Published on February 24th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Tanya Tagaq
Tanya Tagaq is a force of nature, on the stage and off. We interview her about her activism, controversies, and a bit about music too.
I was very lucky to get an interview for Planet S Magazine with Tanya Tagaq, whose album Animism won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize. It’s a record that is accessible to all listeners in some moments and an insane avant-garde cacophony in others.
However, when I went to phone Tanya at the appointed interview time, the whole experience took a hilarious and disorienting turn. First off, her cell kept cutting out, so I had to keep phoning her back, which made continuity an issue. It also made me feel like I was hassling her in a huge way, though she was very sweet about it. The second problem was Tagaq herself. She was really nice, but also super cheeky. As I said in the Planet S article, I may have been asking the questions, but I wasn’t running the interview. She seemed to shy away from more personal questions about her life and her music, though as you’ll see, she gave a really interesting reason.
While she subverts questions about herself, she opens up completely when we talk about the message behind Animism, the Earth itself, and some of her other politics. If you want an article about guitars and musicianship, you might have to look elsewhere. If you want to know what motivates the beauty, the ugliness, and the raw message behind Tagaq’s music, then you’ve come to the right shit show.
In the following interview, I’ve kept all the reception drops and my subsequent reactions in the transcript, so you can see how stressful and funny this conversation was (note: I have edited here and there for brevity or clarity). I have also added some personal insights in italics here and there. All that aside though, Tanya Tagaq had some really perceptive things to say, making this one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting with. So view it as more of an interview with a bit of gimmicky writing attached, not the other way around.
I phone Tanya. I get her voicemail, which is the sound of a little girl, her daughter I presume, asking me to leave a message. I tell her I’m trying to get ahold of her, and I leave my number, but I tell her I’ll try again in a few minutes. After a few attempts, she answers. But she cuts out. I call her back again. She answers but cuts out again. I finally get her on the line, and we agree to forge ahead with the interview, even with the shitty cell reception. I’m already a little stressed out, but I’m a professional, dammit, so I try my best to keep things on track.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: So, how did you get into throat singing in the first place? I read that you didn’t really discover it until you were in high school?
TANYA TAGAQ: All of that information is on the website. Have you read the biopsy [sic] on the website?
TFS: Oh, yeah, for sure.
TT: Okay, ‘cause that’s all on there.
TFS: Um…I guess I’m just looking for quotes in some cases. I know the information, but sometimes I need a quote for the article. But…uh…we can skip that question if you don’t want to answer it.
It’s kind of how this whole ‘interview’ thing works, I’m thinking, but I don’t want to be rude.
TT: Oh, okay, I’ve just like, talked about it 5000 times. (Laughs).
TFS: Fair enough, I’m sure some of this stuff gets old when you’re shoved into the spotlight like you are these days.
TT: It just feels a little…I try very hard to never feel disingenuine. Sometimes with some of the questions, if I’m telling the same story again and again, it feels like a weird parody of myself. (Laughs). So I have to be careful.
TFS: That makes sense. Let me think of better ways to phrase things. How would you describe throat singing to someone that had never heard it before?
TT: Can I call you back on Skype? I think it’s cutting out again.
We hang up and I fire up Skype, but then I realize that the computer I have in front of me isn’t hooked up to the wi-fi because my office wi-fi stinks. Also, I never gave her any fucking contact information for my Skype before we hung up, because I’m stupid. So I call her back. I explain about the wi-fi and ask if we can try to work with the crummy connection and push through the interview. She is very gracious about it.
TT: Okay, we can try. If I can’t hear you I’ll hang up and you call me back.
TFS: Okay, that sounds perfect. I appreciate that so much.
TT: It’s definitely nobody’s fault.
TFS: Where were we? How would you describe throat singing to someone who’d never heard it before?
TT: It’s a difficult question. I guess it’s kind of a rhythmical percussive sound. Guttural for lack of a better word to describe it.
TFS: How traditional is your style? Aren’t there usually two singers or is that not all the time?
TT: Oh, yeah, I’ve broken free from tradition and started doing it on my own. It’s traditionally done with two women. It’s absolutely fantastic. Anyone should check out the traditional stuff ‘cause it’s really, really cool. I just started doing it on my own so I could become a little more free with expression and more emotive, rather than kind of sticking to it being a competition or game between two people.
TFS: How do traditionalists feel about that.
TT: You should ask some. (Laughs).
Sick burn. I can’t help but laugh too, even though I’m pretty much the butt of the joke. But I have to admire her cheekiness. Again, I rephrase.
TFS: Good answer. In your experience so far — do you get flak for it?
TT: Some are excellent and some don’t mind at all and some hate it and brand me as a heretic. As they do when anyone breaks tradition.
TFS: So, going back to your childhood. What was that like? I know you moved around as you were growing up.
TT: It was wonderful to be born and raised in Nunavut. I’m very fortunate that I got to have that experience of being tied closely with the land and animals.
TFS: How does that inform the music? Animism itself, I don’t want to read too much into it, but the word itself means the idea that animals and plants have souls. Is that what you’re going for?
TT: Well…yeah. (Laughs).
Ah, dripping with sarcasm again. Her tone suggests that she could have easily chosen the word, “Duh,” instead. Again, I’m asking her a question I know the answer to so I can get her to elaborate in her own words. But she’s either not in the mood to play the lame music writing game, or she doesn’t get that this is how it works and she just thinks I’m some kind of moron. Either way, she mercifully catches herself, perhaps feeling bad for me, and she does explain her thoughts on the themes of the record.
TT: Sorry, yeah, it’s more about how humans have bungled up certain ideas. The simple trajectory of the power it takes for the Earth to rotate, for it to go around the sun. All of that is generating energy and I think as humans got drunk on God and thought that the Earth was there for them, for us, and everything else is beneath us. I think that’s where the beginning of human folly started. So it’s more that we should be living in harmony with the planet. That’s all coming back into our faces now obviously, because we’re destroying the Earth. It’s a kind of naturalistic, scientific kind of outlook, where it’s a logical. It’s obvious that we’re a part of the Earth. It’s ridiculous to try and remove ourselves from it. We are all going to be minerals back in the Earth before we know it.
Now we’re cooking with gas!
TFS: So, like, we’re all animals, but human ego dictates that we place ourselves above so-called lower forms of life?
TT: Yeah! Absolutely. And we’re totally insignificant. As a species, we’re really doing a lot of harm. We’re not cognizant of how our actions are affecting things because we’re alive for so short of a time. I like to look at things in a big picture kind of way and I think that the belief of Animism is the faith of a lot of Indigenous belief systems that got wiped out by colonialism. It’s just a question of looking at things from a different perspective and understanding out inability to release the idea of taking ourselves so seriously and at the same time, not going backwards, but moving forward and reconnecting with the Earth. It’s the only way the Earth is going to survive. It’s kind of heavy, but that’s the gist of my ideology. (Laughs).
TFS: Is being political something you think is important, or does it just kind of happen to you based on your gender, your ethnicity, and the literacy of your audience?
TT: It’s day-to-day life. It’s not something that I choose. But as a woman we just got the vote in 1960, so I’m not going to trust the system. Same with being Indigenous. I like to poke holes in systems and add a different perspective. The idea of being political isn’t a conscious thing that I try to go do. It’s just that every person alive should be aware of their situation and what’s happening in their own country. I just happen to have a platform where I can address these issues.
TFS: A lot of people say that it’s stupid when a celebrity has a social opinion, which I 100% disagree with. But do you encounter that thinking?
TT: It depends on the situation. If you’re Pamela Anderson and the reason you’re a celebrity is because you have some tits, then yeah, maybe stick with the tits. (Laughs). But I mean, if you’re someone like Bob Dylan, who has a message to convey…people can think for themselves and it would be foolish to not discuss issues given the platform I’ve been given. And because the music itself is entrenched in all of this anyway, I don’t really separate one from the other. They don’t live separately.
TFS: I’m sure you’re sick of being asked about this, but I have to ask anyway — the Polaris Music Prize acceptance speech. Congratulations, by the way. But how are the online threats and bullying going in regards to the seal hunt controversy in the wake of your “Fuck Peta” Polaris speech?
TT: It’s fine now. It’s probably okay. It’s nothing I can’t handle. We’ve been trying to break free of that facet of society for a long time.
The connection breaks up for a second here, so I miss a sentence or two, but she comes back through again.
TT: For me, it’s very logical. People eat veal. People eat leather. The plastics in the clothing are destroying creatures all over the planet. People feed their pets pet food with animal byproducts in it. I just can’t help but point out the folly of the system. Being involved in the seal hunt, we’re in a post-colonial hangover, fallout. In Nunavut, we want people to thrive and do well in the scope of Canada, but it’s impossible to do so if you can’t benefit from your own sustainable, natural resources. It’s mostly because of propaganda. It’s been vilified, but if you look at it logically, the same people are fine to go to McDonald’s. It’s so hard when there are atrocities against other life forms. There are people that think no animals should be killed, but they go online and make death threats when they’re sitting next to someone in a restaurant eating a hamburger and they’re not saying anything. There’s no logic to it in my mind.
She starts to cut out. I hold on for a minute, hoping the connection will right itself, hearing her continue to talk about the seal hunt here and there until the connection breaks.
TT: Somebody has to be interesting for me to have a debate with them. If they’re acting like a five year old, I’m not going to have a conversation with them.
I lose the connection. I call back until I get through.
TFS: We were talking about the anti-seal hunt people.
TT: Right. I’d really like to know if all these people that say no animals should be killed would call the exterminator if their apartment was infested.
TFS: Good point. (Laughs).
TT: (Laughs). You know what I mean.
TFS: For sure. So, to address the music a bit more, when you’re singing for the album, did you plan that out or was it improvised?
We cut out again and I lose her. “This is the worst,” I mumble to myself. I’ve probably had to redial her 15 times since we started. After a few more scrambled attempts, I can hear her again. I’m finally getting to the musical nuts and bolts of what she does.
TFS: When you’re singing for the album, did you plan that out or was it improvised?
TT: It was completely improvised.
TFS: When you do it live, are you recreating the album or are you also taking it where the moment goes?
I can’t hear her again. It’s almost like her cell phone is conspiring with her to keep me away from asking certain questions. Though, that would just be paranoid, right?
TFS: Hello? Tanya? Did I lose you again? Hullo? Dammit.
I’ve lost her. I call her back. We connect again, and then I lose her again. I call her back. I can’t hear her when she picks up. I try this several more times. I swear a bunch. Eventually, I decide that I’m probably ruining her day, making her talk to some boring journalist who keeps phoning back like a weird stalker every 30 seconds. So I decide I have to put an end to the interview, even if I had more questions. I’ll have to hope I have enough to write a decent article. So, I text her:
TFS (text): Hi Tanya! Craig here. I don’t want to keep hassling you all day, so we can end there. I wish I had more chance to ask about the music, but I’ll make due. Thanks so much for taking the time!
TT (text): You are welcome. Sorry for the shitty connection.
TFS (text): No worries! Shit happens. It’ll make for a more unique article.
And so ends a most stressful conversation with a woman who does not suffer fools like me gladly. And, I think, who likes to deflect some of the attention off of the more personal side of herself and into the politics of what she does. But like I said, for all of her sort of standoffishness and jokey sarcasm, she was in good spirits, she had a certain sarcastic charm that I appreciate, and she was a very smart and interesting lady to talk to. You can read the Planet S article for yourself, but I think that sometimes these weird situations do make for better articles that can reveal the subject’s personality more than you’d get from a stock interview. In fact, how they react to stock questions can be a huge indicator sometimes. But that’s probably a separate essay in itself. And by now you should be wandering away to go check out Tanya’s album, Animism.