In­ter­view Tanya Ta­gaq

For the Inuk throat singer, the stage is a sanc­tu­ary and a place for risk-tak­ing


“I don’t ever want to be a Kraft cheese slice of mu­sic. Overly pro­cessed, pre-con­ceived to pla­cate the masses, bland and as chem­i­cal as pos­si­ble just so it can be bought.”

TANYA TA­GAQ at Trin­ity St. Paul’s Cen­tre (427 Bloor West), Fri­day (Novem­ber 25), doors 7:30 pm, all ages. $34.50. tick­et­fly. com, ro­, sound­scapes­mu­

For Tanya Ta­gaq, the stage is a sanc­tu­ary.

When the Inuk throat singer per­forms, she es­capes her self­pro­fessed neu­roses – the fears, anx­i­eties and lit­tle voices that make her ques­tion her­self daily: Am I a good mother? Am I a good hu­man be­ing? Am I good? Per­form­ing gives her the same sense of calm she feels when she’s back in Nu­navut, some 3,200 kilo­me­tres away from her newly adopted home in Toronto.

“I’m con­stantly over­think­ing ev­ery­thing,” says Ta­gaq in her quiet, sweet voice, “and all of a sud­den you go on­stage and it’s a re­lief. You get to press pause for a lit­tle bit. That’s how it feels when you’re on the land at home.”

When I reach Ta­gaq by phone, she’s in Alaska, wait­ing to sound­check for her con­cert that evening. It’s two days af­ter Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent, and she’s still reel­ing from the re­sults. “I’m so an­gry I want to scream my face off, which is prob­a­bly what I will do tonight.”

It’s also three weeks since the re­lease of her pow­er­ful, po­lit­i­cally charged fourth al­bum, Ret­ri­bu­tion (Six Shooter), the fol­low­up to her 2014 Po­laris Prizewin­ning An­imism.

On­stage, bare­foot in fancy gowns, Ta­gaq growls, grunts and snarls, stretch­ing her lar­ynx to such lim­its, her voice seems to be com­ing not from one body but sev­eral. Ta­gaq doesn’t do any vo­cal warm­ups be­fore­hand. “All my singer friends warm up, and maybe I’m just an idiot. I don’t stretch be­fore I run ei­ther.”

For most per­for­mances, she’s flanked by her long­stand­ing band­mates, vi­o­lin­ist/pro­ducer Jesse Zubot and per­cus­sion­ist Jean Martin, who pro­vide the lush yet chaotic sound­scapes that Ta­gaq’s largely word­less vo­cal­iza­tions can ex­plore and con­quer.

“We’ve de­vel­oped our own lan­guage,” Ta­gaq says.

Her con­certs are so vis­ceral, au­di­ence mem­bers have been known to break down in tears, laugh ner­vously or judge them as overly sex­ual. The YouTube com­ments on her Po­laris Prize gala per­for­mance range from declar­ing Ta­gaq a mu­si­cal ge­nius to de­scrib­ing her as the “ex­or­cist girl hav­ing an or­gasm.” Ta­gaq chalks up the lat­ter re­marks to so­ci­ety’s weird re­la­tion­ship with sex.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing how some­one can come to a show and see all the anger and fe­roc­ity and then go, ‘Oh, that was re­ally sex­ual!’ A lot of peo­ple get un­com­fort­able [be­cause] it’s a woman ac­tu­ally own­ing her body and not pan­der­ing to the male idea of what sex­u­al­ity is.”

Yet the per­former­au­di­ence con­nec­ tion is sym­bi­otic for Ta­gaq.

“The au­di­ence holds so much power,” she says. “I don’t think they un­der­stand what it feels like to have this col­lec­tive en­ergy com­ing in my di­rec­tion and how that gets si­phoned into the sound. That’s why I love im­pro­vi­sa­tion, be­cause we’re work­ing off the au­di­ence with­out their re­ally re­al­iz­ing it.”

Ta­gaq says record­ing is a much more peace­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. But like her con­certs, which are 100 per cent im­pro­vised, Ret­ri­bu­tion was mostly offthe­cuff, too.

On Sul­fur, about the Al­berta tar sands (a place Ta­gaq has de­scribed as a real­world Mor­dor), Ta­gaq’s gur­gling voice sounds like oil bub­bling from the earth, and on the ti­tle track she de­clares, “Our mother grows an­gry / Ret­ri­bu­tion will be swift / We squan­der her soil and suck out her sweet, black blood to burn it” be­fore her soft yelps be­come fe­ro­cious gut­tural chants. Ta­gaq says those two songs come clos­est to cap­tur­ing what the show is like.

Her Po­laris win thrust her into the main­stream me­dia spot­light, giv­ing her a larger plat­form to talk about the is­sues she cares most about (the en­vi­ron­ment, Canada’s miss­ing and murdered In­dige­nous women), but she didn’t let that in­creased scru­tiny af­fect her fol­low­up al­bum.

“I was aware more peo­ple were lis­ten­ing, but it didn’t change our cre­ative process, which is just to make mu­sic for our­selves. I don’t ever want to be a Kraft cheese slice of mu­sic,” Ta­gaq says, be­fore burst­ing into a roar­ing laugh. “Overly pro­cessed, pre­con­ceived to pla­cate the masses, bland and as chem­i­cal as pos­si­ble just so it can be bought.”

In­stead, Ta­gaq rev­els in the risks that come with her mu­sic. She says her Po­laris Mu­sic Prize gala per­for­mance, per­formed in front of the scrolling names of Canada’s miss­ing and murdered In­dige­nous women, was a “com­plete roll of the dice.”

Af­ter these per­for­mances, Ta­gaq is vul­ner­a­ble to the emo­tions of those around her. “I have to be care­ful. If some­body is putting their stuff on me in a way that’s un­healthy I tend to ab­sorb it be­cause I don’t have all my walls up. All the walls fall down dur­ing the show.”

As much as pos­si­ble, Ta­gaq sur­rounds her­self with pos­i­tive, sup­port­ive peo­ple, es­pe­cially her two daugh­ters. Tonight, she has her four­year­old, Inu­uja, with her (whose vo­cals can be heard on Ret­ri­bu­tion’s open­ing track, Ajaaja), and in a few days her 13­year­old, Naia, will join her for con­certs in San Francisco.

“I’m so sen­si­tive. I’m so very, very, very, very sen­si­tive. I know I come across as strong, and I am. I just choose not to lis­ten to those [negative] voices. When I put on an out­fit and a lit­tle voice tries to tell me I don’t look nice in it, I tell that voice to shut up. And when a lit­tle voice tells me that no one is go­ing to like my mu­sic be­cause it’s too strange, I tell that voice to shut up and I keep go­ing.” mu­sic@now­ | @SamEd­ward­sTO

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