When I talked with Tanya Tagaq last week via Skype, she was curled up in bed, eating kale and working her way through a full slate of interviews. The Inuk throat singer and multi-hyphenate talent had just won the prestigious Polaris Prize in her native Canada for her Animism, triumphing over releases from mainstream favorites Drake and the Arcade Fire as well as local indie favorites Mac Demarco and Owen Pallett. It came as an honor and, as Tagaq tells me, a particularly inspiring win for an Inuk woman. Though she has already had substantial success during her long and varied career (she’s a two-time Juno nominee and has won multiple Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards), the exposure she’s received has introduced her to a whole new audience.
Thanks to the sheer physicality of her delivery, where every breath counts, Tagaq’s music is incredibly visceral, and to intensify the raw humanity at work, her performances are almost entirely improvised. Much is made of an acrobatic throat singing technique that coaxes her vocal chords into a dizzying array of sounds, from animalistic grunts to light, soaring trills. On Animism, Tagaq conjures an amalgam of trip hop, electronica, neoclassical, rock, pop and her own rhythmic take on traditional Inuk singing combined with the efforts of violinist Jesse Zubot, drummer Jean Martin and DJ Michael Red. It feels almost supernatural in its wild strangeness. It’s this elasticity and daring that has led her to tour and collaborate with Bjork on the Icelandic artist’s 2004 album Medúlla and work with Mike Patton on her 2008 album Auk/Blood, as well as with many other visionary musicians over the course of her career.
Her music is political and intensely personal in a way that arises with need. Tagaq’s mesmerizing Polaris performance splashed the names of Canada’s 1,200 missing or murdered indigenous women across a massive screen, and during her ensuing acceptance speech, she made a point of encouraging others to eat and wear seal, ending with “Fuck PETA.” The speech stirred up a considerable amount of attention both positive and negative, earning sensational (but technically accurate) headlines like “Polaris Prize-Winning Throat Singer Thinks You Should Eat More Seal.” It wasn’t the first time Tagaq’s unabashed support of her community’s centuries-old tradition of harvesting seal has earned her nasty Internet backlash, but by now dismissing her detractors is second nature.
Wondering Sound spoke with Tagaq about seal meat, motherhood and Motorhead.
You’ve been pretty busy doing press since you won the Polaris Prize, right?
Oh, it’s been kind of bonkers, yeah. I tend to kind of say things as I think them so sometimes in retrospect I wish that I could edit myself a little better but that’s okay.
Do you have a manager, or do you handle everything yourself?
Oh yeah, I’ve got a whole team. It’s just too much because I do painting and writing and have my girls and music and all of that stuff. That’s what’s so interesting about women these days; I find a lot of friends that I have are still expected to do a lot of the cooking and housework and raising a kid and expected to make a lot of money too so it depends how much you want on your plate and it depends how supportive your partner is.
How old are your kids?
11 and 2. She’s getting into teenager land and sometimes she looks at me and rolls her eyes. I think it’s pretty cute. I once saw a meme with one of the band members from Slayer making the devil horns with his tongue out and his teenage daughter is looking at him like, “You look so dorky.” You could be in Slayer and your kids still think you’re a dork.
You’re a bit of a metalhead too, right?
Yeah. I like how sophisticated metal is. People don’t understand that there’s such a high level of musicianship happening and that it can be incredibly intellectual. It’s so complex. It’s really, really interesting and perfect for getting out all my shit that I have to deal with all the time. If I wasn’t screaming my face off I think I’d be an incredibly angry person.
When we were really young, like probably 10 or 11, we’d be out camping or partying and there would be houses where the parents weren’t home and we’d find a big stereo system and put it on. We called ourselves The Parkas. We’d put on the heaviest parkas we could find and put on Motorhead or whatever we could find and head bang and pretend we were the band and get really sweaty.
I like punk too; I collaborated with a really amazing opera singer who improvised. I do find difficulty collaborating when things get too tight in any genre, with symphonies or orchestras sometimes I feel there’s a point with music where it gets too intellectual and it loses its juice a little. Basically for me it doesn’t matter which genre it is as long as it has balls.
You’ve worked with Bjork and Mike Patton; how did collaborating with people who are strongly invested in doing something different and creative impact your process?
Luckily enough Bjork contacted me right at the very, very beginning of my career. She basically put me in the studio and said, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” She didn’t give me any direction whatsoever and then followed what I was doing. They gave me the confidence to not be afraid and that’s where I discovered working under pressure was my comfort zone.
With your own work and in interviews, you’ve got no problem speaking out about the problems you see with our modern society. What sort of things have you realized about our current way of life?
In society there are a couple things people are screwing up and number one is how we deal with death, which I’m personally fascinated by. Sometimes I think that where we were before we were born and where we go after we die, that’s actually our home, and it’s just by chance that we have these bodies for a brief time.
We should be preparing ourselves better for it. We’re confined all around, and it’s affecting us — being confined in four walls in buildings, in cars, in traffic around other people, the confines of our minds. We’ve now started behaving in a way that’s like in a little square. I really love looking at these facets of what’s going on and applying them [to] people as if they were animals, how they react to certain situations. I find it completely fascinating and luckily enough my job allows me to travel to all these countries where I can kind of dissect their political systems and how they govern themselves and the society climate that they’re living in, what’s acceptable and what’s not within society.
I grew up in a nature preserve surrounded by woods; my family always hunted and fished because we didn’t have a ton of money, so my dad would go out and get a deer and that would be dinner for the next few days. Now I live in New York and most people don’t understand that meat doesn’t start out in a plastic package. Moving into an urban environment like that was a bit of a shocker when I was younger.
My mom is scared of the big city, she freaks out. People like her don’t like the energy, they don’t like the unpredictability and when you bring people out in nature you can see them get freaked out. It’s the same fear.
When you look at the term savage from an indigenous perspective, it’s really weird because I find society, North American society, quite savage. If you can’t protect your women and your homeland, if you can’t do these really simple basic things, even on the Internet…People are batshit crazy everywhere. You’ve got these people that have a roof over their head and they can afford organic tofu and vegetables from all over the world that are flown to them telling us that we shouldn’t eat seals.
That’s right, last year you got all of this awful abuse after you posted a photo with your baby next to a dead seal — a “sealfie.” You even got death threats.
A lot of people that eat meat are disgusted by a dead animal, which is so fucking creepy. You can put it in your mouth and ingest it if it’s processed, but you look at a dead animal on the ground and find it disgusting? My theory is if you don’t have the balls to kill it then you shouldn’t be eating it. When I posted that picture with my baby, the seal was still warm. We grew up respecting animals that gave their lives to be eaten and I just thought it was really cute and it was really respectful to show people not to be grossed out by meat because they’re both flesh. I’m flesh, what I’m eating is flesh, and if you look at nature, like even down to amoeba levels, life survives on life. Even if you’re eating a plant, you’re eating the life of that plant.
Where I grew up in Nunavut, people live off land meat still. There’s a lot of poverty up there. Where I grew up there are no trees, no vegetation. For nine months out of the year it’s completely a frozen ice sheet. There is not one vegetable to be found. You have to fly in all of the vegetables and nobody thinks about who grew those vegetables, who is picking those vegetables. Is there someone in South America growing these vegetables getting less than minimum wage or getting abused?
There is a very small population of Inuits, the 31,000 of us. We’re spread out around I think two million square kilometers. It would be virtually impossible for us to eat all the seals because the seal population is so massive. Being allowed to eat what we’re already eating, and being allowed to sell the fur for a profit, would raise the quality of life. There would be more food in households; there would be more food security because there is a lot of poverty and hunger. It would just raise the quality of life. It’s so ridiculous to me that somebody on their computer who has never been up there, who can’t see how many seals there are, and who probably lives within a hundred miles of a slaughterhouse, can possibly be telling us we’re evil for eating and living off the land. I just find it absolutely ridiculous.
It’s total hypocrisy; the animal byproduct in your pet food kills more animals than fifty times the Inuit population could possibly kill.
It sounds similar to the debate over whale hunting in the Faroe Islands. People often don’t understand how important something they think is wrong can be to an entire community’s livelihood.
That’s what I find hilarious when people talk about savagery. I’ve had to endure months and months of really terrible abuse after posting that picture. Someone photoshopped my baby all bloody and getting killed. They were trying to say that your baby is important as the seal, and I was like, that’s what I meant when I posted the fucking picture! Some people are so fucking brave on the Internet too. Man, if we were in the same room? They wouldn’t have the balls to say a single thing to me, I know it. I’m pretty strong. You don’t grow up on the land and end up a weakling.
In addition to addressing the seal harvest, you also used your Polaris performance to call attention to the huge problem that is the 1,200 indigenous women currently missing in Canada. It seems as though that made quite an impact in the media, and hopefully gave a boost to the #AmINext campaign.
There are people who think, “Oh, when are you going to get over that?” And it’s still so damn racist. It’s your sister or your mother or your daughter. I’m trying to shift the colonial mindset, putting names to people. And also, having people see me perform and realize that I’m a person. There are so many stereotypes about indigenous people — that we’re all drunks or we’re lazy or we live off taxes — those stereotypes exist because if you paid attention or knew about what exists within the constitution in treaty rights, nobody is living off tax money and we are actually owed quite a bit of money.
It’s got to be inspiring for other young indigenous people to see you doing so well with your art.
The kind of throat singing that I’m doing is not traditional. Traditionally it’s done with two women, face-to-face, singing into each other’s mouth. It fits together like puzzle pieces, so when one is making a high note the other is making a low note and vice versa. It goes back and forth, it’s a vocal acrobatic thing.
I started doing it on my own because in Cambridge where I grew up there wasn’t a lot of throat singing. It wasn’t a conscious decision to change it.
That’s the thing. I’m talking to people about a bunch of different things but mainly it’s the music. It’s the music that’s given me a platform to open my big yap but I just also don’t want people to forget that we’re good at what we do. That should be the main focal point, that we enjoy it and that we’re making something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.