Innerviews, music without borders

Tanya Tagaq
Instinctual Invocations
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq’s passion for propelling her art form forward is striking. She’s the world’s most well-known Inuit throat singer and is determined to integrate her mercurial vocals—which range from the raw and gutteral to the refined and soaring—into as many contexts as possible. Her most recent CD, Auk/Blood, is a testament to that philosophy. It showcases her talents in settings as diverse as orchestral music, electronica, spoken word, pop, and hip-hop. Collaborators on the disc include vocalist Mike Patton, rapper Buck 65, beat-box artist Shamik, violinist Jesse Zubot, and cellist Cris Derksen. Her pleasingly difficult-to-describe approach has attracted a global audience, as well as several high-profile admirers.

Tagaq’s first major break came when Björk learned of her unique talents and invited her to perform on her 2000 world tour. She was subsequently invited to take part in sessions for Björk’s Medulla album, an all-vocal effort, and one of the famed Icelandic musician’s most adventurous efforts to date. She also collaborated with Björk on her soundtrack for the 2005 Matthew Barney film Drawing Restraint 9. Björk reciprocated by contributing to Sinaa, Tagaq’s 2005 debut release. Another major partnership came to fruition in 2006, when Kronos Quartet asked Tagaq to work with them on “Nunavut,” a commissioned piece named after the Canadian territory where she was born and raised.

Her particular form of throat singing, known as katajjaq, is typically performed by two women who face each other and express themselves in a call-and-response manner. Tagaq fell under the spell of katajjaq after she moved from Nunavut to Halifax, Nova Scotia to attend art school in the late '90s. While there, her mother sent her katajjaq music to remind her of her roots. Intrigued by the recordings, Tagaq started engaging in throat singing as a private endeavor. Eventually, she summoned the courage to begin performing her self-taught, solo version of katajjaq in front of audiences, accompanied by a DJ providing electronic backdrops and soundscapes for her to respond to. Her unique take on this traditional music was soon embraced by adventurous listeners across Canada, as well as the country’s many arts organizations and festivals that took the initiative to promote her singular sounds.

Innerviews caught up with Tagaq backstage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, just prior to an impressive performance during her debut U.S. solo tour. To say Tagaq is fascinating and provocative in conversation is a dramatic understatement.

You’ve said your dream is to interpret your home through your music. Elaborate on that for me.

That’s definitely my dream, but my music isn’t necessarily solely based on interpreting the land at home. It’s also about everybody’s experiences. I’m really fortunate to have been born and raised in Nunavut, because when I travel the world, I see that people elsewhere seem a little lost. I have very maternal instincts and always want to help people who are hurting. I think the reason people are lost and hurting is because they’ve lost a lot of their instincts to feel out situations and be in tune with one another. Humans have an extreme capacity for emotional and spiritual growth. I think people would be much happier if they were more in touch with that, as well as if they took more cues from the way things are in nature.

If I’m confused by a situation, I’ll place it within my home. I’ll think about how animals I’ve seen would behave and apply a more complex twist to it related to human nature. I like thinking of people as animals. Through my music and performances, I hope people can find a healing capacity or joy. I also hope each person takes something different away from my work that they need. I think of my music in the same way as when someone reads a book that says “A beautiful woman walks in the room.” Everybody will have a different image in their mind, as opposed to a movie in which it’s put out there in concrete terms for the viewer. As with a book, people should fill in what they need through the experience of listening.

The new album has a really diverse group of contributors. Describe what you look for in a collaborator.

All of the people that worked with me on the album are my friends, except Mike Patton, who I didn’t know before, but I really love what he does. The rest of the contributors are people I want to hang out with and go for coffee with, and they just happen to be amazing musicians as well. If you’re an asshole I’m not working with you. [laughs] I would never work with someone I don’t enjoy spending time with, no matter how good they are.

I was torturous to the musicians in that I brought them in and said “Okay, let’s start!” They’d say “What do we play?” I’d respond “Whatever you want!” [laughs] Then we’d take excerpts from what they did and put songs together when the musicians weren’t around. There are also some songs that were recorded when we were all together too. So, it’s a kind of Frankenstein album built from different parts. In fact, there were five albums worth of material created through this strange process of picking things out, cutting them up and putting them together. I think the next album will happen when I’ve met enough new people to create another interesting stew.

Tanya Tagaq

Tell me about the inspiration behind some of the album’s key tracks.

I had very distinct, preconceived notions for some of the songs like “Tategak,” which is the name of my mother and my daughter. I was picturing that song like DNA strands, but it’s not just our physical existence that goes through these strands. I believe generational memories flow through them as well. Something my grandmother did could be echoing inside of me today. So, it’s about that whole concept and how each of us are part of this really long road that keeps going. I think this especially holds true for women.

The song “Tiriganiak” is about foxes at home. The population of every animal constantly fluctuates at home. For instance, every four years, there will be something like 500 lemmings around. That means the foxes have a lot to eat, and therefore they will survive. Then next year, it’s a big fox year. There was one year where there would be five foxes for every garbage can, so we were running around with handguns going off to reduce the population. PETA would be so mad about that, but the foxes are giving kids rabies. It’s a small town and there’s so many of the foxes, that something has to be done. I have a very different way of looking at things because I’m from Cambridge Bay in Nunavut and have spent a lot of time living there.

The song “Sinialuk” refers to the “big sleep” or dangerous sleep—like if you have a concussion or hypothermia. If you’re that hurt, your body’s natural impulse is to go to sleep. I’ve known people that have frozen to death out on the land, so the song brought out those emotions. Another piece called “Hunger” was the result of being on tour for a month and not getting laid. I wrote a steamy email to my boyfriend and thought it was nice writing, so I turned it into a song.

When you first collaborated with Kronos Quartet in 2006 on the piece “Nunavut,”, you said it was a transformative experience that would influence your working methods going forward. What effect did it have on you?

Those guys made me get my shit together, because they’re so structured, and I’m way too open. They helped me find a little stream that I’m starting to follow and it will result in creating music with a lot more structure to it. I think for my next album, I’ll actually write some music and not be afraid to sing along with it, and put that together with throat singing. I am concerned about using words and putting too much description into them though. I like the mind filling in things on its own. Like I said earlier, people should be able to take what they want from the music, but if there are lyrics, things might get too specific. I personally like it when people come to my concerts and say “Fuck, this sucks!” and then walk out, or if they cry. I always say to them “If that’s what you needed to get out of it, then you should explore that.”

Will the Kronos Quartet collaboration be recorded?

I hope so. There’s been talk of it, but we’re all very busy, and when we work together, we move at a snail’s pace. We’ve written another new piece that I feel is even better than the first one. We’ll be debuting it in New York City next February.

You worked with Buck 65 on some very interesting throat singing-meets-hip-hop hybrids on the new disc. Tell me about how that collaboration emerged.

A lot of people perceive me to have pursued this big hip-hop thing, but really, I met him in 1995 when we both attended school in Halifax. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we always wanted to work together, and for this album, we finally did. We went to his house and he had just been through a harrowing breakup. I brought my little girl with me and we sat around watching Spider-Man. Then I said, “I want to have one really sexy, steamy thing on the album.” We all breathe, eat and fuck. We all feel anger, hatred and intense passion. They’re all important, but people don’t talk that much about what they’re feeling. I can’t stand chit-chat. Chit-chat really pisses me off. I don’t have time for it. It’s so boring. So, I wanted to create some real reflections on life on this album, and we did that together in the music we created. I also said “I want one that’s really sweet and heartfelt.” I didn’t know what he was going to write, and when I heard it, I thought it was so nice. I didn’t realize that I was helping him out at that time as a friend, by providing an outlet for his feelings. I didn’t know how much he was hurting. So, he wrote something gentle related to that.

How have you evolved as a vocalist and musician since your career began?

When I first started, I was so jazzed about doing it and being onstage, that I wanted to be really intense all the time. I couldn’t get over that. Now that I’ve done it for so long and I’m getting older, my expression is getting richer, but it’s calming down too. I’m getting more intricate, writing more songs and not just making the same noises over and over again. I’m also opening my heart more. I’m not scared to be totally monstrous, or even suck on the microphone wire, if I feel like it. I want to pull my approach like taffy and take it into different places and get a lot uglier, weirder and provocative. I once met a Greenlandic mask dancer who was so timid and sweet in person, but she’d do these shows that explore fear, sex, love, and humor. She’d take her pants and underwear off and make people hump in the audience. I thought “Wow, it’s very interesting when you mix those things together, because you don’t normally put sex and fear together in the arts.”

I’m interested in why people get uncomfortable with these things. What’s the big shame with sex and nudity? Before Christianity came through, in Inuit culture, having sex was as natural as pooping. There was no-one saying “Oh, you’re dirty because you’ve done this.” Sex is one of the most beautiful things you can be a part of. So, why are people so fucking uptight about it? There are so many strange things today, like why are girls not eating right now? In the animal kingdom, the weakest creatures get the scraps. But women make the people. We have them in our belly. We’re the creators. We’re beautiful. So, why are girls starving themselves? And why are they risking their lives slicing open their tits and putting plastic in their bodies? All of this revolves around sex. Everybody does it. Everybody feels it. You don’t need to be “hot” to have sex. All these things about American culture confuse me. A lot of religions confuse me too. People dying and hurting each other for belief systems freaks me out.

Reflect on working with Björk on her Medulla album and your Sinaa release.

She’s a musical genius, and really nice and easy to get along with. She’s really down to earth. She seems like such a normal person. It annoys me when people think she’s weird. She’s good-hearted and you can sense that coming through. You know what’s weird? It’s those people that shove people aside on the street. And it’s people that don’t stop their cars when someone with a baby carriage is trying to cross the street, and then they beep at them. Those are really weird people. As for Björk, she’s really easy to work with and I learned a lot from her. She said “Just do whatever” to me. She never once told me to make a specific note or sound. It was really nice to work with someone in that way.

Björk and I have a lot of similarities. She feels like a Northern girl from back home. She’s really nice, but has a “don’t fuck with me” thing going on. We’re like that too. I noticed that when I lived in Halifax as well. People in Halifax are super-nice, but if you cross a line, you’re gonna get your ass kicked. [laughs] You don’t say anything about other people’s moms. You don’t call people out. That’s much different from Spain, where I used to live for several years. Some weird guy once came up to my kid and started saying all kinds of bad stuff. My ex was standing there, stoically, while this guy said “I hope your kid dies from cancer.” That’s a put-down in Spain. It’s really strange. It’s really illegal to fight in Spain, so this is what some people do instead. If that had happened at home, the guy would have been instantly pulverized.

Tanya Tagaq

You’re an accomplished visual artist. Does your artwork influence your music?

My painting is about creating a feeling related to my home. I want to dive into my artwork more deeply and get more sticky. It’s a lot more internal right now. It’s not about bells, buzzers and whistles. It’s more about creating feelings of calm. It’s a whole different ballgame for me. I’d say food influences my singing more than my visual art does. Food is the catalyst in my brain. If I don’t eat, I’m really bitchy. [laughs] I’d be the worst anorexic ever. A good meal helps all my senses. I’m really hedonistic when it comes to my senses. I love seeing vivid things. To me, blood splattered on the snow or a freshly-killed creature are really beautiful to look at—when it’s still warm and you’re feeling the life that used to be in it ebb away. That’s because I grew up in hunting culture.

PETA can kiss my motherfucking ass, those bastards. They took the Olympic inukshuk, and made it into a guy with a spear, killing a seal. What they don’t understand is that when we kill seals, we typically put snow in the seals’ mouths and melt it, so their spirits aren't thirsty. We respect what we kill. It’s not like you’re going to McDonald’s. When you respect an animal, I think it’s totally fine to eat it. PETA only picks on seals because they’re cute and because they can. Go protest outside of McDonald's. Go do something within your own culture. We were almost autonomous within the Canadian federal government before the seal ban started. It’s like saying “You can’t use leather” or “No more beef.” I am really annoyed by this. I have a video coming out called Tungijuq about shape-shifting, the circle of life and the seal-hunt and what it means. It will be opening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s only six minutes, and has lots of nudity, blood and gore. It’s fun. [laughs]

In addition to you, a few throat singers from Tuva and Mongolia have made recent waves. What do you make of the increasing interest in this form?

I think it’s related to people searching for meaning and for themselves. They’re looking for something that will wake them up. People are also really scared. You know, wolves don’t go to hell when they kill caribou. They shrug it off and move on. They don’t go on Prozac. So, I find it really interesting how we don’t address death properly in this culture. Everyone is scared of it. It’s so obviously going to happen all of us. Shouldn’t we all be better prepared, and shouldn’t we also prepare our souls so we aren’t scared?

I think people are also looking for sounds that aren’t from a city. I remember being intrigued when I moved to Halifax for school from Nunavut. I remember sitting in the park and all these ducks were there beside me. I was so used to seeing them much further away at home. I just wanted to kill one and take it home. [laughs] It’s my culture. I was wondering “Can you eat pigeons here?” I just didn’t know. People that are born and raised in cities know there’s something inside of them that’s missing—the peace of being on the land. And the danger as well. Everything about that existence makes sense and that’s what I’m driving towards. I’m providing a bit of equilibrium and bridging a gap.

Do you feel you’ve taken on the role of cultural ambassador?

I begrudgingly and reluctantly accept that to be the case. There’s nothing I can do about that. There are only 27,000 of us. I’m traveling and singing and creating a representation, but it’s not something I want to carry at all. I’d do this no matter what culture I came from. If I was Russian, I would have taken up Russian singing and done something with it. Singing is how I express myself. I do similar things with cooking. I put really weird ingredients together. The same holds true for my painting. The same goes for sex. This is just who I am. People are upset about what I do at home. Some traditionalists feel I am trying to suck the culture dry or change it. I’ve been branded a heretic, and I find that completely ridiculous.

What is your response to those people?

I keep hearing them say “Why does it have to be so sexual? It’s because sex sells, doesn’t it?” My reaction is “Should I do what the rest of Inuit women do and wait until I’m drunk and then throw myself at someone? That’s better, isn’t it?” [laughs] Sex is a huge part of my life. And I’m just expressing my life. If they don’t like it, too bad. I don’t get it. Why are they so violently against what I do? I don’t care what they’re doing. If they’re really that concerned about it, then learn traditional Inuit throat singing and teach your kids. That will keep it alive in a way that’s comfortable for them. Why do they care about what one person’s doing? They’re probably miserable anyway, if they’re carrying those thoughts around. Personally, I have no time to look for things I don’t like. [laughs] That’s not in my personality. There will be naysayers for every situation in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have worked really hard. I didn’t get here for nothing or by just fucking around. Today, I’m hurting. I’ve got the flu, but I’m still going to perform anyway. That’s what you do when you love something. And I love this. Something about it truly heals me.

Tanya Tagaq