"Otherworldly." There is just the one word on my notepad, scratched down while watching Tanya Tagaq perform, before I decided there was not much point in trying to describe her singing with words. Inuit throat singing is what Tagaq is doing, technically — traditionally, it's reserved only for women, and is done facing each other in pairs, competitively like a staring contest, where the first woman to stop or laugh or break, loses. But Tagaq's version of it — solo vocal growls, grunts, howls, shrieks, whispers and wails mixed with dance beats and other rhythms — is so far from traditional, it's not only too limited a term, but misleading as well. Admittedly, I've lured friends to Tagaq's free outdoor gig at Toronto's Luminato arts festival by calling her "Canada's Björk," my lazy shorthand for a unique, offbeat female singer who simply must be seen. It's perhaps more fair to refer to her and her work simply as "experimental."
"I suppose I am," says Tagaq, a week later from her home in Brandon, MB. "If operating with no rules is experimental, then yes. It seems that everybody wants to conform, to follow the same rhythms, four bars, and a chorus. I find that boring."
Tagaq's new album, Animism, is both her rawest and her most polished work. Conceptually, it's about returning to nature, acknowledging the spiritual essence of animals and all living things. It is directly informed by the Inuk singer's childhood, growing up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a place she describes as pure and untouched, where it's considered "ridiculously pompous" to think only humans have souls. She left the village in her teens to study art in Halifax, which is where she rediscovered the practice of throat singing and began writing songs.
She first came to many people's attention in the early 2000s when she toured and recorded with Björk, but it was her solo debut, 2005's Sinaa, which established her as a distinct new voice in Canadian music. The 2008 follow-up Auk/Blood (which featured guests such as Buck 65 and Mike Patton) confirmed that throat singing was no novelty, it was a tool like any other for her to create dance tracks, ballads, ambient soundscapes or folk songs. But if her first two records impressed with their diversity, Animism grabs listeners by the throat with its directness, its clear sense of purpose. Tagaq herself admits she intended the album to be her angriest yet.
"I've always been angry," she says. "But when you're young, you don't know why you're angry. As you get older and tune into the plights of humanity, you know what's wrong. I'm an Inuk woman, I think about what could be improved for my own daughter, my race. And that translates all the way up and back down into everything I do."
Animism opens with a cover of "Caribou" a 1987 song by the Pixies, which Tagaq was stoked to discover as a teen up North. ("They were singing about fucking caribou! I'm like, 'you've got to be kidding me!' I'm just this little hardcore kid in Nunavut trying to be cool and this is finally something I can really relate to.") It closes with "Fracking," a downright frightful, vicious condemnation of the mining practice, which seeks to give a voice to the distressed Earth itself as it is torn apart. In between, there are wordless odes to musk ox, raven and rabbit, a duet with Belgian opera singer Anna Pardo Canedo ("Flight") and the sensual, "Damp Animal Spirits," which captures Tagaq's vocals at their most orgasmic, recorded in one take.
Tagaq gives much credit for the album's sound and vision to her two bandmates. Jesse Zubot, who produced the album, is a Juno Award-winning violinist and multi-instrumentalist from BC, a member of Zubot & Dawson and Fond of Tigers, who has played on dozens of pop albums by the likes of Stars, Dan Mangan, Mother Mother, and runs his own Drip Audio label. Percussionist Jean Martin has performed with his group Barnyard Drama and worked with a who's who of Canadian avant-garde and jazz musicians: DD Jackson, Kevin Turcotte, Francois Houle.
Both have extensive experience with musical improvisation both live and in studio, and are a perfect fit for Tagaq. The trio has been performing together now for several years (the 2011 recording Anuraaqtuq captures a concert at Victoriaville Festival), and Tagaq felt it was important to produce a proper album that conveyed their intuitive language and live energy. Thus, several tracks on Animism (which was recorded in Vancouver, Spain and Winnipeg) are live off the floor, or as she calls it, "messy."
"I like chaos. The idea of chaos. It's like getting into higher math and it becomes an art form. It's like I'm penetrating nature as much as I can."
In concert, Tagaq is a force of nature herself. As she manipulates her breathing to create mesmerizing vocal sounds and rhythms, her body often contorts, like a child possessed, as if trying to exorcise a demon inside. Then there's her stare, piercing and fierce. The combined effect both sexy and scary, and the singer admits that what she's doing up there is hard to explain, even for her. "It's only later that I can process it, put words to it. The only way I can come close to describing it is complete ecstasy… I love being attached to this body. To me, it's celebrating, that physical excursion. It's like I'm alive in my true form, the place I want to be if I didn't have to follow society's rules."
Breaking rules has its drawbacks. There are still throat singing purists who decry Tagaq's experimentation with the tradition. And this spring, the singer was pulled into a Twitter war of words with some animal rights activists after posting a photo of her child with a dead seal, taken on the ice in Cambridge Bay. But the singer, who was raised in an environment where feminine strength was celebrated, where the big schoolyard competition was who could get the most frostbite, is perfectly capable of taking on her detractors.
"Sometimes people come up to me and say, 'I'm sorry, I don't like your music.' I say, don't be sorry. I don't expect anyone to like it! I'm making it for me, to talk about the angry and crazy things that I feel. And when I'm talking about the harshness of Inuit life, it is abrasive. Whenever someone does get it, on whatever level it speaks to them, politically, intellectually, musically, I'm thrilled!"