For singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, who now performs and records under her middle name alone, there’s nothing worse than a hypocrite.
“I’d rather be around an asshole than a fake,” she says, reached at home in Yellowknife. “It really, really pisses me off when someone’s being insincere or a fake, pretending to be something they’re not. That’s a serious pet peeve with me.”
And with that in mind, I figure I’d better own up to the less-than-rapturous review I’d penned of the Inuit singer’s January 2006 concert with the Kronos Quartet. Our interview has been going well up to now, so why hold back?
“Oh. Fucking jerk!” Tagaq splutters, before exploding into laughter.
“Actually, I don’t care,” she explains, once she’s recovered her composure. “It’s so funny how people take things so personally. Like, why the hell would I think, in my mind, that I could please everyone? You know, that’s absolutely unattainable. I could never, ever do that. So if somebody doesn’t like it, that’s okay.”
Tagaq adds that my assessment of her collaboration with the Bay Area–based string quartet—not entirely half-baked, but needing more time in the oven—didn’t completely miss the mark.
“We were just babies together,” she says. “It’s much better now. I’ve merged with them more. That was our first time doing that, and it was pretty intense for everybody.”
As she notes, Tagaq continues to perform with North America’s leading exponents of contemporary chamber music. And although they don’t appear on her newly released Auk/Blood CD, this second solo effort shows that she’s also working to refine and expand her strikingly atmospheric music.
For instance, one track finds Tagaq—who came to worldwide attention for her wordless contributions to Bjí¶rk’s Medúlla—writing lyrics. “Hunger” is an unusually fervent declaration of desire, and if it reads like a love letter, that’s probably because it is.
“That was an e-mail I wrote to my boyfriend,” she comments. “I’d been away on tour for, like, a month, and I was going to see him soon, and that was just exactly how I felt at that moment.
“It’s hard to revisit feelings or times in your life,” she continues. “You can have memories, but to actually be able to feel that feeling again is really hard. And I found using those words really put me in that spot. Every time I re-read that or thought about it, I’d go back to that exact same feeling. It’s just one of the first times that’s happened, and if I can figure out more ways to do that, then I’ll use words more often.”
Elsewhere on Auk/Blood, Tagaq prefers to let her guests do the talking while she focuses on her highly personal vocal style, which builds on traditional Inuit throat-singing techniques as filtered through someone who enjoyed an art-school education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Halifax rapper Buck 65 prefaces “Hunger” with his own urgently erotic phrasing on “Want”, while Mike Patton, whose Ipecac label will release Auk/Blood in the U.S., adds spectral-yet-intense singing to “Fire~Ikuma”.
It’s Tagaq’s instrumental associates, however, who most perfectly mesh with the singer’s eerie vocals, which often draw on the natural world—wind sounds, animal cries—for their inspiration. Vancouverites Jesse Zubot and Cris Derksen—he a prairie-born fiddler, she a virtuoso cellist of Cree descent—provide uncannily empathetic strings, and it’s tempting to conclude that they, too, have been inspired by the endless spaces and long nights of the Arctic and subarctic winter.
Tagaq disagrees. “I think we’re all just fuckin’ crazy!” she asserts, her soft voice breaking into a wicked cackle. “No, there’s something else. There’s something in us that makes us different, because there are lots of people from the North. I’m sure that’s an element of it, but you can never tell how you’re going to connect with someone.”
And that, perhaps, is why Tagaq continues to explore new relationships with artists from other styles and disciplines. She and Derksen have formed an especially powerful musical bond, and for Tagaq’s upcoming Vancouver appearance the two will be joined by singer-poet-pianist-beatboxer CR Avery and “electronica dude” Michael Edwards.
What, exactly, they’ll do isn’t entirely clear—improvisation, the singer notes, is a major part of her working method. But chances are it’ll sound like nothing you’ve heard before.
Tagaq hosts a CD-release party for Auk/Blood at the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (August 12).