & Performer working in Music, TV & Film. I'm the Creative Director for Tribe of One, a national collective of indigenous artists. I've worked on productions for some the biggest artists in the world like Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rent and Beauty & the Beast. I've used these experiences to produce creative development training, consulting resources and a keynote speaking series for leaders managing high-performing creative teams.
This is the Story of My Creative Career
In the Beginning…Once Upon a Time…In a Land Far, Far Away…every great story has a great beginning. Take life for example. Childbirth is a fantastic beginning for a story. There is pushing, swearing, sweating and an exhilarating mix of panic, excitement, and desperation. Some of us enter the world upside down, others are right side up and a few start out facing backward. But whatever your position, life comes screaming out of the gate, and it’s great foreshadowing for what you should expect from life, at least it has been for me!
Who You're With Is More Important Than Where
I grew up in Three Hills, Alberta, in one of the smallest most religious communities rural Canada has ever produced. But I had more fun than anyone I've ever met from a big city. For instance, there was the time in Grade 12 when my friends and I bought an old 1950s international school bus for $500 as a joke. We converted our bus with shag carpet, couches and beanbag chairs so we could cruise around town in a portable living room. It was all fun and games until local businesses started hiring us to be their drive home service during the Christmas season.
Suddenly, national TV crews came calling, filming segments on the, "noble deeds of an engaged citizenry" as Members of Parliament and the Minister of Youth Affairs sent me letters congratulating me on being such a visionary. (my Dad was unimpressed with the level of investigative journalism, having commonly heard me refer to, 'The Bus' as my best opening line with the ladies)
My Take Away – who you’re with, is more important than where…a small town and no budget is no excuse for a lack creativity
Life Support And A Journey of Discovery
I was 20 years old when I woke up in a hospital bed on life support. I’d been in a catastrophic car accident and airlifted to the Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Alberta. A car full of high school students traveling at break-neck speed had lost control and slammed into my vehicle. No one knew if I’d live or if I was paralyzed. I was in and out of surgery for months and spent a year in rehab as I learned to walk again.
During my time in the hospital someone brought me a keyboard, and music instantly became a huge part of my healing process.
“I set my sights on living a life in line with
my values and passions right from the start”
My car accident changed me deeply. The pain, struggle, isolation, frustration and unfairness of it all changed how I looked at myself, and how I wanted to live life.
Few 20 year-olds think about their own mortality. I feel like I had my deathbed revelation at the beginning of my life, instead of at the end. So instead of being filled with regrets for misplaced priorities and wishing I would have done things differently, I set my sights on living a life in line with my values and passions right from the start.
My Take Away – life is short, there is no time to waste so live intentionally in the moment you’re given!
The Difference A Creative Community Can Make
I moved to Kelowna, B.C. where I discovered, an amazing community of musicians. If I had tried to picture the ideal community to nurture my creative spirit…this community is exactly what I would have dreamed up. I was mentored over the next couple of years and catapulted into a full-time music career with an international profile.
The Indie vs. Mainstream Artistic Career Approach
I think a brief definition of terms at this point will help make this story more interesting. In the music industry, a mainstream artist is a term used to describe someone who signs a contract with a big company like, Sony or Warner Bros. The company provides all the financial and logistical support for every aspect of an artist’s career, from songwriting and recording albums, to producing videos and touring the world…the company provides everything.
An indie artist, which is an abbreviation for, independent artist, does everything for themselves, like a small business owner or entrepreneur.
“You have to figure it out for yourself when there is no school or degree that can teach you what you need to know”
It’s been a creative career in every way, and these days that’s a good thing because the ability to think creatively and be adaptable and innovative is vital to success in every industry. Increasingly there is no school or degree for what many of us need to learn, so the ability to be a lifelong learner is key.
To learn what I needed to know for my own indie productions, I worked on productions for some of the biggest artists in the world, like Metallica, Areosmith, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as theatre productions like Whose Line is it Anyway?, Rent, Beauty & The Beast. It was the only way I could learn what I needed to know.
Indie projects are typically very DIY. (Do It Yourself) The budget doesn’t exist to hire all the specialized people you wish you could, so everyone has to wear a bunch of hats. And that’s not a bad thing! Because you get to develop your own creative capacity while discovering how your talents fit with others around you, especially those who are gifted differently.
My Take Away – the willingness to take creative risks and do something you’ve never done before, is key to becoming someone you’ve never been before.
Things Heated Up When I Moved To The Coldest Creative Community in Canada
I moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1997. People who have never lived in “Winterpeg” usually just talk about how bitterly long and cold the winters are…and they are! But people, who have lived in Winnipeg, talk about the incredible sense of community in the creative arts scene. It is an amazing city, everywhere you go people are making s#% happen!
I started an artist collective called, Tribe of One, combining musicians, dancers and live performance painters. When a promoter from Toronto called to book me for a large festival, I asked him to book Tribe of One’s entire artist collective. He agreed, which meant our first full-fledged multi-disciplinary performance was in front of 7000 people being captured by a film crew.
In addition to the festival, we performed on a live nationally broadcast pop culture show called, FREE TV. They were intoxicatingly creative days. I had nothing to lose, everything to gain, and a creative community around me that was up for anything. Tribe of One evolved into an expressive representation of Canadian multi culturalism featuring First Nations, Metis, French/English artists and cultures.
Art Therapy, Healing, Hope & The Traumas of War
Discovering the value of music in a hospital bed has always influenced how I feel about it. In 1999 when I saw images of Albanian refugees fleeing the war and flooding across the border of Kosovo into Macedonia, I believed Tribe of One could help. So I approached the Foreign Affairs Department of Canada with an art therapy pilot project for children who had suffered the traumas of war. The government sent us to represent Canada at a United Nations initiative called, The Return.The time I spent in the bombed out city of Pristina, working alongside War Child, the Red Cross and a host of international artists changed my life. Environment matters, because it gives context to thoughts and ideas. Experience matters, because it roots our discovery of this world in the events of our life.
“Mistakes are opportunities to learn and
hardships reveal what we’re really capable of”
Quit? Or Figure It Out!
Of course a life fully lived isn’t a collection of mountain top success stories and after I returned to Canada I experienced one of my lowest (and most profound) lows as I tried to move forward.
I’d applied for recording grants, attached a JUNO award-winning producer, booked a studio with a national reputation and hired the most well-known studio musicians I could. I’d applied for $40,000.00 and didn’t get a dime.
I’d jumped through all the industry hoops in an attempt to do business like everyone else, and it brought me to my lowest point where I felt absolutely helpless and hopeless. I remember sitting at the kitchen table when I got the last rejection letter. It was my ‘go big or go home’ moment. There were only two things to do. Quit or figure out how to move forward by myself with no money.
Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent
Obviously, I’m telling you this story because I chose door #2. I recorded an album called, ‘now is the winter of our discontent.’ Now it’s not the best album I’ve ever done, and the songs aren’t the best songs I’ve ever written, but I’m incredibly proud of the album because it represents the most important moment of my creative career. Not the moment I wrote my most successful song, or performed on national TV or played a great show for thousands of people…it was the moment I didn’t give up.
I found a way to keep moving forward. I played almost every instrument, produced and engineered and mixed the album myself, which are all things I’d never done before, and never actually thought I could do. And that was the key, and why I’m telling you this.
I believed in my limitations because I’d never been in a situation where I had to exceed them. But when push came to shove and there was literally no other way forward, that’s when I discovered I could…and I made that discovery through doing it. )
My Take Away - a creative life is not linear or even logical. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and hardships reveal what we’re really capable of…so in all things, be thankful.
The Value of Creative Risk-Taking
Around that time I started a project with a Member of Parliament called, The Artist Next Door. We hosted concerts and events in the neighbourhood to create a sense of community. It was such a great success I knew it would be a great idea for a TV show.
So even though I’d never produced a TV show before, I sat down and drafted a pilot proposal. I approached a videographer, (who also had no TV producing experience) and by guess and by golly we put together a budget without any idea how to do a show or how much it would cost!
“I have no idea how you’ll make that show with this budget…but I’d love to see it!”
I managed to get us a meeting with a broadcaster and excitedly pitched my idea with wild abandon. When I finally stopped talking he looked up from our budget and said, “I have no idea how you’ll make that show with this budget…but I’d love to see it!”
We walked out of that meeting super excited and totally freaked out because we had to go figure out how to make a TV show. And you know what…we did. It was so successful we ended up producing three seasons of the Artist Next Door for MTS Winnipeg On Demand.
My Take Away – never assume you can’t something just because you’ve never done it before…ideas and inspiration come to us for a reason.
Four Homeless Millionaires – How One Family Found Riches By Leaving Everything Behind
By 2009 my wife Zara and I had been living in Winnipeg for over a decade. Zara is a tattoo artist, and the city had been an amazing place for both of us to start our careers. But we decided to sell our house and spend the money on traveling around the world for a year with our son Zion and daughter Riel.
While we toured I made a series of travel videos from exotic locations around the world. I just used a small HD video camera and the laptop in my backpack. I shared the videos on our YouTube channel and through social media letting our friends, family and fans follow our journey. When we got back to Canada, we moved to the city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island where I sat down and wrote a book about our adventures called, Four Homeless Millionaires.
I got the idea to include links to the videos at the end of the chapters using QR codes and URL links, producing an innovative literary experience I’ve never seen in any other book.
It had been a year of investing in the experience of a lifetime and sharing every moment with our children. We didn’t actually have a million dollars, but we were having the time of our lives and felt like the richest people on the planet.
Creativity, Innovation and the Confidence to Face the Future
Innovation has become a buzzword in every industry. Thing is, you can’t have innovation without creativity. And in this day and age, students (and teachers for that matter) have to be innovative.
Whether it’s approaching a difficult subject this semester, or a new school next year or facing the challenges of a future after graduation. All of us need to learn what we are capable of, and how our unique set of talents, gifts and abilities can empower us to face these challenges.
"I use the exact same approach to produce creative development projects in classrooms and schools!"
The creative projects I produce are designed to provide students with an experience that help them gain a greater understanding of what they are capable of. To learn by being creative, and discovering how their abilities fit with those around them who are gifted differently.
I’ve taken the lessons I’ve learned from 20 years of producing music, TV, film and touring the world with an indigenous artist collective and broken it down into to produce creative projects, courses and resources for educators. This is what I am most passionate about sharing with others.
Trust Your Unique Gifts, Talents & Abilities
The most important discoveries is recognizing the value of our creative talents and abilities. When we understand the value of our gifts we are able to identify and imagine ways to work with others.
Suddenly people who are different are no longer a threat to us, but an opportunity for us to be part of creating something bigger than we could on our own.
In schools, creative development projects naturally reinforce the principals of the roots of empathy. Producing creative projects combats bullying, bigotry and racism, because it gives a context to celebrate diversity.
We’re not in competition with one another when we’re being ourselves; in fact working on together creates a win-win environment for everyone to play to their strength and succeed at the same time. The only time we’re truly in competition with each other is when we lose touch with who we truly are, and try to pursue the same manufactured idea of success.
I’ve traveled around the world, but this journey of discovery has been the most important. Life is messy…it’s supposed to be…remember; it’s how our story began!
Story Behind the Picture...the thumbs out display means I am in the middle of my pre song directions instructing my audience on the actions that go with every performance of The Awesome Song. Starting with awesomely dramatic thumbs gesturing at our chests as we sing, "I'm awesome" before pointing at everyone else and singing, "you're awesome" and then finally throwing our hands heavenward and declaring, "we're awesome when we're together."
"Rik Leaf’s latest CD, ‘Tribe of One’ is one of those rare CDs that is both artistically excellent and spiritually uplifting and an invaluable addition to Canada's music scene with its beautifully written lyrics and instrumentals that create an honest depiction of our nation's history and its peoples' struggles, from our First Nations' communities, to our French/English duality, to our ethnocultural diversity. I don't know of any other effort that has so completely captured the essence of Canada. Every song resonates esthetically and emotionally but none more than "The Maple Leaf" which ranks right up there with "This Land Is Your Land" as a nationally recognized trademark song of Canada."
Rik Leaf's latest album, Tribe of One, is a collage of musical styles as varied as the Canada it celebrates in the opening track, “The Maple Leaf,” a toe-tapping, coast-to-coast road-trip of personal reflection. Built around the musical core of Rik (slide/acoustic guitar, piano, ocarina) and Marie-Josée Dandeneau, (upright/fretless bass) a collective of Winnipeg-based musicians add inflections of East-Coast, Québecois, and First Nations elements to a broad range of musical derivations, from jazz and folk to funk and blues. Rik Leaf has carefully positioned himself as a songwriter on the margins speaking hope diffusing joy to the disenfranchised and dispirited."
Your energy, enthusiasm, ability to connect with the students along with the high-calibre of your performance as a group helped each of our schools get off to a great start. You tease all our senses through your performance and what you leave behind is a warm memory and the desire to open the floodgates of our own creativity. Your workshops inspired our youth and helped feed their creative spirits and your performances left memories which will last a life time. Who could ask for more....Mahsi Cho
“Last Fall, the students at Heart Lake Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, came together to experience Rik Leaf & Tribe of One, little did I know that Tribe would take the school by storm! From the moment the group walked on to the stage, the students were entranced. It is one thing to follow the curriculum. It is another to teach its worth in our lives. Rik Leaf and Tribe of One did just that! I highly recommend them to other schools
“Buoyed by a swooping, elastic voice that recalls Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield, Leaf dabbles in Cletic-sounding folk-rock, piano-based acoustic gems, funky dance jams and straight-ahead guitar rockers, all with a level of gutsy aplomb and intensity that belies his background as an activist. His songwriting chops are finely honed, he knows his way around a hook, and the back-up musicians he surrounds himself with all rise to meet his highly set standards. If this is winter to Rik Leaf, we can’t wait for the first signs of spring!” ****
“As front man of Winnipeg-based Tribe of One, Rik Leaf is most clearly a musical innovator. Rik experiments with the likes of rock, techno, soul/funk, dance, tribal and more. Lyrics, too, are drenched in Leaf’s own, poetic originality, as he transparently throws out spiritual thoughts, ideas and heart-inspired prayers. Musically this album twists and turns from track to explorative track. The result is not a pretentious and inharmonious melee of noises, but an intriguing 60 minute tapestry of true diversity/ingenuity.
On behalf of Sydney Academy I would like to thank you for your presentation to our music, art and drama students today. Coming from a region of the country that is experiencing full force, the downturn of the economy and collapse of all primary industries, the arts are providing hope, especially to students struggling to find their voice. Your presentation has been invaluable to them, as you have encouraged them to imagine, create and persevere.
"A multi-layered slice of Canadiana - while others try to divide the country, Rik has captured the sound of Canadian unity."
Paula Spurr, Blue Grass Orphans - "Rik Leaf has a new CD out!! It's hard to imagine an album being more Canadian than this one....and the music is top-notch!"
Karla Adolphe, Jacob & Lily - "Rik Leaf is a category 4 hurricane slamming into the coast of Canadian Culture. The songs radiate a blended atmosphere and a unique multi-cultural experience...a modern Canadian anthem!"
You have joined with an elite group of rising stars representing the best and brightest Aboriginal recording artists from across the country. It is my pleasure to extend my support, encouragement and sincere best wishes to Tribe of One
After seeing videos of Tribe of One on YouTube, I was already sold... but I had no idea that these videos would pale in comparison to the live performance. I have never seen a group that could, at once, be both joyous and driving, yet dark and haunting. The amount of sound coming off the stage was incredible, and the dancers complimented that sound perfectly. The most memorable performance of my weekend
Rik does an amazing job beyond teaching his content – he helps students become effective audience members and teaches them to be supportive and provide constructive feedback. He has been very responsive to teacher feedback adjusting his presentation to our needs. I encourage you to consider his programs if you are looking for opportunities for your school.
Rik’s slam poetry sessions are engaging, comprehensive, supportive right from the first steps of the writing process, to the final stage of doing a slam! The skills and lessons learned through slam poetry for kids and teens are invaluable. The program was especially valuable for my students who struggled with self-esteem, coping and communication. If you have the opportunity to work with Rik or use his program, I highly recommend it…for your students, your kids and yourself!
Find The Creative Resource That's Right For Your School!