Tanya Tagaq: throat singer
Harnessing the power of nature and Inuit culture.
There are no words that fully encapsulate the magnitude of the performance Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq gave at the 2014 Polaris Music Prize gala in Toronto in September. Her performance, itself a wordless juxtaposition of grunts, screams, whispers and flutters, took the gala audience and the people watching via a live YouTube stream on a mesmeric journey evoking life and death, birth and rebirth, love and loss.
Much like she did on her prize- winning album Animism, Tagaq bridged the human and animal, the spiritual and the physical. It was euphoric and — thanks to a list of the 1,182 names of missing aboriginal women scrolling on the screen behind Tagaq — also painfully cathartic.
The voice that comes through the telephone receiver when Tagaq picks up is gentle and bubbly, a far cry from the guttural power she embodied on stage.
Tagaq giggles when she admits her eight- minute performance — also featuring Vancouver violinist Jesse Zubot, programmer/ DJ Michael Red, drummer Jean Martin, and Toronto’s Elemental Choir — was improvised.
As she explains, it all started with a bad sound check.
“We could tell everyone in the room kinda hated it,” Tagaq says of the trial run before the big event. She laughs.
“You can sense these things. We felt really weird about it. Jesse was just like, ‘ Let’s just make some music.’ He kept saying, ‘ Maybe you should talk to the gods, Tanya. We need to get into some deep spiritual shit.’ ”
But Zubot had a point, and Tagaq and the crew had a heartfelt huddle before they went on stage for the real thing. And sparks flew.
“Right before we got on stage, it felt that everything just clicked,” Tagaq continues. “It felt like there was a ball of energy going around the room and it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger and it was taking everyone. Every time it came around it passed through me and I kept getting bigger. It was a really great feeling.”
Thousands of people have now seen the performance and the acceptance speech in which she infamously said “F--- PETA” in response to the animal rights organization’s criticism of Tagaq’s support of the seal hunt.
Earlier this year, Tagaq took a photo of her baby and a bloody seal for a “sealfie” that spread like wildfire on social media, inviting not only criticism but serious threats to her and her family as well.
Yet the one person that hesitated the most in watching Tagaq’s performance that night was Tagaq herself.
“I’m so sensitive and what I do is so strange to people — I’ve never watched one of my own performances ever in my entire career,” Tagaq says timidly. “Who I am offstage is so different from who I am on stage. I’d never seen before what I’m doing looks like. When I’m on stage it feels so calm and I’ll be in my head going, ‘ Oh yeah, we’re gonna feel this little bit of the dark side, and then OK we’re going to be happy for a little bit.’ ”
“It’s like colours. I always picture that it was way more subtle than it was because it feels so peaceful when I’m up there. And then I’m like, ‘ Oh shit! I’m screaming my face off!’”
Born in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, in 1977, Tanya Tagaq grew up listening to her parents’ records, connecting with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley at an early age.
“I can remember being six or seven and doing the exact same thing I’m doing now,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Just kinda being a freak by myself. I wasn’t singing or anything, but dancing and moving. When I was alone I would really get into things and let myself feel them. There was some really great music in my household.
“Then I went to high school — the worst time of my life — in Halifax. I started hanging out with a bunch of raver kids and really getting into dancing. I always wanted to express myself dancing, but I started throat singing at the tail end of my time in Halifax.”
Tagaq broke through in 2004 when Icelandic artist Bjork asked her to perform on her album Medulla. Tagaq also toured extensively opening for Bjork, which kick- started her recording career and led to the release of her Juno- nominated debut album Sinaa (“edge”).
Now based in Brandon, Manitoba, Tagaq also names Aboriginal icon Buffy Ste- Marie, soulful artist Lhasa de Sela, and visual arts pioneer Cindy Sherman as major inspirations in her works ( Tagaq also paints).
With its highly evolved sense of production, Tagaq’s fourth album Animism uses her traditional vocals in a transformative way, layering them with electronic textures, violin strings and field recordings of animal sounds.
Without words, Animism takes you an a journey about the land we live on and the way we interact with it.
It’s an album that, thanks to years of collaborating with her core group of musicians ( Zubot, Red and Martin), has its “own language.”
“It’s taking that harmony of us and applying it musically to a CD,” Tagaq says. “We have about four or five CDs worth of stuff. We have plenty of ideas and a lot more coming. That’s exciting.”
Flanked by Zubot, Tagaq will be appearing alongside environmentalist Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the Chan Centre in Vancouver on Oct. 16 and 17 for two evenings connected to their Aboriginal roots and talking about climate change.
“We came up with this concert where we start with the head and move to the heart,” Tagaq says. “We start with facts, a discussion, and getting to know each other, and slowly decompress it into a sonic game where I’ll be responding to her words with sound. It’s like a genesis — clear water to salt water — going from one to the other. I need her to articulate the way I feel about it and hopefully I can bring a more emotive side.”