Mother Earth is mighty pissed. So warns Tanya Tagaq in her brand-new album, Retribution (Six Shooter Records), which describes in its title track a badass Gaia plotting payback against those who “squander her soil and suck out her black blood to burn it” and promising “retribution will be swift.”
These concerns won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the acclaimed Nunavut-raised singer, who is equally crushed on by woke Canadian girls for both her strikingly original music and her frequent calling out of everyone from environmental enemies to animal-rights protestors.
Tagaq ended her last album, Animism, with a track in which she personified the Earth groaning and shrieking mid-fracking. When that record was nominated for a Polaris Prize in 2014, she performed at the ceremony in front of a backdrop that listed the names of 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women. And when Tagaq claimed the prize later in the evening—beating out the likes of Drake and Arcade Fire, NBD—she encouraged the crowd to wear sealskin, and, as an afterthought, v. casually lobbed an F-bomb at PETA, a group whose name is akin to a swear-word in Nunavut for its contributing role in destroying the price of seal pelts and undermining the livelihood of Inuit hunters.
To simply call Tanya Tagaq an Inuit throat singer is almost misleading, as she’s taken a traditional duet, performed by women waiting for the men to return from hunting, and transformed it into an otherworldly sound that’s entirely her own. Her music is full of animal snarls and orgiastic shrieks one moment, rhythmic panting and soft whispers the next. This startling range has led the artistic director of the Kronos Quartet—a past collabo partner—to describe her as the “Jimi Hendrix of Inuit throat singers.” Throw in violin and drums, along with occasional metal guitar licks and other dark atmospherics, and the effect is unsettling but oh so chic. The Guardian called her the “polar punk who makes Bjork”—another past collaborator—“seem tame.”
In her new album, Tagaq remains as fearless as ever, and addresses subjects that other artists would be loath to explore. The first single, “Centre,” for example—which features Toronto rapper Shad geeking out over the similarities between molecules and solar systems over a danceable beat—is a meditation on menstruation. “I love my blood,” Tagaq says. “Every month my blood makes me feel so powerful and aware and sharp. And I’m always marvelling at this society that’s clipped this strange stigma on women’s menstruation cycles; we might only be half the population, but we gave birth to every single person you see. I just find it a little bit ridiculous. Your first bed was your mother’s womb. Your first bed was her period.”
Another song, “Cold,” features an apocalyptic description of the impact of a warming world upon the Arctic and the rest of the Earth, “because Gaia likes it cold.” And the album ends with a haunting rendition of Nirvana’s “Rape Me.” “Kurt Cobain was a feminist, and he wrote that song as an anti-rape song,” Tagaq says. “So it seemed perfectly applicable to the missing and murdered women situation, to the way we rape the Earth. It fit in perfectly with what was happening.”
Beyond her music, Tagaq is unafraid of stirring up controversy. In 2014, before her Polaris Prize win, Inuit had begun to post “sealfie” self-portraits of themselves garbed in seal-skin, in response to a campaign by Ellen DeGeneres to end the seal hunt. Tagaq took it to the next level by posting a photo of her then-baby girl lying beside a freshly harvested seal. The singer ended up receiving vitriolic responses, including death threats, from anti-sealing activists for months afterwards. “I had no idea there was such a freakishly large population of people that are so misinformed by these [animal rights] organizations,” she says. Tagaq notes that seals are abundant in the Arctic, and Nunavut hunters quickly dispatch the animals using rifles, rather than clubs. Inuit also traditionally use the whole animal, she says, with the meat helping to feed a population that is too frequently malnourished. Tagaq’s suggestion to those looking to make a difference for animal rights? Picket a slaughterhouse—chances are, the animals inside suffer far greater indignities. “People need to understand that if you’re against the seal hunt, you’re the oppressor. And I think there’s a lot of people, good-hearted, open-minded people who would never want to be the oppressor.”
Alongside promoting her new album, she is keen to keep speaking out against injustice; among the subjects she’s taken aim at more recently is everyday sexism. While visiting Winnipeg earlier this month she was crudely propositioned in broad daylight by a man who called her a “sexy little Indian.” Tagaq has had enough ogling in her current hometown of Toronto—and she’s as refreshingly outspoken as ever about it. “I’m just walking down the street in Toronto and someone beeps at me. I’m at the point of my life where I’m 41 years old and I’m just ready for that to stop, you know? I’m walking with my children. I don’t want to take time out of my day to acknowledge the fact that you have a dick. What do you want me to do? Do jumping jacks because you were born with a penis?”