TORONTO — Tanya Tagaq is finally catching her breath.
Shortly after the world froze in its tracks during the early days of COVID-19, the Inuk artist was struggling. Twenty years of touring life kept her on her feet, but in Toronto’s lockdown she felt physically and spiritually trapped.
“The city just wasn’t cutting it for me,” the Juno winner recalled in a recent interview.
“I grew up on the tundra and if I can’t see the horizon or trees … I get a little bit squirrelly.”
So after months of isolation, Tagaq plotted her escape. Along with her husband, she travelled to more remote areas of Ontario to reconnect with nature and, most recently, indulge in the snowy “dreamland” that winter offers.
Finishing her fifth studio album “Tongues,” released last month, offered another welcome distraction.
Inspired by her 2018 book “Split Tooth,” the project was largely completed before the pandemic with New York slam poet Saul Williams as producer. But with months of isolation, Tagaq and her mixer Gonjasufi started tinkering — until the sound was darker, grimier and almost unrecognizable.
While on a getaway near Simcoe County, Ont., Tagaq spoke to The Canadian Press about her album, finding her voice online and Canada’s shameful record on residential school atrocities.
CP: Using your book “Split Tooth” as the groundwork for “Tongues” was a twist, but having Saul Williams help shape the album was a bigger surprise.How did that come about?
Tagaq: I have an excellent record company and they went: ‘Who’s your dream person (to work with)?’ I threw it out there almost as a joke, (thinking) this probably won’t happen. But I have to give him a lot of credit because I was taking baby steps into language, having never incorporated a lot of comprehensible lyrics into my work. I prefer to stay in the abstract. But with the release of “Split Tooth,” and the recording of the audiobook, I thought it’d be a real shame not to marry these two. Saul Williams pointed me in the right direction. There were a few nights where we were just cry-laughing. Once you get silly with someone, it’s very easy to work with them.
CP: You recorded with Williams before the pandemic, but was “Tongues” just sitting on the shelf this entire time?
Tagaq: It was going to come out around May 2020, but because COVID hit we delayed it. Then because we delayed it, we started really looking at the tracks. Gonjasufi and I had all the time in the world. A song would be one thing and then he pulled an all-nighter. I don’t know what happens to him in the night, but he’d come back with a completely different song with a different shape and feel. I think there were at least three or four versions of every song. We got to get dirty, mucky and knead the dough. The album that was going to come out and the album coming out now, they’re completely different. Maybe in the future, we can take those other versions of the songs and put them out because there’s a lot of good expression.
CP: On the opening track you proclaim: “You can’t take our tongues.” Since winning the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, many have turned to you as a voice for the Indigenous community and on Twitter, you seem comfortable doing that. Do you feel an obligation to speak up when an Indigenous issue makes headlines?
Tagaq: I tweet when it feels right to me. And if I don’t feel like I know enough about the topic, I don’t speak on it. But my husband says I’m broken because I have an inability to care about what strangers think. Say you’re in a mall, for example, how many people in that crowded mall do you think you would get along with? A few, right? So why on earth wouldn’t you apply that to social media? Either you pick up what I’m putting down, or you’re just not my type of person.
CP: We live in tumultuous times for any number of reasons, but can you talk about how you see the future?
Tagaq: Part of me that’s connected to the land is completely unsurprised at the way things are going, this ridiculous, fever dream that humans have created out of the economy. It’s unsustainable, socially even. We’re fumbling; we wipe ourselves out. That’s the way humans want to go. We’re using all of our power to try to sway us into a healthier existence, to stop how we’ve been slaves to capitalism. Humans are careening towards a palate-cleansing, where a bunch of us pass on. If we can’t collectively work together to stop this from happening, then that is what we deserve.
CP: Last year, the federal government dismantled a Parliament Hill memorial of shoes, stuffed toys and messages for Indigenous children who never returned from residential schools. (Note: A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said many items were in an “advanced state of degradation.”) The discovery of unmarked graves at former school sites continues, but the collective consciousness might be waning. What are your thoughts around future memorials?
Tagaq: When I went to Berlin, I (visited) the Jewish memorial. And I sat in there for a long time just feeling grateful that people can pay their respects and acknowledge history. And I thought: “In my lifetime, I want to see Canada shift to this attitude, where there’s a reverence, an acknowledgement and every Canadian is aware of their history. (Both) what transpired here and what is transpiring.” Somebody should make a 1,000-pound sculpture and put it right in the middle of the city. Put permanent shoes; weld them onto the steps. Get in people’s way. It is time to resurrect more memorials and take down a lot of statues done in their time.
CP: This reminds me of “Colonizer,” one of the songs from your album where you repeat “you’re a colonizer, oh you’re guilty,” against a relentlessly pounding electronic beat. You made clear and intentional choices on many of the songs that drive home the message. Can you talk about that?
Tagaq: Part of the reason I’m doing this album is I do not want complacent Canadians to be able to turn their head. Every comment section about Indigenous people where (they) are literally celebrating our death. We know we are hated. Everybody who is resting in complacency is allowing our deaths to happen. And I’m tired of it. It’s time for people to wake up and understand they also have a responsibility. These kids, the torture they had to be put through to pull that many babies from the earth? You can’t look at these children, unmarked and buried, and maintain any shred of innocence. I’m just completely done with the narrative of complacent Canadians.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2022.