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Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer. Five albums into her career she’s soundtracking a contemporary Indigenous civil rights movement.
Story by Emma Healey
Photography by Monica Moraru
Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

I’ve only known Tanya Tagaq for five minutes, but she’s already hugged me twice. The first time was greeting me in the lobby of her east end Toronto apartment building; the second is when I say that I’m happy to be there. “I’m so happy too,” she says, her words melting into a squeal as she throws her arms around me again.

This joyful persona might seem a little incongruous if you’ve only ever heard her music. Retribution, her newest album, is a gorgeous but thoroughly harrowing listening experience. The follow-up to 2014’s Polaris Music Prize-winning Animism, Retribution explores the damage human beings inflict upon the earth, and each other, through a range of intense and often wordless soundscapes.

Tagaq is a throat singer. She’s Inuit, from Cambridge Bay in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, and her music draws on deep ancestral tradition as well as a range of contemporary influences. Its visceral power comes from the startling array of sounds she’s able to draw out of her body. Instead of singing about fracking or sexual assault, she seems to physically channel some essential, dark truth at the core of these issues. Retribution is her fifth album, and it is protest music in the most literal sense: the sound of the planet protesting as human beings squander its resources, the suffering of women whose trauma has been historically forgotten or ignored echoing into the present. The whole thing closes with a chilling, whisper-quiet cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me.” If that sounds difficult to listen to, it is; it’s also one of the most stunning records you will hear this year, or maybe ever.

By contrast, in person Tagaq is almost impossibly sweet; she often punctuates her sentences with giggles, or delightedly yelps at the sight of something she likes. Leading me into her apartment, which is smallish and sunny, I hear side two of The Clash’s Sandanista! on the record player, and glimpse LPs by Led Zeppelin, Sun Ra Arkestra, CCR, and a box set called Native North America on the shelf below. Though she’s only lived in Toronto for a month, having moved here from Victoria, British Columbia in the wake of a breakup, Tagaq’s place already feels pleasantly lived in — not messy, but brimming with evidence of a full life. Shimmying along to Joe Strummer she points out the art lining the walls: a painting by one of her daughters, a wilderness photo taken by a family member, and, in her bedroom, an overlarge photo of a guy in his mid-twenties, shirtless and sweatpants-clad, holding a serious-looking baby. He’s an old university friend who used to model, she tells me; she found the photo by chance in an antiques store on Queen Street. In her bathroom, hanging above the toilet, there’s a print by the legendary cartoonist R. Crumb about wiping your ass. It’s the most important piece of art she owns, she says, laughing.

"My favorite uncle, he used to say to me… ‘Tanya-ngai! Are you real?’" she says. "I hate pretense, all that garbage, all that head-stuff is really boring. As soon as music gets paved over with ideas of what you’re supposed to be, what you’re supposed to look like, what you’re supposed to sound like, that’s when I lose interest. My eyes start to glaze over.”

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules
Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

Tagaq has always had eclectic tastes. Growing up in Cambridge Bay, her father would listen to reggae and classic rock albums, and she absorbed them all in equal measure. As a teen, she attended a residential high school in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She has described her experience there as “not that bad” compared to the institutional abuse experienced by generations of Indigenous people; still, the lasting devastation of colonialism kept Tagaq at a distance from her own heritage. She didn’t become interested in throat singing until she’d moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for art school, and her mother sent her a tape in the mail. Though traditional Inuit throat singing is usually performed by two women as a sort of competitive game, Tagaq began practicing it alone.

After university, she moved home to Cambridge Bay to teach art. A year later, a series of coincidences led to her throat singing in front of her first festival audience, which happened to include a few friends of Björk. Soon after, though she’d never released an album of her own, Tagaq was invited to join the avant-garde artist on a world tour. She also contributed vocals to Björk’s acclaimed 2004 album Medúlla; looking back, those songs seem like a blueprint for her current work. Her voice on the haunting “Ancestors” sounds just as clear and powerful as it does over a decade later on Retribution; still, it would take years of touring and recording for Tagaq to find her audience.

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That’s because no musician sounds like Tanya Tagaq. Beyond her influences, ranging from classical to heavy metal, her voice itself encompasses a stunning range of pitches, dynamics, and emotions — often all within the same song. “I don’t have to subscribe to any system to feel safe,” she says. “I’m the product of an English man and an Inuk woman. I’m a product of colonization, a product of the land, of raving in my twenties. So I don’t have to fall into any one category, and I think that’s what happened with the music as well.”

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules
Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules
“I’m the product of an English man and an Inuk woman. I’m a product of colonization, a product of the land, of raving in my twenties. So I don’t have to fall into any one category.”

But this uniqueness is complex. While her musical sensibilities may be the result of a personal journey, she also stands alone as an acclaimed Inuit artist within contemporary mainstream Canadian music. Canadian political, social, and artistic culture has systematically ignored, suppressed, and erased Indigenous voices for centuries, and though throat singing is an essentially Inuk custom, many listeners had never heard of it until Animism. The near-universal critical praise for that record brought Tagaq into the kind of mainstream spotlight that is still too rare for Inuk and other Indigenous artists. (Recently, the Cree folk-rocker Buffy Sainte Marie has received resurgent attention, and the native DJ-production trio A Tribe Called Red have enjoyed a rise to prominence similar to Tagaq’s.)

This is further complicated by the fact that it’s both personal and political conviction that powers Tagaq’s music. The night she won the Polaris Prize, in September 2014, she performed a raging medley of the songs “Uja” and “Umingmak” in front of a scrolling list of names of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Still, when I ask if she feels pressure to act publicly as a representative for her culture or her politics instead of as an individual artist, Tagaq shakes her head vigorously. “When it’s who you are, it’s like, Do you feel strange representing your legs as you walk? It’s just part of who I am, so it’s super easy.”

Reviews of Tagaq’s live shows often describe her as seeming possessed. While that phrasing can be fraught (white critics, in particular, have a tendency to characterize sounds that aren’t familiar to us as ‘otherworldly’) it’s also not wrong. Onstage — often in a killer dress, always barefoot, usually with a backing band comprised of longtime collaborators Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin — Tagaq unleashes a searing array of howls, moans, squeals and grunts. Her hands grab at the air; her hips twist; sometimes she whips an arm around in time with her breathing like she’s conjuring a tornado. Often she has the steely, narrowed expression of a predator, but sometimes her eyes get really wide, like she’s just as shocked by the force of her own voice as you are. It’s difficult to name another contemporary performer who so thoroughly conveys the impression of being in total control of a force that’s in the process of completely overwhelming her.

“Sometimes I feel separated from the person onstage,” she says. “I wouldn’t just act like that right now, it’d freak the shit out of you, right? I close my eyes a lot. But it’s so much a part of my existence. What I get to see and feel, what we get to explore, the language we’ve developed — it’s like another dimension that we get to go to. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the concerts. It’s something that I 100 percent have to do. It’s not a choice.”

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

Later, back at the door to her apartment after a quick coffee run, we can hear a neighbor’s dog barking frantically. Tagaq shakes her head as she pulls out her keys. “Poor guy! It’s so stressful thinking that every time he hears a noise it’s some threat.” We decide that it seems unfair to keep nervous dogs in small places. “I either wanna pet him or shoot him,” she says.

This is the side of Tagaq that doesn’t always play well in public. She has a sly sense of humor and is keenly resistant to the idea that she should muffle her opinions to suit anyone’s ideas of propriety — particularly white Canadians. So it’s unsurprising that the year she won the Polaris Prize she also landed at the center of a shitstorm of online harassment.

It started with the infamous ‘sealfie.’ In mid-2014, Tagaq tweeted a photo of her daughter lying next to a freshly killed seal and immediately found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of hate from animal rights activists who didn’t understand how integral the seal hunt is in Inuit culture. For three months, she weathered the hate, then she ended her Polaris acceptance speech by saying “Fuck PETA.” And so the tweets kept coming, a bracing reminder of how little many North Americans understand about Indigenous issues, and an object lesson in the abuse public non-white women are often forced to endure.

“The good thing about that whole situation,” she says, “was there were a lot of animal rights activists that started understanding that Inuit people are animal rights activists [too].” Still, “what was concerning to me about that whole situation was that it was a combination of racism and misinformation. There was just this blanket assumption that there was no way this Inuk woman could know what she was talking about. Why wouldn’t you choose to believe the person who lived in that habitat, in that environment?”

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules
“I’m not at peace [in the city] at all, everything seems like it’s a threat, everything is evidence of the violence. My feet need to be on the earth, not concrete.”

This earnest tendency to speak out might make her a magnet for controversy, but in person it just makes her magnetic. People often cry at her live performances, and sometimes when she speaks in interviews, too. Her friend and collaborator Shad, who raps on Retribution’s lead single, “Centre,” sees a clear link between how Tagaq expresses herself onstage and off. “I think it’s actually part of what makes her so compelling,” he says. “All of that power comes from an amazing place. [She’s] just so loving and warm and really unafraid. Anything that she needs to express, anything that she’s feeling seems to come out unhindered. And all that power and all that rage really just comes from love, a lot of love.”

That heart is most visible when it comes to Tagaq’s two daughters: Naia, 13, and Inuuja, 4. At the mention of them she relaxes visibly, like she finally gets to talk about what’s been on her mind this whole time. She often brings them on tour, and it’s Inuuja who provides the brightest, most hopeful moment on Retribution; the album’s first song, “Ajaaja,” features her voice lilting sweetly over a soundscape of field recordings and slow drum beats. Tanya hands me their school photos, unprompted: Inuuja wears a sparkly crown, while Naia has a wry, wise smile. Both girls look exactly like their mother.

The suggestion that she’s a bad parent is the most upsetting part of the pushback she’s received online, Tagaq says. “I’m such an excellent mom,” she says. “I know I am. My kids are so happy and healthy and well-adjusted. I mean, knock on wood, one is just going into teenager-land. We bleed at the same time, and she’s so sweet. I love her even when she’s getting moody. I remember at 13, I had crushes on people. There’s this weird thing that happens where parents tell kids that being a sexual being is bad, but we’re only here because our parents fucked, and [my kids] are only here ‘cause I fucked. It’s so natural, every single one of us has these urges and needs. We are here because of the absolute magic of sex.”

Feminism has long been an implicit theme in Tanya’s music, but on Retribution, it’s front and centre. In person, she speaks reverently about the women in her family — her daughters, but also her mother, a cancer survivor who used 235 sick days she’d accumulated to go through chemotherapy while keeping her job, and an aunt from back home who she describes as a fiercely independent polar bear hunter. Tagaq talks frequently about “home,” meaning Cambridge Bay — but the longer we speak, the more I get the sense that it also means her relationships with these women, just as it does the land they live on.

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules
Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

Though it’s just been a few weeks, Tagaq is already feeling lonely in Toronto. “I’m gonna have to go home more often. I usually go for the Arctic Char run; that’s when I get the ideas for all the new songs,” she says. “I’m not at peace here at all, everything seems like it’s a threat, everything is evidence of the violence. My feet need to be on the earth, not concrete. Farmers carry that land around, Inuit people carry that land around, people that spend a lot of time out of the city carry that around. Energetically, having your feet on the land is different than on pavement.”

When it’s time to take photos for this story we head to the Scarborough Bluffs, the closest Toronto gets to unpaved nature. The land is enormous and overgrown, with steep cliffs that drop down toward the clear shoreline of Lake Ontario. It’s an unseasonably warm October day, and after the shoot we pick up her kids from a friend’s house, and head to the nearby Ceili Cottage to settle in on the patio and order a mountain of food. Naia asks about the pins on my jacket, and she’s so thoughtful it feels like I’m talking to a generous adult instead of a seventh-grader. Inuuja sits across the table from her mom, happily drawing a picture of a kitten around a hunk of plasticine. Tagaq orders a plate of oysters and passes them around, explaining that “they taste so good because they’re alive.” Her daughters wrinkle their noses, but I take one — she’s right.

It seems like the wrong time for more questions, so instead I sit back and watch Tagaq’s face light up as she talks to her daughters. Leaving the restaurant, the girls gravitate to her side, and as we walk down Queen Street the three of them spontaneously break out into their own version of the Caillou theme song. Tagaq beams. Though she’s been smiling from the moment we met that morning, it’s the first time she has seemed at peace. Reunited with her daughters, walking home in the dusk light, she looks in love, and unafraid.

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules

Special thanks to:

Stylist: Nafisa Kaptownwala
Clothing: VSP
Hair & Makeup: Kelty Lewis

Wolves Don’t Live By The Rules