Music

Howl

Why Tanya Tagaq sings

by
Photography by George Pimentel

• 6,240 words

Photograph by George Pimentel

In July, the singer Tanya Tagaq travelled to the Banff Centre, Alberta’s mecca of contemporary arts patronage. Her new album, Animism, had just been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, an annual $30,000 award for the Canadian record “of the highest artistic integrity.” By tradition, the acts perform songs from their nominated albums at the live-streamed ceremony; this year, the other artists included household names such as Drake and Arcade Fire. Tagaq, though, was in an unusual position. Her concerts are almost entirely improvised, and Animism itself was largely a product of free-form extemporization, cobbled post hoc into something resembling a record. In Banff, she and her band had planned to work on re-creations in preparation for the Polaris gala. Then they hit a snag: Tanya Tagaq had a cold.

Tagaq with a cold is a problem. More so than most other singers, she bends and stretches her voice to the very limits of what the human larynx can do; in fact, she sounds not particularly human at all. She is an Inuk and a throat singer, which means that the noises she makes rumble from deep inside her, a drum-like volley of grunts and growls. While your typical Internet comment might remark that she sounds sick no matter what (“the dry heave stage of a hangover,” writes one Globe and Mail reader), that would be a stupid remark indeed. Throat singing is both vocally taxing and beautiful, and illness interferes. Although Tagaq could still snarl and pant, she was unable to perform without having to stop and cough.

It was the kind of ambivalent summer day peculiar to the Rockies, vacillating between bright sunlight and windblown rainfall. Rehearsals had been cancelled, and when I met Tagaq we set off in search of free alcohol—crashing events being the sort of thing cash-strapped writers and artists do at the Banff Centre. Even though she was sick, she ordered a white wine spritzer. It was her first drink in eight months, she said, explaining that she was trying to take it easy.

Tagaq is thirty-nine, with an open, expressive face and dark hair that flows down her back. Animism is her third studio album. It is also her most mature—a flurry of synths, strings, and percussion, along with her otherworldly voice. The opening track is a sly cover of the Pixies’ “Caribou,” and the album ends with a wordless dirge called “Fracking.” Animism is not the kind of thing you put on as you do the dishes. Even when it drags on too long or doesn’t quite land, it sounds like almost nothing else in the world—clichéd praise that is, in this case, actually true. Tagaq recorded most of it just a few months after giving birth to her second daughter, Inuuja. “I was in so much love—in baby land,” she said. “There’s so much sleep deprivation and so much frustration and so much joy. It was a poignant time.” The record reflects this. It has the palpable feel of chaos under constraint, and it has been widely and positively reviewed. “There were moments when I was like, This is a disaster,” Jesse Zubot, a multi-instrumentalist who plays with Tagaq and produced Animism, told me. “It was so crazy to put it together. But it worked out well, and people are responding to it.”

Tagaq occupies a curious, uniquely Canadian stratum in the creative industry, in that publicly funded cultural institutions pay her to flagellate the wrongs of colonialism. In 2012, the Toronto International Film Festival invited her to sing a live score to the 1922 silent documentary Nanook of the North, about an Inuit community in northern Quebec, which is often criticized for its staged scenes and patronizing attitude. In October, she sang in Going Home Star, a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production about residential schools written by the novelist Joseph Boyden and produced in conjunction with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Like many artists of colour, Tagaq is expected to mean something larger than herself—an expectation that comes with a symbolic weight rarely placed on white artists. Upon Animism’s release, the Globe and Mail called it “both a hymn to the spirit in all living things and a manifestation of the indigenous activism that gave rise to the Idle No More movement.” Although Tagaq speaks proudly of her Inuit heritage, she does not want to be boxed in as an Aboriginal artist. “I’ve worked very hard not to be Pocahontas’d,” she said.

Still, it is almost impossible to talk about Tagaq without talking about what Anishinaabe journalist Wab Kinew has called the “Indigenous music renaissance” in Canada—a renaissance that includes A Tribe Called Red, a trio of DJs who combine powwow songs with elements of contemporary electronic music. The comparison is not without its problems—the members of ATCR are Ojibwe, Cayuga, and Mohawk, while Tagaq is Inuit; ATCR creates pulsing, danceable tracks, whereas Tagaq does something much more bizarre—but it remains compelling. Both acts incorporate Indigenous motifs into music that sounds not just modern but futuristic. “Kids can say, Look what she’s doing,” Boyden told me. “Our traditions aren’t just a thing of the past.”

Although there are other successful Inuit musicians, such as the folk-pop singer Susan Aglukark, Tagaq is the first to attain the indie-rock respect that a Polaris nod denotes. She relishes the role of the provocateur, and she weighs in frequently on issues of concern to Indigenous peoples: Idle No More, an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, climate change. But her rise has also made her a target of the kind of online vitriol that seems exclusively reserved for women of colour. Last March, Inuit started tweeting photos of themselves wearing seal products, hashtagged #sealfie, in support of the controversial hunt. Tagaq decided to join in, posting a photo of Inuuja lying next to a dead seal, from a hunt in Nunavut a few months prior. She had intended the tweet as a statement about the natural cycle of birth, death, and nourishment, but the response was vicious. One Twitter user attacked her with “ANIMAL HATER CHILD ABUSER WISH YOU WOULD JUMP OFF A BRIDGE AND DROWN FILTHY DIRTY #CANADIAN SAVAGE SLUT.” Another man Photoshopped a gruesome image of a sealer clubbing her daughter. The incident made headlines across the country. “I wanted to fucking kill that guy,” Tagaq said. “I was just posting something that I thought would create discussion, without realizing people are that stupid.” Then she told me that she hoped to commission a sealskin dress for the Polaris gala.

The following morning, I climbed Tunnel Mountain, just east of Banff. When I reached the top, among the squawking ravens and German tourists, I could hear Tagaq sound checking, her trademark hnnnngs reverberating up through the valley, as if they were part of the natural sonic landscape. A few hours later, she played a show in a small bandshell. As she took the stage, she explained the tradition of Inuit throat singing to the audience, and how her technique differed, before beginning a rhythmic vocal pattern. Zubot slowly joined in on the violin, as did drummer Jean Martin, creating a loose texture around her. As Tagaq gained steam, she began breaking up her throat sounds with falsetto shrieks and wails, and she moved convulsively, lifting an arm over her head, doubling over at the waist. She was still sick, and she sometimes paused to cough discreetly. The band jammed for twenty-five minutes straight. Like a lot of improvised music, it occasionally felt directionless, but there were moments of transcendence. No one could doubt her power.

Tagaq’s music seems to tap some cathartic interiority in her listeners; she sometimes has to hold fans as they sob after her shows. In live performances, she is almost demonic. Her face contorts in fury or ecstasy; her hands slice the air; she hunkers down and crawls across the stage, stampeding through the songs without stopping for a glass of water or a sip of wine. “There’s such a power surge of energy and a spectrum of emotion,” Boyden said. “It’s incredibly hypnotizing, and people are afraid of that.” Her voice is often described as “animal-like,” a phrase I would hesitate to use if Inuit throat singing were not intended to mimic the noises of nature, and if she did not frequently make this simile explicit—erupting into howls, for example, or morphing from a wolf to a caribou to a seal in the video for “Tungijuq.” The title Animism is useful shorthand for Tagaq’s whole mode: not entirely supernatural, not entirely of this world, but occupying the space in between. When she sings, what we hear is something like her insides—guts, heart—trying to escape her body.

There is another, less lofty reason why Tagaq’s voice has struck a chord, so to speak: throat singing is totally rad. Overtone or throat singing exists in some form all across Asia in addition to parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, which says something about its universality. Among Inuit, it started as a competitive game, a way for women to pass the time while their men were out hunting: two women stand face to face, holding each other’s arms, sometimes with their lips close together like they are about to kiss, in order to use their partner’s mouth as a resonance chamber. One establishes a pattern, and the other follows along, filling the gaps. They vie to out-drone each other, often until one of them collapses into laughter, as if it had all been a particularly gruelling staring contest. Throat singing is supposed to be joyful, and, despite Tagaq’s avant-garde accoutrements and maniacal stage presence, that’s how she makes it look.

In part, this is because she renders it deeply sexual; all that heavy breathing and groaning often sounds less animalistic than orgasmic. “People talk about the performances being sexual, but I feel like I’m just owning my femininity,” she said. “I like having that pleasure and that intimacy with somebody. Sex to me is really sacred—and I’m really good at it.” She talks a lot about sex, but she also talks a lot in general, in the freewheeling digressions of someone with few verbal filters and an undisguised hunger for attention. She once told me that Frodo, from The Lord of the Rings, is a “little bitch” who deserves to die; another time, she said that her best performances happen when she’s having her period. “She’s a giant goofball,” her friend Cris Derksen told me. “She has a giant heart, but don’t get on her bad side, either. She’s not afraid to school you.”

Tagaq mostly sings wordlessly, although there are occasional lines in Inuktitut and English. (She does not speak Inuktitut fluently, the result of a largely anglophone childhood.) This gives her work a certain political effectiveness; the music feels charged without being preachy. “Fracking” sees Tagaq gurgle and gasp for four minutes before bursting into devastated sighs—the sound of pressurized liquid being injected into shale rock, and of the ground keening in pain. It only works because there are no lyrics. (Tagaq is less nuanced about hydraulic fracturing in conversation: “It’s like earth rape.”) Throat singing may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can hear in it whatever you like. Her voice is, basically, an auditory Rorschach blot. “I like leaving room for other people to be part of the conversation,” she said. “The no-word conversation.”

Tanya Tagaq Gillis was born on May 5, 1975, in Cambridge Bay, a hamlet of about 1,500 people on Victoria Island, in what is now Nunavut. Her father is white, of Polish and English descent; her Inuit mother was among those forcibly relocated from Pond Inlet to the High Arctic in 1953. Tagaq recalls her childhood as both idyllic and strict. She and her two brothers had a stern upbringing, with a curfew during the school year, but their parents were hippies and liked to throw parties. In the summer months of the midnight sun, she could stay out late playing with friends. She felt a kinship with the land and with animals; she caught lemmings out on the tundra, after which she would bring the rodents home and lie on the floor, where they burrowed into her long hair, claws scratching against her scalp. Animals also provided some of her earliest sonic memories. She gathered snails from a fish tank in her living room and, after saying a prayer, crushed their shells between her fingers, relishing the moist, percussive explosion. She found less eccentric musical inspiration in her father’s rock and reggae records—Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin.

Tagaq’s childhood was also marred by many of the social problems that plague Indigenous communities in Canada. When she was five or six, an older cousin sexually assaulted her in an attic full of other children; she vividly recalls the yellow colour of his shirt. “I remember him showing me a comic and saying, If you don’t do it, this scary man’s going to come hit you,” she told me. Years later, a teacher molested her and many of her classmates. She never pressed charges, but he was eventually convicted in the assaults of three other eleven-year-old girls. The ubiquity of sexual violence made it seem like a normal part of growing up. “Because so many of the kids had been sexually abused,” Tagaq said, “we used to play this game at recess where the boys would chase us and hold us down and touch our weird little pussies and asses.”

Tagaq started huffing solvents at eleven, and drinking not long after. Many of her friends’ parents also drank and did drugs, and the children partied while the adults were occupied. “It was BYOS—bring your own solvents,” she said. “We’d be like, Trade you the rubber cement for the naphtha.” One night, following an evening of smoking hash and inhaling gas, she awoke to find an uncle forcing himself on her. “He was trying to go down on me, and he had pulled my pants off. I was trying to push his head away, but I didn’t have the strength. He was like, Yeah, you know you want it,” she said. “I know so many people who’ve had that said to them.” She was thirteen.

Two years later, Tagaq left Cambridge Bay for residential school in Yellowknife. Her generation was one of the last to go through the notorious system; the final remaining institutions shut down in 1996. Tagaq’s memories of her school, Akaitcho Hall, aren’t all negative—unlike many residential school survivors, she wasn’t abused—but she felt stifled by the rigidity and tortured by the anguish of her childhood. At seventeen, following a fight with her boyfriend, she attempted suicide, raiding the medicine cabinet of the woman with whom she boarded and swallowing whatever she could find. She woke up in the hospital, and moved back to Cambridge Bay shortly afterward.

Until now, Tagaq has not spoken publicly about her history of sexual assault, her struggles with substance use, or her suicide attempt. She told me she wanted to do so to help draw attention to the plight of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and to de-stigmatize the discussion of these issues in Inuit communities; she traces this taboo to the toxic combination of colonialism and a culture of untiring stoicism. “If your baby was born during a famine, you’d just put it out on the ice and that was it,” she said. “Or if your parents got too old and couldn’t help out anymore, you’d make them a suicide igloo. And you just wouldn’t talk about it. Then, eventually, you’d sing their songs and tell their stories. That’s a lot of the problem that’s happening now—when it comes to sexual abuse, you don’t talk about it, you don’t complain, ’cause life is hard.”

Inuit in Nunavut have one of the highest suicide rates in Canada—thirteen times that of the rest of the country. Young Nunavummiut men are forty times more likely to commit suicide than young men elsewhere in Canada, and 2013 was the worst year on record, with forty-five suicides among the territory’s 35,000 people. Aboriginal women are also much more likely to be sexually abused as children than non-Aboriginal women, and many Indigenous communities face higher-than-average rates of alcohol and drug abuse.

Eventually, Tagaq resolved to leave Cambridge Bay and completed high school by correspondence. She loved to paint, so she applied to an art school in every province, eventually settling on the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. (She still paints and occasionally has gallery shows; when I first approached her for this piece, her publicist emailed me a painting of a walrus.) She had never left the North before. “I didn’t realize until I went to Halifax that there was a difference—that fewer people were sexually abused,” she said. “I always felt like such a disgusting fuck-up. I didn’t realize until later that it is in direct correlation with contact and genocide and colonialism—all this stuff that has made the social climate in Nunavut so difficult.”

Life in southern Canada was strange. “I remember going to the park and seeing the ducks and getting really turned on because I wanted to kill one and bring it home,” she said. “They just came around your feet. Like, fucking supper’s just walking up to me!” By some standards, Halifax is a sleepy university town, but to Tagaq it felt like a huge city. This was the mid-’90s, and she immersed herself in the local gay and rave scenes, churning through boyfriends and experimenting with party drugs. “I couldn’t be harnessed,” she told me. “I remember the greatness of my amazing anger and passion. I feel so sorry for all my boyfriends—those poor guys.”

Around this time, Tagaq’s mother sent her a cassette tape of traditional throat singing. Although she was already familiar with the practice, she had never considered herself musical; then in her early twenties, emotionally unmoored and far from home, the songs affected her profoundly. She began imitating the sounds on her own, singing in the shower or lying on the floor, developing throat singing’s rapid inhale-exhale technique. Sometimes, she wept as she did so. She performed, too, for friends at parties, seizing the microphone and glowing in the spotlight.

It is difficult to say exactly how long Inuit have been throat singing. The music semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez has suggested that, considering the similarities between the vocal games of Inuit and of some Indigenous peoples in Siberia and northern Japan, the practice could stretch back 4,000 or 5,000 years. “It’s an oral history, passed down through generations of Inuit women,” Kathy Kettler, a throat singer from Ottawa, told me. The best-known style is katajjaq, which originated in what is now northern Quebec and Baffin Island. Despite its origins as entertainment, katajjaq is also rich with symbolism. The repertoire of vocalizations draws from natural sounds; senseless syllables; the names of places, elders, and ancestors; and a well of other inspirations. Nattiez writes that throat singers may have been attempting to create favourable hunting conditions by communicating with animal spirits: “Female throat-games would be a kind of survival music.”

As they did with many Indigenous customs, Christian missionaries banned or otherwise discouraged throat singing, which they considered an expression of pagan earth worship. In some areas, such as Labrador, this suppression began as early as the late eighteenth century and continued until the twentieth; some communities lost their traditions almost entirely. There are still regional stylistic differences, but starting in the mid-twentieth century katajjaq spread throughout the North and influenced more localized forms. “Many of the songs in the katajjaq tradition are things like ‘The Saw’ or ‘The Wind’ or ‘The River’—things that are really imitative of the environment,” Jeffrey van den Scott, a Canadian Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Northwestern University in Illinois, explained. “It gives you, as a listener, something that you can latch onto right away.”

In the latter half of the twentieth century, as part of a broader movement aimed at revivifying traditional cultural forms, throat singing experienced something of an upswing. Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a CEGEP-style school in Ottawa that emphasizes practices like katajjaq, was created in 1985 as part of the land-claim negotiations that led to the 1999 founding of Inuit-majority Nunavut. A 2001 conference in Puvirnituq, Quebec, brought together more than 100 elders and singers in an effort to bolster the practice further. In early 2014, the Quebec government granted throat singing the UNESCO-style status of an “element of intangible heritage.” It has joined Inuit carving and the inukshuk for the dissonant distinction of representing Canadian culture abroad, even though these traditional practices were systematically threatened by colonialism.

Tagaq has sometimes taken heat from Inuit who feel that her music is perverting or misrepresenting the form. Her aggressive sexuality and unhinged performances don’t help. But she is careful to note that she is not a traditionalist, and as she has achieved more mainstream success the opposition seems to have subsided. “I think Tanya’s music is really good because it pushes boundaries,” Kettler said. “You need that in order to grow as a culture.”

Tagaq is not an especially low-key personality, and on the day of the Polaris gala she was an exposed nerve of energy. “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” she told me. That September afternoon, she dashed from her hotel to the Carlu, the downtown Toronto event space hosting the ceremony, for hair and makeup. The stylist applied mask-like circles of eyeshadow but went easy on the lipstick, as per Tagaq’s instructions, since she would essentially be shoving the microphone into her face. After the stylist finished teasing her hair, she stood and presented herself to a trio of onlookers. “I feel like a Baywatch girl,” she said, grinning.

Tagaq walked back down Yonge Street to her hotel room, which was a riot of mess and activity. Her daughters and mother were in town. Inuuja, now two, tottered about, chewing on a bottle of apple juice; eleven-year-old Naia donned a pair of towering platform shoes. Tagaq’s sealskin dress hadn’t panned out; instead, she had settled for a strapless black and white striped gown and two sealskin cuffs. Now one was missing: Inuuja had been playing with it earlier. Wide-eyed, she offered her mother some juice, as if in recompense.

Eventually, Tagaq’s manager located the cuff in a pile of clothes, and the procession headed back to the Carlu, Tagaq singing to herself in falsetto. This year’s Polaris field was considered wide open. Two of the nominees, Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett, had won previously, and whatever his artistic merits Drake hardly seemed in need of an extra $30,000. Meanwhile, the rest of the short list was a grab bag of sure-why-nots, including the singer-songwriter Basia Bulat and the rapper Shad. Still, a number of influential music critics tipped Tagaq to win. “Artistic bravery and individuality go a long way with Polaris juries,” the journalist Michael Barclay wrote. “Tagaq has both in spades.”

Only six of the nominees performed that night: Drake and Arcade Fire were conspicuously absent. Each nominee was introduced by a friend or a journalist, and Tagaq, slated to play last, had tapped the musician Geoff Berner for the role. He stood on stage and spoke with a kind of quavering resolve. “Canadian scientists recently found the so-called lost Franklin expedition in the Arctic,” he began. “It turns out it was exactly where the Inuit have been saying it was all along.” Cheers erupted. “Who would have thought? Who would have thought that, if we’d only listened to these ingenious navigators and survivors, we could’ve saved ourselves a whole lot of foolishness? If you would like to know how our culture needs to find its way in the twenty-first century, I would suggest that you save yourself a lot of trouble and listen to Tanya Tagaq’s album Animism.”

During many of the presentations, the audience had been loud and distracted—there were even screens asking attendees to “Kindly STFU,” Internet-speak for “shut the fuck up”—but now it was attentive. Berner talked about Animism’s structural complexity, its transcendence of the divide between the traditional and the new. “You can hear the living land and the land under assault,” he said. “You can hear children being born and conceived. You can hear the torture of the innocent, and the glory of the tenacious, unstoppable force of life. If you listen, you can actually hear the sound of a people defying genocide to rise, wounded but alive, strong and ready to fight.” When he finished, the crowd roared before falling perfectly silent, the hush of collective anticipation.

Tagaq’s polaris moment had been a long time coming. After she graduated from NSCAD in 1998, she moved back to Cambridge Bay. She got a job teaching art at the local college, bought a home, and prepared herself for a life of normalcy, but she continued to sing on the side. In 2000, she attended the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to show some paintings. One night, after an impromptu set at a campfire, she was asked to perform at the festival last minute. A few days later, she got a phone call: some friends of the Icelandic avant-pop singer Björk had been in the audience and, mesmerized, they recorded her set. Björk—one of the most respected and beguiling figures in contemporary music—wanted Tagaq to accompany her on a world tour.

Tagaq was floored. The tour began the next fall, with one of the earliest dates, in Stuttgart, Germany, falling on September 11, 2001. “Poor little Inuk,” she said. “I’d never left Canada, and I was so scared thinking World War III was about to happen.” She sang on several songs each night, in front of Björk’s huge, fanatically loyal crowds. But she was overwhelmed by the rock-tour lifestyle, and she drank so much that, a few days before she was scheduled to perform with Björk on David Letterman, she succumbed to a double kidney infection and had to leave the tour. Björk was furious, and Tagaq worried that she had ruined her best chance at making a living in music.

She decided to move to Montreal, and continued to perform. In 2002, at the Vancouver Folk Festival, she encountered a Basque percussionist named Felipe Ugarte. “I see this beautiful woman, and I think, Wow, she’s very pretty, but at the same time very strong,” Ugarte told me. “It was like a shove.” A few months later, Ugarte visited Tagaq in Montreal, and she became pregnant. She moved with him to San Sebastián, Spain, where she gave birth to Naia.

Not long after, Tagaq got a call from Björk, who had forgiven her for quitting the tour and asked her to sing on her next album. Björk flew Tagaq, Ugarte, and Naia to the Canary Islands for several days of recording. The result was Medúlla, possibly Björk’s weirdest record, which is saying something. It is almost entirely a cappella; on “Ancestors,” the standout track, Tagaq’s guttural breaths thrum underneath a plaintive piano line and Björk’s layered vocal overdubs, providing an arrhythmic pulse to an otherwise meandering arrangement. Like a lot of people, I first learned of Tagaq from Medúlla, which was released in 2004. I had never heard throat singing before.

Around this time, Tagaq recorded her first album, Sinaa, in Spain, with friends and colleagues of Ugarte. Sinaa feels scattered compared with Animism, but it provided an early glimpse of her abilities and helped raise her profile. In 2005, she and Ugarte decided to part ways, with Naia splitting her time between Spain and Canada. (The breakup was amicable, and they remain close friends; Naia, meanwhile, speaks three languages fluently.) Tagaq moved back to Canada, worked the global festival circuit, and in 2008 released her second album, Auk / Blood, which was nominated for two Juno Awards. She collaborated frequently with Derksen, a classically trained cellist, and other musicians, but she continued to drink. And she began dating a man who hit and raped her. “That was a really self-destructive time for me, being with this abusive man and feeling down about myself and drinking more and battling addiction,” she said.

In 2008, Tagaq moved back to Yellowknife, where she broke up with her boyfriend. The following year, at an erotic poetry reading, Boyden introduced her to Casey Balden, a soldier and aspiring writer. Balden had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, and had been posted to Yellowknife for only a few months. He was immediately captivated by Tagaq’s presence—something that seems to happen to a lot of men. “I was fascinated by her,” he told me. “She’s, like, the antimilitary person.” In 2011, Balden was posted to a base in Shilo, Manitoba, and he and Tagaq moved to nearby Brandon. The next year, she gave birth to Inuuja. (She has her daughters’ names tattooed on the insides of her wrists.) By this point, Tagaq was regularly collaborating with Zubot and Martin, shaping the signature sound that would eventually reveal itself on Animism. She also, for the first time, began to feel more stable and got her drinking under control. Although she credits her daughters for this—“Naia completely saved my life”—Derksen isn’t so sure. “I don’t think it was the children who got Tanya to grow up,” she said. “I think it was her own decision.”

The Polaris stage was eerily dark, with Tagaq in a spotlight. Projected on several screens behind her were images from Emanuel Vigeland’s famed mausoleum in Oslo, which she had shot during a recent trip to Norway. One screen, however, was given over to a scrolling list of the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. (Animism is dedicated to Loretta Saunders, a murdered Inuit university student from Labrador.) Tagaq had changed into a low-cut red dress, and she began a vocal rhythm, rocking back and forth and twisting her fingers in the air. Zubot’s droning violin joined her. From the darkness behind them came the shriek of dozens of voices; an improvisatory choral group had joined the performance. Tagaq’s repetitions picked up speed, and Zubot scraped his bow vertically along the strings, creating a series of warped scratches, as Martin began to roll on the tom-toms. The choir continued to shout periodically, the sounds appearing as if from nowhere.

Martin launched into a more driving beat. (Although the Polaris credits stated that the band was performing “Uja” and “Umingmak,” they had never found the time to replicate the songs from Animism, and had practised with the choir only briefly, during sound check.) By now, the noise was cacophonous. Tagaq yelped, shivered, roared. The choir lent the music an unexpected dimensionality; with the relentless scroll of women’s names in the background, the show took on an almost sickening intensity. The sound seemed to exist above the audience’s heads, as if it were the encircling clouds of a hurricane. The performance peaked and valleyed until, at last, it ended, with Tagaq unleashing a wolf’s howl that finished in a vulnerable whimper.

The crowd rose to its feet and delivered the evening’s only standing ovation—one of the only standing ovations in Polaris history. Tagaq had done something impressive: she had reminded an audience of industry suits and disaffected hangers-on of what music could do. At Tagaq’s table, her mother exclaimed, “That blew me away!” She turned to me. “Did it blow you away? ” I said that it did. Although the performances have no bearing on the Polaris winner—the jury of journalists is sequestered in another room—it was difficult to imagine anyone but Tanya Tagaq winning.

Back in her black and white gown, she returned to the table with her band. They seemed sweaty and satisfied, but they clutched each other nervously as they waited for the gala’s emcee, actor Jay Baruchel, to announce the winner. A few minutes later, he did: Tanya Tagaq. The audience exploded again, and Basia Bulat and Naia immediately leaped to Tagaq’s side, clutching her and grinning hugely. Tagaq, Naia, Zubot, and Martin made their way to the front. As she took the stage, Baruchel prostrated himself before her, we’re-not-worthy style.

“Holy shit,” Tagaq said. She thanked Zubot for producing Animism, and introduced Naia to the crowd. She thanked her record label, her family, and Balden. “On a quick side note, people should wear and eat seal as much as possible,” she said, holding up the cuff on her wrist. “Because if you imagine an Indigenous culture thriving and surviving on a sustainable resource, wearing seal and eating it…It’s delicious and there’s lots of them. And fuck PETA,” she continued, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She laughed, and the audience cheered some more. She thanked her label again, then Berner, then decided she had talked for too long. “I’m going to get off the stage, ’cause I’m feeling weird,” she said. “I’m only comfortable when I’m grunting.”

A few days after the gala, I met Tagaq at a burger place. She was introspective, elated but dazed. Earlier that day, she had taped an appearance for the CBC’s The National; her win had been widely covered, even in the United States, where music outlets like the AV Club and Pitchfork seemed amused by her victory over Drake. (This sometimes took on a vaguely racist tone, as when the AV Club’s headline described her as a “seal-eating throat singer.”) As many observers pointed out, she was both the first Indigenous person and the first person of colour to win in the Polaris’s nine-year history. Several large American rock festivals had approached her about performing, which was good timing—Animism will be released in the US in January, and Tagaq’s management team hoped that she would finally break into the American market.

But her comments about the seal hunt had largely overshadowed her victory. Animal-rights activists criticized her on Twitter, and PETA released a statement saying that the organization opposed only the commercial East Coast hunt, not subsistence hunting. “Tanya should stop posing her baby with a dead seal and read more,” PETA’s senior vice-president said. (Although it’s true that PETA officially opposes just the commercial hunt, trade bans on East Coast seal products, which PETA and other organizations support, collapsed global prices and devastated many Inuit communities that relied on the hunt for income.) It felt like an ugly repeat of the sealfie fiasco. “I regret saying that, because it takes away from the win,” Tagaq said. “But it gets me on The National to talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

Despite the controversy, it was obvious that Tagaq’s Polaris Prize was being greeted as a victory for Aboriginal peoples. “Tanya Tagaq is celebrating her win by celebrating her culture, as she’s always done,” Inuit journalist Malaya Qaunirq Chapman wrote on Vice’s website. It might have also have meant something for Canadian society as a whole: Animism is a complicated album by an Inuit woman, with songs about fossil-fuel extraction and colonialism, and its positive reception perhaps indicates a preparedness to discuss the difficult questions about how this country was founded. Tagaq, though, was leery about being considered a role model or a symbol. She was happy for Indigenous people to draw inspiration from her success, but she wasn’t interested in being anyone’s representative. “I’m just an individual,” she told me, “and I’m making this weird art.”

She talked again about the difficulties of her childhood, and the cycles of intergenerational trauma. “How do we collectively heal? How do we collectively move forward? ” she asked. “When you experience distorted feelings from your childhood—when you realize that a collective group of people have more of that, and then you find out it’s a result of the breakdown from colonialism—it’s really hard not to be angry and retaliate. I want to know why I’m feeling this way, and I want to kill whoever did it. When I was a little girl, I didn’t have the strength to put my fingers around someone’s neck and take them out for fucking abusing me. Now I want to do that to the whole world.” She paused, and began to laugh. “How do I deal with those feelings without being a total psychopath? ”

This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.

Drew Nelles (@dsnelles) is a New York–based writer and former senior editor at The Walrus.

George Pimentel contributes frequently to Us Weekly, Flare, and Hello! Canada.