Local Current Blog

Meet Joe Rainey Sr., the Ojibwe singer with Bon Iver, Chance The Rapper features

Joe Rainey Sr. drums with Iron Boy at Eaux Claires (Photo by Finn Ryan, courtesy of Joe Rainey Sr.)

Joe Rainey Sr. got some odd looks when he sat down next to Justin Vernon. It was a glorious August night in 2017, a few hours before Marijuana Deathsquads’ Sound for Silents performance at the Walker Art Center. Vernon was eating at Esker Grove. Crossing the museum’s classy restaurant, Rainey approached his friend, who stood and gave him a long hug. When Rainey sat down, he noticed the bartender staring at him. And the customers at the next table over. And the patrons across the room. “They think I’m probably bugging you,” Rainey told Vernon. “I just wanted to make fun,” he says now. “Like, ‘Please don’t call security. I’m the token Indian! Me and my crew, we’re supposed to be here.’”

Rainey is joking about “token Indian” — but spot-on about belonging. In the past five years, he has become a frequent guest at Bon Iver and friends’ shows, singing what he calls “Native riffs” on songs such as “We,” “PDLIF,” and Big Red Machine’s “Lyla.” These strong, high vocals grew out of years of powwow singing experience — and paved the way for writing credits on songs by Portugal. The Man and Chance The Rapper.

Rainey, 34, lives in Oneida, Wis. But thanks to the porousness of the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Eau Claire music scenes, he has built friendships with members of the Minnesota indie rock elite, including Alan Sparhawk (Low), Andrew Broder (Fog), and Ryan Olson (Poliça, Marijuana Deathsquads). Near the end of Deathsquads’ Walker performance, Rainey joined the band and sang a song they’d reworked around him. “There I was,” he says. “Little old Southside city boy, holding it down for the bros who couldn’t make it.”

That night — and so many others — stemmed from Rainey’s love for people and music. “I’m always down for new homies,” he says. So when Sparhawk asked about Rainey’s singing at a 2018 Broder benefit, he was happy to share. When Erykah Badu wanted to touch his group’s drum at Eaux Claires, they obliged. The day Rainey met Lady Midnight at the Electric Fetus, they bonded over their connections to Red Lake. “I’m having convos with people that I later [find out] are geniuses,” Rainey says. “I met all these people from just saying, ‘Hi. How are you?’”

Rainey is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, and he grew up in South Minneapolis with his mom and sister. From the age of five, he looked up to the Boyz, a legendary Twin Cities-based drum group that featured singers Opie Day-Bedeau, Reuben Crowfeather Sr., and Hokie Clairmont.

Clairmont is now the Boyz’ lead singer, but in 2000, Day-Bedeau formed another drum group called the Midnite Express Singers. “He recruited a lot of bros that he sang with in the Twin Cities,” Rainey says, “and they won many championships everywhere. Lots of good singing; lots of good songs; probably a lot of food.” Later, Crowfeather became the drum-keeper for Iron Boy, and Rainey has sung in both groups.

Those who’ve attended Eaux Claires — the Wisconsin music and arts festival curated by Vernon and Aaron Dessner — may recognize the names Midnite Express and Iron Boy. Midnite performed at Eaux Claires II in 2016. Every year since then, the bros have returned to the festival in one configuration or another, even joining Low’s set one year. They got hooked up to Eaux Claires through Dylan Jennings, a former Bad River Council Member, and filmmaker Finn Ryan.

When Rainey arrived at Eaux Claires II, he says, “It was really tripping me out. Like, man, ‘Here’s our dressing room right across from Erykah Badu’s,’ or ‘There’s Sylvan Esso.’ And here we are doing our thing and giving love and not getting the regular music festival-type treatment … Let me make that clear. When you go to Eaux Claires, American Indians, Indigenous people, First Nation people are accepted there with open arms.”

Some may fear tokenism in these relationships between Indigenous singers and white indie rock musicians. But Rainey says he feels welcome in Vernon’s circle. “Justin’s always been a part of my life, from that first Eaux Claires,” he says. 

“Honestly, as it always does, a good relationship starts with friendship,” Vernon told me via email in 2019. “And while Ojibwe culture has long been in my heart and mind growing up around here, I’ve never made a true [Native] friend until Joey. From that friendship grows more understanding.”

“From the first Eaux Claires [we went to], Justin was saying, ‘You need to come to April Base, you need to come to my studio, rock out, stay the weekend, come chill,’” Rainey says. Within a few months, he and a few other bros arrived at April Base. Psymun, Bobby Raps, Velvet Negroni, and trap producer Wheezy were also hanging out and producing sounds for Bon Iver songs, Rainey reports. After warming up, he and Dr. Mike “Migizi” Sullivan sang vocals that’d end up in the i,i song “We.”

“I sing really hard,” Rainey says. “And the part that you’ll hear us singing is just something that came to me while I was listening, with my eyes closed, in the booth. I growled at the end, and I changed it up a couple times … They [the Bon Iver crew] love up whatever, because it’s who we are and it sounds cool.” 

Rainey is a lifelong audio and archive nerd. He has recorded hundreds of powwows, dating back to 1994, and his email signature once read “Always Be Recording.” These days, he’s recording his own vocals — “turn off the sump pump, make sure the dryer ain’t going” — and studying audio engineering and music production at his local community college.

Since his “We” feature, Rainey has sung on music by Chance The Rapper and Black Thought of the Roots. He also wrote a part that Tia Wood ended up singing in Portugal. The Man’s “Who’s Gonna Stop Me.” “I placed [Tia’s vocals in the song], and I put the delay on that, and they left it there,” he said. “I wasn’t in school yet. I just knew how to slide that there, and it sounded good.”

Rainey’s biggest upcoming project is a solo album with production by Andrew Broder. Few details are public for now, but suffice to say, the music is experimental, tense, and clever. “The quarantine didn’t slow anything down,” Rainey says, sounding proud and humbled at the same time.

This evening, Rainey will perform at Square Lake Festival in Stillwater, Minn., with Broder backing him up. They’ll use “the bones” of some of his album’s songs, Rainey says. Plus, Broder created a few new beats for the show. Rainey ended up on the Square Lake bill through his relationship with Low, he says, which he can trace back through lots of good conversations and one pivotal decision. “We’ve all been brought a lot of places because of showing up at that first Eaux Claires.”