TANYA TAGAQ GILLIS INTERVIEW (FROM THE FUNKY MOFO ARCHIVES)
Tanya “Tagaq” Gillis is a throat-singer. A what? I hear you say. She’s a singer with a difference, she was suffering from a cold at the time of the interview but that’s not the reason. Her instrument is, unlike vocalists, her throat. Throat singing is producing two or more notes simultaneously or unusual textures/timbres through special vocalisation and resonance of the throat. It commonly refers to a type of singing mainly used in Tibet, Mongolia, Tuva (situated Northwest of Mongolia) and surrounding regions, as well as in other parts of the world: among the Xosa of South Africa, as well as among few other Siberian peoples, such as the Chukchi from the far north of Russia or the Ainu of Northern Japan. But Tagaq, as she’s being referred to, comes from Canada, Cambridge Bay to be more precise. She’s recently featured on Björk’s recent album, Medúlla, where she delivers some very impressive sonic prowess and bring a unique colouring to Medúlla’s vocal environment. We gave her a call after her appearance on Radio 1 with Björk to discuss a few things and laugh a lot…
Céline: So where are you now?
Tagaq:(She’s coughing) I’m in Spain. It’s beautiful but it was nice to be in London and speak English because there’s not many people who speak English where I’m living.
C: You went on Gilles Peterson’s program to record some tracks live.
T:It was really fun, I was very surprised when we were making the music that was all just coming out of people.
Tanya continues to cough.
C: I’m worried about your voice! Is that good to have a cold?
T:It’ll go away, it’s already going away. It’s just because I had an early flight the last 2 days, sometimes when you’re on an aeroplane you let yourself get too dry. I can’t say I have any sort of specific regiment for taking care of my voice. I like hot things like hot teas, anything hot. It’s relaxing. What I do is so hard on the throat, it doesn’t depend on whether I can set a note or not, it’s something different.
C: How would you describe throat singing?
T:That’s difficult (laughs). When I first started I used to tease people by calling it Uterus singing. It comes from the lower part of the throat and some of the higher notes come from the nasal passage. You flip your upper glottis during different intervals of breathing in and breathing out combined with trying to make a very deep tone.
I wanted to know about Tagaq’s introduction to her art and how she got pulled into the recording process. I researched through the Internet to find out she was a latecomer in the so-called Music Business and that her progression sped through only a few years.
C: You graduated in 1998, but I didn’t quite understand whether you started to produce yourself live or you produced yourself while studying…
T:Well, I had no intention of ever being a singer. This is really funny because I was at school and I was just playing around with the sounds, it was supposed to be done with two people. Then I went home. My town is a little town of a thousand people, every year they have this cheesy talent show and me and my friend went in just as a joke but they aired it on radio so a festival asked us to go down, that was in 1999. Things just started snowballing from there, a guy from another festival asked me and then it began turning into something in 2000. In 2001 after I met Björk I kind of thought, okay, this is doing well I should do this. I’m recording my first album now, I’m really excited about it!
C: The festival you’re talking about is the Great Northern Arts Festival…
T:No, it was before the Great Northern Arts Festival. I was actually there for my paintings but they had some hard time with the entertainment, like they didn’t have enough. I told them I could sing and they were filming me; they were bugging me to go up. It took them a lot to convince me to get up (laughs) as I was by myself.
C: How did you get from 1999 playing one festival to 2001 going on a world tour with Björk?
T:At the GNAF there were these two Icelandic men that I met and they were there on vacation. They were filming different people, some people didn’t want to be filmed, I just said yeah, you can film me, I don’t mind because it was this thing I’d just found, I was so excited about it. So we went to the back room, some little hallway and I did some throat singing for them. I guess Björk saw the tape so she called me!
C: Did you expect that?
T: You know, I thought it was a joke! Of course I was really excited to meet her but at the same time I find she’s the kind of person that after you meet her the excitement goes away fast because she’s so down to earth.
Tagaq toured with Björk on the Vespertine tour with the Greenland Choir, she can be seen in action in Minuscule DVD. She was eventually asked to be involved in the making of Medúlla.
C: What was it like to record with Björk?
T:It was really good. It taught me a lot, set a standard of what I should demand when I’m working with people because she’s so great to work with. I’ve worked with people before that didn’t let me really do what I felt like doing but more with their idea of what I should be doing (laughs). Vocally I’m not capable of expressing anyone else’s emotions in any way, shape or form apart from my own! Björk’s very very easy to work with. I didn’t feel even a little bit of pressure from her.
C: What was the most fun about the entire collaboration?
T: Meeting everybody, Ragga the filmmaker is an amazing girl, I just love her, I think she’s great. Everybody there we were working with had this amazing attitude. We had a really magical time, it was really funny and peaceful and beautiful because of the temperature and pressure-less and great. I feel that music… if you’re being true to your music gives you some very amazing times in your life, it gives you really great experiences if you’re loyal to your music.
C: Medúlla sounds incredible to me!
T: Yea, me too! I don’t want to sound like a tit cause it’s not just because I’m on it! I really like it!! I was feeling relieved, afterwards I felt very happy that there were other people in the work making music I could fit into because I was feeling like the lone elbow on somebody (laughs)…
C: …like an outcast in your own way…
T:Oh Yeah!! What I do is pretty out there and especially when I’m home it’s totally normal what I do right, but when you travel the world and trying to do throat singing, a lot of people can’t wrap their head around it which is fine but… I don’t think about what I do, in the conceptual. I just kind of go and do it. Some days if I’m having a bad day and I’m pissed off it’s super aggressive, I’m sure it’s like that with every singer. Whenever I collaborate with anybody that makes me feel good, makes the music full, makes me happy.
C: You taught yourself throat singing. How did you do that?
T:I’d hear tapes. In my community where I was growing up nobody did throat singing. It’s part of the Inuit culture. It’s hard for me to describe myself, it just makes me sound egotistical or something. Sometimes I can’t listen to my own voice, sometimes I don’t want to say anything without first saying that what I feel is that traditional throat singing is absolutely incredible. Hopefully people who’ve heard the album and if they get interested in throat singing they don’t think that what I’m doing is traditional and they take the time to go see traditional throat singing because it’s just incredible. Anyway, I heard it, never live, but I heard of it because I didn’t really get interested in it until I was away from my home and I was really sad to be away. It was a very very hard cultural transition.
Tanya starts talking about her relocation to Europe because of love, her baby and how much she loves it, the saga with her boyfriend (and that three weeks into dating each other she became pregnant!), how she needs to forget what delivering a baby was like!!
C: How do you juggle being a mother and recording?
T: It goes really slowly, like I’ll go a day or two to the studio, one a month and maybe the next week I’ll take a week and a half to go to the studio. It’ll just have to work like that. The babies still small, I can’t spend too long away from her. It’s hard for me to sort out my music in my head while she’s there. What’s coming out in my music is, to me, the opposite of how I feel when I look at her. You’d think they’d be influencing each other more but they’re not! My daughter right now has nothing to do with my album, (laughs) I think it’s my own cry for independence!
C: You recorded an EP two years ago with ‘insert info here’, how different is the new material going to be?
T: It’s totally different because I’ve just gone in a different direction. My boyfriend he plays the ‘txalaparta’ which is a really obscure Basque percussion instrument (made of pair of long wooden boards held up horizontally on two ends and then beat vertically with special drum sticks, makilak, held in the hands. On the two ends, between the long board and the supports, cornhusks are placed for vibration).
It’s amazing how they take the rhythms, really a-symmetrical rhythms, there’s nothing connecting one into the other. It’s really interesting, if I’m lucky we can get my friend to play the ‘hurdy gurdy’, that would be fun. Maybe some programmers if we can get them, it’s really loose right now but if we can take all these obscure things and give it a solid structure it might come together really well. We have to do a bunch of experimenting. It’s so fun though because I know for sure that it’s not going to sound like anything else! There’s not many throat singing CD’s out there, if there is it’s with two people. Just for that element along it will be different.
C: I can’t wait to hear it!
T: (laughs) Oh don’t say that!! I’m going to take a while!!
C: You get mixed reactions when people hear your singing…
T:I can’t imagine what throat singing would sound to somebody that wasn’t familiar with it. It must sound very hard. At the beginning, in traditional throat singing the songs are very strict, you have to do certain, exact patterns, exact sounds perfectly and that’s how it’s so different from what I do because I’m just doing anything! The original sounds are based on or trying to emulate rivers or ice creaking or animals, all these sounds that occurred well before modern civilisation. If I’m having a good day I can dive very very deep into it and if I’m having a bad day it usually just sounds like sounds! I never expected everybody to be able to wrap their head around it, I never expected people to love it but for people that do understand can feel where it’s coming from. It’s funny though, it makes some people mad (laughs)! I don’t feel bad about myself for having any kind of emotion, I don’t feel bad about myself for doing things that come naturally to people, to animals, to anything and quite often I’ll base how people act and react, I see an animal. If you break it down in that way it’s easier to understand why people get mad or you can understand what animals are doing. That’s why, sometimes when I’m in the city, I feel that it’s very dangerous for me because it’s always like that, well not always but it’s like with insects and stuff you can have a bunch of them together… Usually if there’s too many people together… this is really morbid but sometimes when I’m in a city I imagine what would happen if all of a sudden say, no more aeroplanes are bringing in groceries, society collapses, how all these people would be treating each other! (laughs) Scares the hell out of me! It’s a really different culture where I come from. Where I am in the world I didn’t realise it was so isolated until I left. When you’re isolated in a little place like that, humans are kind of very true to themselves. You can’t hide from people when they see you every single day. Everybody knows what everybody does. Sorry I’m babbling! When I’m away from home I feel so patriotic! I was singing Old Canada at the top of my lungs recently, middle of the street, didn’t care who was looking! (laughs)
C: That’s one thing I’ve learnt about Canadians, they’re very proud…
T:I think it’s different though. Some countries think they’re the best, like their culture is ‘nobody’s better’. I don’t feel any culture is ‘the best’, I don’t think there’s any such thing!
C: The best thing is a mix of culture…
T: Yeah! That’s a lot of what Canada embodies. There’s a really high immigrant rate, there’s Québec and Nunavut. Nunavut is the first time that the Native people have been able to run their own government and it’s doing really well, Nunavut has the only gender equal government in the world I think.
C: It sounds very progressive, very liberal…
T: Nunavut is a hard place to live. It’s really hard because of the no frills society. You know that’s one thing I find funny, I see people and they act like real tits, thinking of the people that do act like tits, I see them and I always think “Jeez would someone just punch you in the mouth (laughs) then you’d have to shut up!!” You just want to say, “look, shut up, nobody wants to listen to you” but you can’t do that so much (laughs)! I just find people a lot more tolerant wherever I go. It’s funny.
And she carried on laughing. We left it at that… that’s until Tagaq’s own material gets released. So expect to hear more about her sometime soon, but no pressure!