Tanya Tagaq is threatening to turn into one of the most peculiar and uncompromising mainstream success stories Canadian music has ever known.
Although she previously graduated from the experimental fringe to a semblance of national prominence after winning the 2014 Polaris Music Prize for her blistering third album, Animism, the Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has enjoyed a level of visibility that even she will concede is utterly unexpected since the release of her record, Retribution, a month ago. From Flare to The Fader, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, breathless praise has already been heaped upon her latest work by writers awed at Tagaq’s singular vision and prodigious vocal talents.
She plays a sold-out gig at Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul’s church on Friday, Nov. 25, with another alongside the Toronto Symphony Orchestra already booked for March 4 at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the New Creations Festival. Dates in the U.K. and Europe beckon in between, and there’s already a high-profile gig at New York’s Lincoln Center set for March 9. Things are heating up.
“Yeah, the train is choo-chooing along,” says Tagaq, 41, with an air of bemusement. “It’s been a pretty good run. It’s so weird. I don’t even really understand how it got this way. All I remember is people telling me it would never work out, right?”
True, smart industry money wouldn’t necessarily bet on Retribution as a “breakout” album.
Like its predecessors, it’s largely wordless, centred around the guttural grunts, shrieks and moans that constitute Tagaq’s 21st-century take on traditional Inuit throat singing, and borne of hours of exploratory improvisation in the studio with core collaborators Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, a jazz-minded violinist/drummer combo with whom she enjoys an almost subconscious relationship in performance. Together with such guests as Mongolian throat singer Radik Tyulyush, Inuit singer Ruben Komangapik, rapper Shad and the Element Choir, the three have conjured up some truly apocalyptic, electroshocked soundscapes on the new record, at times recalling the more extreme ends of contemporary metal in intensity.
“I went into the studio with some ideas and made the noises and made some noises but it’s Jesse who really did the arrangements and the mixes. He mixed it all. He almost went crazy,” says Tagaq, who had no intention of softening her approach to appease a larger audience after the hair-raising Animism.
“Hopefully it just stays this way. I’ve always just done music because I love sound. I love the sense of sound, I love hearing, I love listening, I love making noise. That’s why I’m doing what I do and for no other reason than that. So it would be almost unscrupulous of me to attempt to harness the beast in any way … It would be so difficult to try to make music to fit into the typical idea of what music is. I might try it for fun. I might try some ‘songs.’ I really enjoyed the song with Shad and it’s pretty laid-out, so I might try some songs with a chorus at some point, just to try it out.”
Thematically, too, Retribution doesn’t go easy on you, offering dire warnings of looming environmental disaster for the planet and taking unflinching stock of human society’s treatment of women — not least among them Canadian Aboriginal women, whose high statistical likelihood of meeting a violent end was dragged into the spotlight by Tagaq when she performed at the 2014 Polaris gala with the names of 1,200 missing and murdered sisters scrolling down a screen behind her. A sighing cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” closes the album, sadly and succinctly summing up the messages that came before. Tagaq isn’t pulling any punches.
“I have a lot of ideas for covers. I’ve done quite a few of them and not released them yet,” says, Tagaq, the mother of two daughters. “But I think ‘Rape Me’ was very important considering what’s been happening lately around the world and with the media and just with everything. I just got sick and tired of everything from getting beeped at on the street to hearing about someone pulled out of a river. I got so sick of it. I just got sick of hearing about it.
“I think the secret to having people understand and the secret to a collective shift in social consciousness is to create empathy. Things you haven’t been through yourself, they’re very different to comprehend. It’s very hard to explain to your male friends that, as soon as you’re alone, someone’s gonna say something or be suggestive or beep at you or make a stupid Donald Trump ‘locker-room’ joke … I wanted to make sure that it was first-person. Yeah, I’m angry about all those things, but mostly I’m just sad. I’m sad that the world is at that place where women, everywhere from the workplace upwards — women can have the same opinion as a man but it gets discredited, women can get paid less, women have to do more work just to exist. And we have to make everyone and do that birth part.”
Tagaq’s outspoken nature occasionally gets her into trouble, as when she took the opportunity to bait misinformed opponents of the Aboriginal seal hunt with a coyly deployed “F--- PETA” at the Polaris gala. But she’s not one to back down from a fight when fully armed with the strength of her convictions.
“Definitely not,” she says.
“The thing is, I grew up with only brothers in Nunavut and I was always kind of a tomboy. Like, I was a drill sergeant in the Army Cadets when I was 12 years old. I remember screaming my face off even back then. But I remember it being very sad when I couldn’t outrun the boys and they all got bigger than me and stronger or whatnot. In terms of romance, I’m pretty shy — like, if I’m crushing on someone I’ll be pretty shy. But other than that I’m not the type of person who lays down for sh--. I’m not gonna do that.
“My No. 1 woman role model is my auntie Tabitha who can go by herself with a dog team out onto the tundra during 24 hours of darkness with just a bow and arrow and a dog team, and come back with a polar bear. With a bow and arrow, not a gun. She doesn’t do it often because it’s dangerous as f---, but just the fact that she can is astounding to me. And I grew up where the woman’s role was maybe a little bit different. It was good to be strong.”