Steve Wood has told the stories again and again.
Wood is a multiple Grammy Award nominee and a drama teacher at a First Nations high school near Edmonton. Over and over, he regales his students with tales of rubbing shoulders with Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, rapper Eve and even pop superstar Britney Spears.
And he doesn’t mind one bit.
“When I talk to the kids in my class, they can’t even fathom going to the Grammy Awards,” he said in the lead-up to this Sunday’s show (Global, 8 p.m. ET).
“Then they see me, that’s exactly why I’m doing this – to inspire them to believe and do whatever they want, to show that anything’s possible. If you live in a First Nations community, you’ll find any little type of inspiration or any type of encouragement is a good thing.
“So I repeat (those anecdotes) over and over again.”
But there’s one part of his story he’d like to change. While Wood’s powwow dance group, Northern Cree, are up for their fourth Grammy, this time for their album “Red Rock,” they’ve never won.
It’s the same story for Rush, nominated for best rock instrumental performance. It’s their sixth Grammy nod and they’re still hoping to bring home their first trophy. Though it seems unfathomable, even perennial nominee and rock legend Neil Young – up this year for best solo rock vocal performance – has never won a Grammy.
Other Canadian nominees include Montreal-raised Rufus Wainwright, Walter Ostanek of St. Catharines, Ont., Quebec soprano Karina Gauvin, Ellen Page and Michael Cera for their contribution to the “Juno” soundtrack and Joel Zimmerman, a Niagara Falls, Ont., DJ who performs as Deadmau5.
Though Wood says there are tangible benefits from just being nominated, he and other Canadians who have been shut out in the past would love to finally get their hands on the hardware.
“That would sit very well with all the other (awards) we have on our mantel,” he said. “In fact, we have a place for it. It’s empty.”
The first time he ever attended the L.A. event, his excitement and surprise at being nominated soon turned to confidence and anticipation – in other words, he set himself up for a fall.
“The very first year my expectations were very high, and I learned don’t do that, because the letdown is terrible,” Wood said. “Right up until that point they announce your category, you’re just waiting – that’s not good.”
Marc-Andre Hamelin knows how he feels. The Montreal composer and pianist is nominated this year for best instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra) for his album “In a State of Jazz.”
It’s his eighth nod. He has yet to win.
He says the nominations have helped his career along, but…
“An actual win would certainly help even more,” said Hamelin, who will be performing in Europe instead of attending this year’s show.
Toronto soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, nominated for best classical vocal performance for “Gomidas Songs,” will also be skipping the awards for a performance in Europe.
Though she’ll be nine hours ahead and the Grammy show will start before dawn, the first-time nominee figures she’ll probably watch – “Let’s put it this way: I will not be sleeping,” she says with a laugh.
She can’t say for sure how the nomination might affect her career.
“You never know with these things,” she said. “As an artist, first and foremost I’m happy there’s a wonderful record.
“Different audiences seem to be attracted depending on which context a CD is presented in. And if different audiences hear me through this CD … Why not? Because more audiences will still be coming to classical music.”
And she’s completely floored that she’s nominated, but, you know, wouldn’t mind actually winning.
“I know it’s a great honour, but it’d be cool to win too,” she said. “On the right side there’s your good, angelic Isabel, and on the left side there’s the little red, devilish Isabel.
“The devilish Isabel says: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to win?’ And the angel is saying: ‘It’s great, count your blessings.”‘
It’s a sentiment Wood clearly shares. The category for best native American music album didn’t exist until 2001, and Wood says the Grammys have helped spread the word.
“It is like an advertising tool for this genre of music,” he said. “Ten years ago, no one would have thought about this music. It was only 10 to 15 years ago that you couldn’t buy this music in a store.
“Now, well heck, we were in Montreal two months ago and we were walking down Ste-Catherine and we walked by HMV, and they had a whole shelf of us. And I thought: ‘Wow, cool.”‘
Northern Cree has benefited immensely from the Grammy attention, even though they’ve never won.
“The publicity is immense, it’s worldwide,” he said. “You look at it – I mean, I don’t think we would’ve ever had a live interview on CBC national news across the whole country if we hadn’t been nominated for a Grammy award. But that really helped.
“The Grammys do a lot for publicity.”
Wood says he’s dialling back his expectations this year, careful not to get his hopes up too high – “It’s exciting, but at the same time, we’re not expecting great things or anything like that,” he says – but in the same breath, he points out that “Red Rock” is the group’s best album yet and this could be the year he finally gets his hands on an award.
Of course, that’s not to say he hasn’t had his chances.
In 2003, American group Black Eagle beat out Wood’s group for the best native American music album Grammy. The group then flew Northern Cree down to Santa Fe, N.M., and invited them to perform at a celebration for the award.
The night before Northern Cree was set to play, the groups ate and hung out together. Then someone in Wood’s group spotted Black Eagle’s Grammy sitting on the mantel and they crowded around it, asking the usual questions: Is it heavy? Is it real gold?
Wood stepped in.
“I said: ‘Just don’t touch it. You can look at it, but don’t touch it,”‘ he recalled. “It might be taboo. I just think it’s bad luck.
“We need to get our own.”