By Julijana Capone
“What it feels like is jumping off a cliff, and just landing wherever you’re going to land,” says Brandon-based throat singer Tanya Tagaq about her improvisational vocal style. “It’s like letting go of time. It’s like letting go of everything that’s holding me mentally or physically or emotionally and just being completely free.”
Tagaq’s emotionally-charged soundscapes are a fury of voice and breaths that can resemble animals, nature sounds, and other noises, simultaneously fusing her bond to The North with her contemporary influences.
Although she was exposed to throat singing while growing up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, it wasn’t until she moved to Halifax for college that she began to craft her own style. While throat singing traditionally involves performances with two women facing one another, Tagaq’s style of throat singing is done solo.
As she explains, learning the traditional art form helped provide solace to the homesickness and culture-shock she experienced after moving away from home.
“I was missing home a lot, so as an adult, for the first time with a pair of headphones, I started singing to it and I felt connected to it,” she says.
The multi-award winner has collaborated with ground-breaking artists such as Kronos Quartet and Björk and Mike Patton (Faith No More), and learned from them to be unapologetic in her musical approach, and to embrace the mindset that music doesn’t have to be about pleasing others.
There are no boundaries or limitations in the vocalist’s sonic approach. Tagaq frequently collaborates with artists of genre-spanning backgrounds, and says that she’d “love to do a metal album at some point.”
More recently, though, she’s been experimenting with live soundtracks.
Tagaq was commissioned by TIFF Bell Lighthouse in 2012 to perform a piece to accompany the film Nanook of the North, a semi-fictional account of arctic life in 1922 and one of the most famous films to document Indigenous people.
For Tagaq, being a part of the project was in part about reclaiming the film and what people know about her ancestors.
“I remember seeing that movie when I was a kid,” she recalls. “I saw parts and I thought ‘Yeah, that’s us!’ and feeling really good and amazing about it, and I also remember looking at some parts and thinking ‘that’s not very good.’
…I’m very proud about being able to make some sort of commentary about stereotypes and how people ingest the modern Inuit. We’re not so story book anymore. In 1922, when that film was made, look at what Disney was doing. It was pretty racist.”
One of Tagaq's recent performances of the Nanook of the North, at Mundial Montreal as part of Manitoba Music’s Native America North project with Canada Council, landed her the Galaxie Rising Star Award. She continues to tour the piece.
In addition to her full tour schedule over the next few months, with dates across North America, and Europe, she’s almost set to release a new record that features more eclectic collaborations, including an appearance from Belgium-based opera singer Anna Pardo Canedo and producer / DJ Michael Red.
She’ll also perform as part of the Native America North showcase at APAP in New York next month, and will return to Carnegie Hall with a performance alongside the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 2014.
To add to that, she recently joined Six Shooter’s management team. Known for its roster of roots-oriented artists, Tagaq admits working with the company is a bit of a departure for both involved, but from a personal standpoint it made sense.
“I sat down with Shauna [de Cartier] and Helen [Britton] and it felt like I was sitting down with two ladies I had known for 15 years,” Tagaq says. “Shauna has two daughters and I have two daughters. I’ve always worked with men, and I always have men around me, so just to have a mirrored mother there, and the feminine opinion and energy and understanding makes a big difference.”
Although Tagaq no longer lives in Nunavut, her art and connection to The North and its landscape are inseparable.
“The preliminary drive of what I do comes from the land,” she says. “It’s a majestic and wonderful feeling to be there, and I’m so happy to have grown up with that landscape in my life.”