TANYA TAGAQ with BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE at David Pecaut Square (55 John), Tuesday (June 10), 8 pm, all ages. Free. luminatofestival.com.
Tanya Tagaq laughs one of her big, wild, belly cackles. She's just confided that sometimes she'll randomly ask people, "Are you fucked up?"
"And most of the time they'll say, ‘I am,'" she says. "How much of the population is walking around fucked up and trying to seem okay? And if it's everyone, what the hell are we doing?!" She adds that she, too, is fucked up, "but in such a joyous way - it's part of being alive."
Connecting with people is part of the three-time Juno-nominated throat singer's calling, on and off-stage.
Over the phone from her home in Brandon, Manitoba, Tagaq touches on being whisked off on a world tour by Björk early in her career, the awful Twitter firestorm she was recently caught up in with certain animal rights activists after posting a "sealfie" with her younger daughter in support of the Inuit seal hunt, conflict, contradictions, colonialism and feminine shame.
"Giving birth takes a massive amount of strength. I often wonder in this society where that strength is going when we're not giving birth? How come we're not walking around in our beautiful, glorious, amazing, strong sexuality? And in our power?" she asks.
"I was raised with only brothers, and grew up hunting and fishing in the North, where we related so completely with the environment around us that the idea of denying yourself calories so you could be more alluring was nonsensical.
"I say this to women all the time: men are aroused already. They're just like that. You don't need to conform to anything to make them like you. They're just going to like you."
These kinds of ideas - along with pride in the Inuit people's pre-Christianity spirituality - play out on Tagaq's third album, Animism (Six Shooter). Unconventional, electronic and often improvised, it features freaky violin courtesy of producer Jesse Zubot, intense percussion from Jean Martin, and soundscapes and live programming by Michael Red.
Not that Tagaq broaches politics explicitly in her lyrics. Animism is mostly lyric-less, though it opens with a cover of the Pixies' Caribou; Fight has some English words in it; and gentle, explor-atory Rabbit is a play on words for Tagaq's daughters ("bunnik" is Inuktitut for "daughter").
That's intentional, she says. It opens up the meaning of the songs. "Each song can be looked at in a literal sense of what it is," says Tagaq, "but it also applies itself to the feeling in the entire world that applies to that particular circumstance."
In Fracking, for instance, Tagaq moans, cries, and her voice seems to break in grief and suffering; it is her expression of what it would feel like to be the earth in that scenario. "But it's also the feeling of everything horrible in the world," she says, "from global warming to the negative things that have happened in residential schools."
Tagaq's wordless performances also help her connect more intimately with her audiences. "I had a woman who was terminally ill tell me that she was way less afraid to die after the show. If I'd been standing up there yelling about colonialism, she couldn't have taken that from me; I couldn't have helped her," she says.
"I try to talk about humanity and its common denominators. Breath, heartbreak, joy, love; all these little thoughts we have that define what it means to be alive every day in all of its complex beauty that we never really discuss."
For example, she continues, "When someone asks, ‘How are you?' I never say, ‘Oh, I was standing outside with my daughter in the sun and a bug was crawling on her and she realized that the bug was harmless and she didn't need to be afraid of it.' We just say, ‘Oh, I'm fine, the traffic's terrible.'"
Tagaq describes her experience of throat-singing live as like being in a state of chasing nirvana - something you might experience giving birth, having an orgasm, or running so long you're no longer aware you are running. "The audience provides so much of the energy," she says. "They'll push forth their energy and then I'll release it out of my mouth and it affects them and changes their energy and then they give me more - it's this circle, so there's a huge discrepancy between [my] recorded music and what happens onstage.
"Sometimes I'll just have no body and everything will be black. No weight, nothing. Just total silence and it's completely peaceful, and then all of a sudden I'll hear a really faraway soft echo and it slowly gets louder and louder, and then I realize I'm making this sound and I'll open my eyes and I'm in front of 500 people, and I'm like, ‘Oh shit.'"
Perhaps the most radical thing about Tagaq's breathing, grunting, singing and howling is the implied invitation to every listener to explore all the different facets of their human experience - from joy and love to the shittier or scarier feelings they might rather leave in the dark.
"I like the challenge of releasing mu-sic that I don't like myself," says Tagaq. "All the music I've ever done, there are parts that are very hard for me to listen to. I cower in embarrassment and shame, and then I say, ‘No, Tanya, that part deserves respect, too.'"