Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq returns to the stage for Folk Fest's Block Heater

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Tanya Tagaq has a less-than-subtle metaphor for what she expects might happen on Feb. 17, when she returns to the stage for a rare live appearance since taking a break back in 2020.

Accompanied by drummer Jean Martin and former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, Tagaq will be performing at The Palace theatre as part of Calgary Folk Festival’s Block Heater. After spending 20 years touring virtually non-stop, she has not been on the stage much since being sidelined by the pandemic.  The singer-songwriter says she has missed “interpreting the feeling of the room into sound.”

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“I’m going to cannonball back into the swimming pool with them and see what happens,” says Tagaq with a laugh, in an interview with Postmedia. “Who knows? Because it’s the first improvised gig since 2020. The thing I love about improvisations is that you never know which way they are going to go. But I know it will be fresh because it will be so tingly and exciting: the nervousness, the anticipation and the crackling energy. I don’t know if it’s going to be softer after the hiatus or what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s part of the excitement.”

Tagaq has earned international acclaim as an avant-garde artist who incorporates traditional Inuk throat singing into her performances. She won the 2014 Polaris Prize for her third album, Animism, which also picked up a Juno win for Aboriginal Album of the Year and a nomination for Alternative Album of the Year. When reviewing her 2022 album, Tongues, New Yorker music critic Sheldon Pearce wrote that Tagaq “makes music that seems to cleanse the body” and praised her for pushing “deeper into lyricism than any of her previous releases did, balancing the chant-like reflexivity of throat singing with detail-driven storytelling.”

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The songs are powerful, but also often aggressive, political and chilling. Many were based on passages from her harrowing, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel Split Tooth. Even the Block Heater online bio suggests her music resides in acquired-taste territory, describing a Tanya Tagaq concert as “… a challenge: a difficult conversation for which everyone may not be ready.”

Tagaq acknowledges that her music is”super intense and really dark.”

Which is one of the reasons she has become interested in branching out and showing other sides of her personality. This is not particularly new for Tagaq. A graduate of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, she is an accomplished visual artist whose paintings hang in public spaces in her home community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Split Tooth was published here in 2018 and longlisted for the Giller Prize among other honours. It was recently published in the U.K. and is a finalist for the Gordon Burn Prize.

It was also recently announced that Tagaq would be publishing her first picture book for children with Inuk illustrator Cee Pootoogook. It Bears Repeating, which will revolve around polar bears, will not be released until August but she is already working on a follow-up.

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“There is this complete other side to me,” she says. “My children and my family and my friends know this other side to me that is quite gentle, quiet or sweet. That never comes across in the roaring, confrontational music that I make.”

Recently, Tagaq added thespian to her resume with a small role in HBO’s Alaska-set fourth season of True Detective, which she shot in Iceland. While she remained tight-lipped about her character at the time of this interview, it’s now safe to reveal she appears in the opening sequence of the third episode and will appear a few more times. Tagaq contributed to the soundtrack, which can be heard in the third episode and throughout the season.

As fans know, the horror-filled fourth season of True Detective is not exactly a laugh riot, but Tagaq said her role was “small but fun.” She was offered the part while recording music for the soundtrack.

“I really enjoyed acting because it’s a bit of a departure,” she says. “You have to take yourself out of yourself and be more of an observer and allow what someone else has written, has said, someone else’s image of what your character is. I just find that fascinating.”

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On top of that, Tagaq continues to write new music for a follow-up to Tongues and is in the process of penning a second novel. While all this suggests Tagaq is as busy as she has ever been, she says she has no timelines for when any of this new work will be released.

“I’m on Inuk time, I have no idea,” she says. “I’ve learned how to take my time. My time belongs to me. It’s mine. My secret to my lasting relationship with anything creative is to allow it to exist outside of myself as a living being. I do not try to control. I don’t try to schedule my creativity, I just let it come. The idea will come and I’ll write it down and I’ll work on that idea. But, the initial ideas for things, I allow them to come when they want to instead of searching inside of myself. It’s a very natural thing. Like it starts raining. You can’t control the weather. It’s like that. I will just get ideas as they come.”

Tanya Tagaq will play The Palace on Feb. 17 at 7:40 p.m. as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater. Block Heater runs from Feb. 15 to 17 at various venues. Visit calgaryfolkfest.com

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