My introduction to Inuit throat singing was a lecture by musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez on the semiology of katajjaq, the vocal game played by pairs of Inuit women standing close together, holding each other’s arms as they sing into each other’s mouths. I remember some striking video and audio clips, a lot of charts detailing Nattiez’s semiotic analysis and a feeling that something human and vital was being elided.
A decade later, when I first saw Tanya Tagaq on a podcast from the London International Festival of Exploratory Music, I didn’t think once of katajjaq or semiology. She isn’t that kind of Inuit throat singer and that kind of analysis would not get to the questions that I was interested in pursuing.
Born in the Nunavut Territory in the northernmost reaches of Canada, Tagaq taught herself Inuit throat singing during college in Halifax when she longed for the sounds of home. In the decade since, she has taken Inuit throat singing into previously unimagined musical arenas, working in hip-hop, hard rock and classical settings.
She has also worked with a diverse set of collaborators including Bjork, Mike Patton (of Faith No More) and the Kronos Quartet. In late January 2010, I interviewed Tanya Tagaq as she was about to begin a six-month tour of North America and Europe. During our conversation, Tagaq illuminated her approach to her craft, the sources of her inspiration, the relationship of her art to the Nunavut landscape/soundscape, and her ambitions.
On the last point — her ambitions — she eloquently stated what may be an underlying reason people are drawn to the experience of art: “…(to wake up to) the potential of what we’ve lost and what we can gain.”
Had you been exposed to throat singing as a child in the game-playing context?
Not really. I heard it in a peripheral way, here and there, but it was never part of my upbringing.
How do you think learning it outside of the usual context affected the development of your style as a performer?
Well, obviously, that is what ended up starting this different way of doing it. If I would have been taught my whole childhood, I think that I would have ended up doing the traditional songs.
People always talk about your style of throat singing as an innovation. Do you see it in that sense and if so what are the innovations you’ve made?
I’m doing it alone and, in Inuit life, it’s not normally done like that. It’s normally two women standing face-to-face singing kind of regimented songs. And it’s really quite hard to do. So, traditional songs are usually two to three minutes long; that’s as long as you can do it.
And they’re exhausting too, aren’t they?
Yeah, it’s difficult and I have to keep myself running.
In doing the throat singing, you’re doing circular breathing?
Do you approach your work as a vocalist or someone who uses your voice as an instrument or both?
I’d say both.
Listening to you, sometimes there is a blurring of that distinction between singing and the voice as an instrument.
Yep, it’s definitely true. Sometimes I’m being percussion and sometimes I’m not being anything at all and it’s noises. I guess it just depends on the time.
You’re a visual artist (Tanya studied painting). That brings up something I’m very curious about. It seems that visual elements and movement are very important in your performing.
I suppose you could say that, but I’m not sure… When I’m performing, I’m not consciously trying to move any specific way but I guess if you’re talking about dressing, like my clothes and stuff, I always thought of it as out of respect for the audience.
It’s easier for me because my personality is actually—I’m very flamboyant on the outside but I’m really very shy and I find that the more I remove myself from what I look like on a day-to-day basis, the more I can remove myself in that way psychologically and therefore be less afraid to be someone else.
So there is a performing character, a performing Tanya, and the Tanya in the rest of life.
Or that could be true for all of us.
Are you going to try putting on a nice dress and eyelashes?
I don’t think that is one of my characters, but we can talk about it. At least it hasn’t been so far…
Who were the people who inspired you coming up or inspire you now as musicians?
Growing up, the first tape I ever bought on my own volition was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And then the music that I choose to listen to varied; a very wide spectrum depending on my mood.
I remember when I was five years old… my mother was a very astonishing woman; she grew up on the land in an igloo and a sod tent until she was twelve… and (one day) she walked into my room — I set up my room to be this kind of weird land — and I was dressed up in all her jewelry and I think I was half nude (I’m not sure – I was five) and I was singing along to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” while holding a brush as a microphone and looking into a mirror. She looked at me and said, “I don’t think you’re my kid, whose kid are you?” And she closed the door.
So I think I’m just kind of a ham. But musical influences are pretty extensive. When people ask me that question about my favorite musicians, I always come up with a blank because it’s like asking me my favorite color because I like to work with color.
Is there anyone whose work has inspired you?
I think it has been life and experiences that have inspired me but of course who you work with, you learn from all your encounters. Working with Bjork, you can’t help but go “Wow, she’s so smart.” And the same with Kronos and the same with a lot of musicians I’ve worked with.
I have strange influences, like a song will come out. I’ll just go for a walk and all of a sudden (it all happens at once) that crow that is squawking across the street at another crow and the cadence of the people’s footsteps up above me mixed with light in a staggered way, a car just accidentally backfires… and all of a sudden, it’s a complete song. I think it’s what I’m doing day-to-day that influences me.
So it’s almost a channeling?
How has working with other artists — I’m thinking particularly of Bjork, Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton (of Faith No More) — affected your style?
I think that working with those people has made me realize that it’s okay for me to just be as weird as I want. I can just do exactly what I want and if that isn’t good enough for people then that is too fucking bad. I’m always just going to not care.
I grew up in a really small town and growing up, I was always the weirdo. I’ve always lived outside of the box and it’s really hard for me to go in there. So it just kind of happens by itself.
What draws you to artists to collaborate with? Is it musical commonalities, shared sensibilities or other characteristics?
I think my number one collaboration thing is they can’t be a jerk. I need to like people because I firmly believe if you get along with someone then you’ll make good music. Anytime I’ve tried to work with someone that I don’t like, it feels wrong. It’s very intimate for me. It’s a sharing and something very sacred; you know like breaking bread at a really good meal that you spent a long time making. Or having sex with someone.
Making music is something you need to honor… Basically, music and sex have the same moral status for me: you don’t do it with everyone. Of course, they have to be good at what they’re doing and they have to feel right.
I can’t see myself with country music or music that I don’t really listen to or wouldn’t enjoy. I’ve had to turn down stuff sometimes and it’s been difficult. And situations where it involves my artistic integrity – it would have been very easy to do some more mainstream things with more money and more time I guess. But I’m really happy with how things have gone thus far because I’ve been very lucky in the people that have wanted to work with me and fortunate as well with the earth, the world of people on this planet, trying to be accepting of what I do because I know it’s not easy to listen to and I know it’s really challenging and I know how I’m feeling when I’m doing it – I just get proud of people when they can go there with me.
It’s definitely not easy listening but it’s often very rewarding listening and you’ve had some fascinating collaborations. You seem to be drawn a lot to strings in your collaborations.
You know they come to me. I don’t really go out and look for much. I’d really like to try some stuff… A really nice hard metal group, I’d like to try that. I like piano a lot. I’d try anything if it came in the right form. So I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to anything in particular and my second album, the musicians I picked were all friends of mine. Like I picked them regardless of what they did; I chose to work with them.
So when people go, “Why do you do all that hip-hop stuff in there?” I go I knew Rich [Ricardo Terfry a.k.a. Buck 65] for 12 years and he’s awesome and my friend Shamik [Vancouver-based vocalist] is a really good beat-boxer. It’s that simple and I kind of lead my life that way. I realize that I have a very different lifestyle than other people; it’s very open and I accept what comes my way. That seems to work out for me.
I noticed this six months that’s coming up, you’re performing in a lot of configurations, with lots of different collaborators, and in lots of different types of performance settings. Is it difficult to move from working with a symphony to working with Deadbeat [techno/dub artist Scott Monteith] to working with Kronos?
No way! It’s like eating tapas with all the different flavors. And it’s different feels. I love playing the big halls with Kronos and the feel to it and taking a bow after but I just love playing a dingy little bar where I can rub my boobs at the mic. It’s just a different side of yourself you get to express.
So you have to shift your approach and technique and use of technology for different settings I would think?
It just depends how I feel that day, too. If I’m having a hard time, something’s stressing me out or I’m mad then obviously the show comes out a lot more aggressive. And if I’m in a quiet mood, it comes out rather gently.
Up in Nunavut, that winter calm… It’s a really small place where you don’t have to stress out about much and I get to have the peace in me and then go have my big exploding fire for six months [touring]. And I’m so exhausted that the peaceful doesn’t seem boring to me.
How does your experience with the landscape and soundscape of Nunavut influence your art?
Oh, in the hugest sense. It follows me everywhere I go and it isn’t until I’m on the land and at home… that I get my full sense of self-worth and fulfillment because I’m absolutely nothing up there and everything (laugh). When it’s so sparse and flat and frozen. I’m looking out and there’s nothing: not a house, not one vehicle and you don’t know if anyone has ever walked there before. It’s really humbling and it’s okay to die.
That’s probably one of the only times I feel that it’s okay to die. I could die at that second and everything would just be fine. I find that when I’ve been on tour for six months, I begin worrying about really stupid things like if I’m fat or what if this happens or what if the car crashes, what if this person, and what if this. And you start getting really neurotic. You just don’t feel that if you’re up there; you don’t worry about these kind of stupid things. So I always start off a tour really clean.
Where would you like to take your career? Do you have goals, ambitions?
Up until this point, my goal might have been to beat my Auntie Tabitha at arm wrestling Musically, like everyone else, I’d like to support myself and my girl in a beautiful way. I’d like to go deeper into film.
I have a film out; it just played at Sundance; it’s called Tungijuq, it’s on shape shifting. I have very vivid dreams and I was thinking about writing about those. So writing, film and painting. When it comes to music, I’m interested in pushing it in every direction.
I just woke from a dream where I was on YouTube and I really looked upset because everyone at my house was watching it. And on YouTube, I was eating microphones and putting them in my vagina at the same time. And all the cords… I was embarrassed the cords were tangled up in my belly but wasn’t embarrassed about anything else, just the cords. And I have dreams like that every night, just different things, and it might be fun to start using different media to express them.
And I’d like to collaborate with more and more challenging people, things that are difficult for me to do. I’d like to put out a couple of albums where one is more gentle and one is a lot more violent. I’d like to keep touring and keep experiencing all this beautiful music I’m allowed to, love to be and live in. I’m really, really lucky, I know that.
I know how hard it is for people in this society to just be themselves and express themselves; I know what these walls have done to us. I feel I get to live a very happy life and be free… and be more in touch with my animal self I guess. It’s a clearing of your heart and your soul that gets rid of all the gunk in there.
When I sing always hope there is one person that starts feeling a feeling that was dead inside them for a long time. That kind of a goal to wake people up to themselves and the potential of what we’ve lost and what we can gain.