Why you should care
When is the last time you saw a music performance this wild? This sensual? This scary?
There aren’t many award-winning singers that would classify their style as “Scream. Grunt. Growl. Groan. Flutter. Quiver. Howl.”
But there aren’t many performers like Tanya Tagaq, who has delivered, kicking and screaming, the art of throat singing into popular music consciousness. Case in point: In September the Inuk singer’s third studio album won the Canadian equivalent of the Mercury Prize — beating out the likes of international stars Drake and Arcade Fire to win the Polaris Music Prize for best full-length album of the year.
… a mesmerizing, urgent and sensual mélange of heaving breaths and guttural moans …
“As a former Polaris juror, I can only imagine how the 2014 Grand Jury wrestled with their decision,” says Alan Cross, music journalist and consultant, and longtime radio broadcaster. He credits Tagaq’s win for “drawing attention to a very interesting (and under-covered) type of Canadian music.”
Because popular music it is not. What it is: a mesmerizing, urgent and sensual mélange of heaving breaths and guttural moans — with some EDM and metal, sometimes opera, vibrating underneath. Stop for a moment and try to imagine that. To see Tagaq perform is like watching a person possessed by a wild animal — fascinating, frightening and at times erotic. With a pulsing heartbeat.
And sometimes it looks as though she’s about to leap off the stage and rip your face off. Like a wolf.
Some of the songs on Animism, her most political album to date, are named after animals — “Rabbit,” “Caribou” (a Pixies cover), “Umingmak” — and present an urgency to reconnect with the natural world. While there are some pop songs, there is an unnerving, “unlistenable” quality to other tracks like “Fracking,” which is about the controversial practice of extracting oil from the earth. “I imagined my whole body was the Earth and that someone was doing fracking on me,” she told a Nunavut newspaper.
Tagaq has also raised hackles with her pro-seal-hunting stance — including a sealfie, a photo of her baby with a dead seal — and by declaring “fuck PETA” in her Polaris acceptance speech. She’s also a political activist: During that performance, the names of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada scrolled on a screen.
I wish people would just focus on the sound of it instead of picturing igloos or whatever.
Throat singing is traditionally done by two women, and is generally not improvised. But the self-taught Tagaq goes it alone — and with her own interpretations. At university, a long way from her home in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, she listened to traditional throat singing music her mother sent in a care package. It struck a chord and she practiced in the shower every morning.
But as much as she loves her culture, she shakes off responsibility of representing it to the masses. It’s all about the music. “I wish people would just focus on the sound of it instead of picturing igloos or whatever,” she told Exclaim after releasing her album Auk/Blood (ᐊᐅᒃ) in 2008.
Her big break came with Björk in 2001, after she was spotted singing at an arts festival. Tagaq was invited onto Björk’s Vespertine tour in 2001, and they’ve since collaborated on each other’s albums. Animism is set to be released in the U.S. in January 2015, with a handful of tour dates this fall and next year.
Is the album challenging? Are the performances disquieting? Yes, but definitely enthralling. Just watch.