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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Tanya In Charge

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday February 19, 06:48 pm
2014’s Polaris Prize winner knows how to rule an interview


Monday 23

Broadway Theatre

From the moment I start talking to maverick throat singer Tanya Tagaq, winner of the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, there are two strikes against me.

First off, her cell reception is terrible, so we keep losing contact with each other, and I have to keep phoning her back, making continuity in the conversation an issue. Second, Tagaq is clearly bored with some of the questions she’s been getting from journalists.

I wouldn’t call her standoffish; in fact, she comes off as very sweet, laughing and chatting in her sing-songy voice. But when I try to start things off easy with a typical question about how she discovered throat singing, she refers me to her website bio. She doesn’t want to answer this question.

I politely suggest that the reason I’m asking about readily available information is because I need quotes: it’s sort of how this whole thing works.

Oh, okay,” she says, laughing. “I’ve just like, talked about it 5000 times. It just feels a little… I try very hard to never feel disingenuine. Sometimes with some of the questions, if I’m telling the same story again and again, it feels like a weird parody of myself. So I have to be careful.”

That’s a pretty decent answer, I have to say.

I can understand her fatigue of talking to dummy music writers like myself — and what I also realize very quickly is that while I may be asking the questions, I sure ain’t running this interview.

Tagaq is definitely someone who knows what she wants, and who does things her way. In fact, through the course of the interview, she seems to deflect talking about herself quite a bit. However, we do talk about the genesis of her whole being and her music, which largely stem from her roots in Nunavut on the coast of Victoria Island.

It was wonderful to be born and raised in Nunavut. I’m very fortunate that I got to have that experience of being tied closely with the land and animals.”

She eventually moved to Yellowknife, where she went to high school and started throat singing. But a few years later while studying visual arts in Nova Scotia, she changed the game — eschewing the traditional competition-based, singer-versus-singer approach and developing her own style.

Oh, yeah, I’ve broken free from tradition and started doing it on my own… I just started doing it on my own so I could become a little more free with expression and more emotive, rather than kind of sticking to it being a competition or game between two people.”

So how do traditionalists feel about that?”, I ask.

You should ask some,” she replies cheekily (though we both laugh at her bluntness).

Okay, well played Tanya.

In your experience so far, do you get flak for it?”, goes my rephrased question.

Some are excellent and some don’t mind at all,” she says, “and some hate it and brand me as a heretic. As they do when anyone breaks tradition.”

Tagaq’s latest album, Animism, is a mix of the guttural, rhythmic patterns of voicing and breathing that is throat singing, with the musicianship and arrangements of producer Jesse Zubot. Some of it is accessible, some of it a fever dream of avant-garde cacophony.

The concept behind it all is rooted in Tagaq’s own upbringing, leaning on the idea that human beings have made a big ol’ mess of Mother Earth. However, Animism isn’t looking to move backwards to a simpler time; it means to look forward to adapting to this time, while also fostering the planet we live on. If she was evasive when talking about herself, this is where Tagaq suddenly opens up.

I think as humans got drunk on God [they] thought that the Earth was there for them, for us, and everything else is beneath us,” she says. “I think that’s where the beginning of human folly started. So it’s more that we should be living in harmony with the planet. That’s all coming back into our faces now obviously, because we’re destroying the earth… It’s obvious that we’re a part of the earth. It’s ridiculous to try and remove ourselves from it. We are all going to be minerals back in the earth before we know it.”

Tagaq came into the social media spotlight a while back when she posted a “sealfie,” which was a picture of her baby with a dead seal after a hunt. The Internet came alive, with the anti-seal hunt contingent offering death threats and grisly Photoshopped photos of her and her baby looking like mutilated seals. One person even started a petition to declare Tagaq an unfit mother and have her baby taken away.

There are people that think no animals should be killed, but they go online and make death threats when they’re sitting next to someone in a restaurant eating a hamburger and they’re not saying anything,” she says. “There’s no logic to it in my mind.”

The furor continued with Tagaq’s acceptance speech at last year’s Polaris Music Prize, where she proclaimed, “Fuck PETA.” It’s worth noting that PETA claims it doesn’t actually campaign against the indigenous seal hunters, just the commercial hunts. However, some have argued that the European Union’s ban on seal products is too restrictive, and will halt a source of income for Inuit hunters.

In Nunavut, we want people to thrive and do well in the scope of Canada, but it’s impossible to do so if you can’t benefit from your own sustainable, natural resources.”

Okay, hold the phone. This was originally an interview about Tagaq’s music, and somehow she’s spun me into a conversation about seal hunting, deflecting the conversation away from herself — again. (She’s seriously kicking my ass on this “staying on topic” thing. Sigh.)

So: does she get up in the morning feeling feisty and political, or is it just a byproduct of her gender, ethnicity, and the fact that she has a clearly literate audience?

It’s day-to-day life,” says Tagaq. “It’s not something that I choose. But as a woman, we just got the vote in 1960, so I’m not going to trust the system. Same with being indigenous. I like to poke holes in systems and add a different perspective… I just happen to have a platform where I can address these issues.”

There are a number of people in the world (FYI, I am not one of them) that feel it’s stupid when a celebrity like Tagaq or Bono have a social opinion. So what would you say to them?

If you’re Pamela Anderson and the reason you’re a celebrity is because you have some tits, then yeah, maybe stick with the tits,” she says. “But I mean, if you’re someone like Bob Dylan, who has a message to convey… People can think for themselves, and it would be foolish to not discuss issues given the platform I’ve been given. And because the music itself is entrenched in all of this anyway, I don’t really separate one from the other. They don’t live separately.”

She’s right. These messages are built right into her music, into the feelings and themes invoked when she rises up to sing. Asking her to stick to the songs and keep her opinions to herself would drain her powerful music of all that it is, and everywhere it comes from. It comes from deep inside of her and when it’s released, it’s a song, sure, but it’s also the sum of all the love and rage she has in the world, and for the world.

“It’s kind of heavy,” she laughs, “but that’s the gist of my ideology.”

Tanya Tagaq will also be giving two lectures on the U of S campus on Feb. 24. Both are open to the public. For more information, see City Events in our 14 Days section.

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