Profile: I, Tanya
Musician, artist and, now, author Tanya Tagaq is using this moment to both use and protect her voice.
By Amber Nasrulla
Today, when I meet Tanya Tagaq, the world’s most famous throat singer, she’s dressed like a 1950s housewife. Her hair is in a high ponytail and she’s wearing an A-line black and green patterned dress. She says hello in her familiar-from-TV-interviews whisper/coo — call it a “whiscoo.”
It’s hours before her outdoor performance at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival and she’s at a picnic table backstage with violinist Jesse Zubot, her long-time producer, and Jean Martin, a percussionist and long-time collaborator. On social media, she calls them “brothers.” Singer Mari Boine, a renowned representative of the Arctic Sámi tradition from the Finnish-Norwegian border, is also there. The Tagaq-Boine performance will “celebrate the circumpolar region of our world,” notes the festival’s program guide.
It’s muggy, and when the sky rips open we all dash to a dressing room trailer. I speak to Zubot and Martin while Tagaq stretches out on a sofa. “I’m sitting here because it’s raining outside,” she says. “I’m trying not to talk. It’s not my interview.” (We’re scheduled to chat the next day.) A large diamond on her ring finger glitters as she scrolls through Twitter and Instagram. “I got a Tweet from a guy who wants an apology. If I was PMS-ing, I would have to think hard about what I want to say to him.” The conversation was about a not-guilty verdict for a military reservist from Hamilton in the fatal shooting of Jon Styres, an unarmed First Nations man.
Tagaq, who is from Iqaluktuutiaq (Cambridge Bay) — population, approximately 1,700 — a remote Inuit town in Nunavut, says what she wants to the press and on social media. The 43-year-old Inuk activist and mother of two girls frequently highlights Inuit rights, the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the horrors of colonization. To wit, an early-July Tweet from Tagaq: “Stop telling me to quit eating meat. Stop calling me a murderer. Leave Inuit alone. Give the land back. It’s stolen. Poverty is forced. PSA.”
She has used her voice — physically and metaphorically — right from the start of her career, when she reinvented the genre of throat singing. Traditionally a vocal game between two women, throat singing is performed solo by Tagaq and in an experimental style blending electronic, classical, punk and rock music. For someone so vocal with her opinions, her music is the opposite. She rarely includes lyrics, and yet her albums convey volumes through songs like “Rape Me” and “Fracking.”
The Guardian in the U.K. describes Tagaq as “the polar punk who makes Björk sound tame.” Her album Animism won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, beating out both Drake and Arcade Fire and, by all accounts, she is thrilled that Animism won as Spiritual Recording of the Year in 2015 at the Western Canadian Music Awards. To date, she has released five albums and collaborated with numerous artists, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, July Talk and the Kronos Quartet.
I admire how Tagaq says what she feels and doesn’t seem to fear repercussion. My own family immigrated to Canada from a colonized country and we tend to be polite even when mistreated because we’re guests in this land. I yearn for Tagaq’s strength. It will be a gift to observe her creativity up close. We’re booked to chat about her first book, Split Tooth (Penguin Random House), due out later this month. I also want to talk about topics that are difficult but necessary to tackle, such as Indigenous rights — topics she has introduced to global audiences. I want to discuss the power of the female voice and what she wants to accomplish next.
In Split Tooth, her voice alternates between poetic and startlingly childlike. There are stories of abuse, drug use and teen pregnancy. Like an Annie Pootoogook drawing come to life, there is hunger, boredom and sex. This intimate book springs from dark experiences.
Tagaq is a natural storyteller, her observations sharp and funny as she illustrates her deep knowledge and abiding love of the land. In chapter 3 of Split Tooth, she writes: “The mosquito larvae swirl in their figure eights, hypnotizing and beautiful. A stark contrast to what they will be in a few days, when their metamorphosis turns them into the cyclone of bloodthirst. I am certain that if I ever had the opportunity to torture an enemy, they would find themselves naked on the tundra in mosquito season, with their hands tied behind their back.” There are also mystical moments, such as when the northern lights descend. I won’t share the ending except to say I sobbed when I read it. Split Tooth is not for young adults. I believe that Tagaq has the power to share her ideas through any artistic medium — book, song, social media, album or collaboration.
So, where will Tagaq go next? “Wherever she wants,” says Steve Jordan, founder and executive director of the Polaris Music Prize. “She seems to inhabit so many lives in her recordings and performances that I could see her acting to great effect. She’s really an example to everyone that just being your uncompromising self is the way to true artistic power. It can be a much more difficult journey, but the rewards are more lasting and fulfilling.”
On another front, Zubot reports on his work in the recording studio and how he’s been incorporating hip hop and drum beats into the music. “We’ve been talking lately about getting into more repetitive grooves because that’s actually very connected to a lot of throat singing. If you listen to the traditional [throat singing], it’s very rhythmic.”
When you watch Tagaq perform, you don’t experience a typical rock ’n’ roll show. But consider this. She was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as “one of today’s most electric, transfixing performers in any genre.” In a phone call from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, her friend and fellow throat singer, Kathleen Merritt, describes being transfixed the first time she saw Tagaq perform at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. “Tanya tells a story and you are transported every time. It is different for everyone.”
Here in Ottawa, at the start of her show, Tagaq tells the audience she is a creator, not an interpreter. Her band improvises because she likes the authenticity of each instant as time passes. That said, however, she says, “It might seem like we’ve argued for an hour.” After a beat, she deadpans, “There are two exits.” Laughter ripples through the crowd.
The set begins with Tagaq and Boine humming and Martin monitoring Tagaq’s cues. He drums softly, and 10 minutes later he is bashing away. “It’s like having a conversation with three people,” Martin explains. “We leave space for the other person, acknowledge the other person, and we react to the other person. The performance is one piece of art.”
Martin’s drums and Zubot’s violin produce melancholy sounds. Tagaq’s voice susurates, soars and roars. It is audible fire. A woman seated nearby is in tears.
The next morning, I get a text from Tagaq’s PR coordinator. Tagaq is “still playing catch-up” after her recent tour in Tasmania, I’m told, and my interview will have to wait “until she’s had the necessary decompression she needs.” A week later, the PR person alerts me to expect a Skype or phone interview when Tagaq arrives in Yellowknife. I don’t hear from anyone again.
On Instagram, I see that Tagaq has posted photos of her family fishing, and in one of them she’s grinning, clad in head-to-toe camouflage. Another picture shows ice spanning as far as the horizon. It’s captioned: “There’s no place like home.”
Tagaq likes to communicate with fans through social media, and she’s great at it, but she’s also experimenting with older platforms. Later this year she’ll release an audiobook of Split Tooth, reading and singing the passages herself. Indie label Six Shooter Records is also releasing a vinyl version.
It’s disappointing that I didn’t get the chance to have that anticipated great conversation, but still, I’ve begun to understand why Tagaq does what she does. As she writes in Split Tooth, “We are the land, same molecules, and same atoms. The land is our salvation…. Ice will crack, blood will flow. Sun in ice. Ice in lung.”