The world needs voices like Tanya Tagaq, an artist boldly forging her own path and calling out injustices without compromise or a trace of apology.
Her new album Retribution is a haunting sonic portrait of rape: of the land, of women, and of Indigenous peoples. It’s aggressive, challenging and necessary. And, as dark as it sounds, there is an undercurrent of hope and strength in the face of it all. Produced by Tagaq’s longtime collaborator Jesse Zubot, the album features densely layered soundscapes, deep rhythmic grooves and an overall departure from the expected.
If this is the first you are hearing of her, Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer and activist. She grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and over the last 16 years she has been re-defining the place of throat singing in Inuit culture and modern music. Traditionally, throat singing is a game played by two women who sing call and response phrases in friendly competition. The first one to laugh or break the flow loses. Tagaq performs both parts solo and has brought the practice into new contexts, melding it with jazz improvisation, punk intensity, metal vocals, and elements of electronica.
She’s also collaborated widely, with rappers, rock bands, and string quartets, among others. Tagaq’s music is improvised, and mostly wordless, traveling across emotional extremes from terror to rage to ecstasy. Many people started paying attention after she made headlines with her 2014 Polaris win for Animism. It was as much for the award as for her powerful performance on the Polaris stage where the names of over 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women scroll behind her as she sang. Later she eloquently defended the seal hunt in her acceptance speech.
In performance, Tagaq appears to transcend time and space, diving deep into an improvised interplay with her bandmates, and drawing on a hidden power. It makes for an intense experience – intimate, unpredictable, at times unsettling but thoroughly compelling. If you’re open to it you don’t feel so much like a spectator as one of the invited, drawn into the sound where convention fades from view and time folds in on itself. You come out feeling changed somehow. It’s tricky to express in words. Tagaq admitted as much in an interview, where asked about her previous night’s show she said, “I think part of the beauty of it is the inability to describe it.” Of her five albums, Retribution comes closest to the energy of her performances, especially on “Summoning” with its finely wrought expansive arc and the added force of Toronto’s Element Choir.
Retribution features a core band of Tagaq’s longtime collaborators: drummer Jean Martin and Jesse Zubot on violin and electronics who also produced the album. On various tracks the trio joins with an eclectic group of like-minded musicians including Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyülyüsh, Inuk singer Ruben Komangapik, rapper Shad, and the fascinating vocal textures of Element Choir.
There are more words and context on this album. The title track opens with an apocalyptic spoken word prophesy where Tagaq, speaking for the Earth promises “the retribution will be swiffft.”
On “Cold”, Tagaq soundtracks the global fallout from the melting Arctic, with a stark reminder that “Gaia likes it cold.” After the seething uneasiness and peaks of sonic outrage, Retribution closes with a haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me.” Here Tagaq follows the melody, singing softly, backed by a chorus of whispers, transforming the song into a vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women. It stuns you into paying attention.
I got the chance to speak with Tanya in advance of her upcoming show at the NAC on November 26. After experiencing the rage and intensity of Retribution, Tagaq’s offstage character came as a surprise. She speaks with warmth and thoughtfulness, punctuating her thoughts with easy laughter. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
All I can do is be certain as to what I know and what I feel and join with people around me that understand.
Your shows are very intense and experiential. Some people have said they’re like séances. What’s your vision for the performances?
I don’t think that what I’m doing is particularly spiritual or enlightened. I just think society has been so domesticated and dumbed down from our natural state of being that people might take the show as something that is wild or spiritual or séance-y or something they can’t understand.
I think it’s because we as a human species have really boxed ourselves in, literally and removed ourselves from a lot of natural instinct and processes. That’s in every capacity like how we deal with death and how we deal with sex. We’ve perverted sex, which is ridiculous because we’re only here because our parents had sex and our children are only here because we had sex. It’s completely natural and honorable and beautiful but somehow humanity has managed to pervert it, and it’s the same thing with violence. People wouldn’t be inclined to kill an animal but they’re happy to eat the meat, you know? It’s the removal from self, the removal from life, the removal from nature and that’s causing some of the problems in our society.
The shows have a bit of a reality to them that allows people to go to a place that is more natural. It comes from a really peaceful place as far as we’re concerned. We’re celebrating sound, we’re celebrating life, we’re celebrating happiness and love but people sometimes have to put a negative connotation on it because it may be a little scary or unknown.
I definitely ran into that, like the way the media emphasized your “Fuck PETA” comment and over the power of your performance at the Polaris prize event, and in the way some people react to your performances. How do you respond to people who don’t get it?
Well, I most likely wouldn’t get them either (laughs). I can’t rally expect everyone in the world to understand what’s happening. There’s a reason it’s wordless. It’s supposed to be a common denominator, it’s supposed to celebrate our bonds in a way that isn’t restricted to language and society’s standard of how you’re supposed to behave. All I can do is be certain as to what I know and what I feel and join with people around me that understand.
When you were younger did you ever feel that pressure from the industry to make something that was I don’t know more palatable?
Oh yeah. Even my Mum will say “can’t you just make one nice song?” (laughs). So cute. I sometimes I try to make nice songs for her and it’s funny because I can sing and if I wanted to I could make something really nice.
I studied art, and if you study art history you’re studying actual history, because art has been reflecting the social climate forever. Ideologies and everything comes across in art and that’s why when a country or culture is overtaken they will destroy the art so I don’t necessarily take art as something that’s supposed to be pretty.
The irony is that when I’m not on stage, I’m pretty blissed out and peaced out. I like listening to a lot of easy listening and I like comedies. If my music is for somebody, then it isn’t for them and I very happily bid them adieu. It’s not a thing I would ever want to force on people. It’s a way to put out a call to find the fellow human beings who want to think in this way, and work in this way, and want to explore.
You tackle many issues on this record and they all pull together into this cohesive work. What inspired you to speak to these themes?
You do what you know.
I’m a woman and I’m Indigenous so it’s a day to day life thing. It’s not something I’ve chosen to carry. Some people do good to feel better about themselves, and it is good but it’s different when you’re living it. My uncle always told me you have to be real and that’s the ticket to everything to be real and be happy with yourself.
I think that these specific situations like climate change – that affects everyone, Indigenous rights that to me seem so glaringly obvious. It’s not a coincidence that Indigenous cultures are going through difficulties and are impoverished. It’s directly at the hands of colonization, that’s obvious. That’s a fact and yet these very simple facts are being lost on the general population. There’s the Indigenous thing, then there’s the woman thing. I have daughters. I’m a woman. We’re four times more likely to be murdered, another fact. It’s pretty easy to speak out against this stuff because it’s not rocket science. It’s all very simple things that are being said. I have conviction because it’s the truth.
So this is all part of waking people up?
Yeah, it is, because people generally want to feel good about themselves. As a country Canada wants to feel good about themselves. Indigenous people are starting to take steps to heal, and on top of that Canadians in general are waking up this idea and going, “I don’t want to be that bigot. I don’t want to see fellow Canadian suffering, I don’t want to be racist I don’t want to keep poor people poor.” It’s the Canadian conscience rising and that’s very exciting.
If you could shape it your way, what would the retribution look like?
Respecting the constitutional treaties would be one thing. Adjusting the judicial system so that people who are sexually assaulted and raped are treated with respect and dignity so that we can lower the incidents of trauma to women and victims of sexual assault in general. Making sure that if there is going to be non-renewable resource development that the people that live on the land also get to benefit economically so that the quality of life can be improved and the poverty we’re living in can be alleviated.
And again, that seems so basic.
Yeah, it is. That’s what I mean. I’m not saying anything radical in any way whatsoever. I have hope because I choose to focus on the people who want to be logical, and want to have empathy, and want to change things, more than I focus on the complete idiocy that seems to be running in all the minds of people who are trying to keep this antiquated system in place.
The anger on the album is very powerful. How do you channel that?
I think it s the frustration of trying to talk to these people. An animal rights activist photoshopped my child being murdered, so yeah, I’m mad.
I also have so much joy and love in my life and I focus on that when I’m not on stage. I know I can only do so much and I can shut it out. I can talk to you like a logical human being, and when I do my art I can think about the things that frustrate me and get it out that way. I have to do it. I have to spend the time doing that or I’ll just go insane with all this frustration. The music is my coping mechanism.
Tanya Tagaq plays the National Arts Centre on Saturday, November 26th. Tickets start at $29, and are available online.