The Canadian songstress, who recently wowed audiences at SXSW, talks about her new album, her Inuit heritage, her love of folk music, and all things Canadian. Check out contact info and tour dates here.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Hailing from northern Quebec, Inuit singer/songwriter Elisapie reflects a cross-section of cultures and languages in her music. Her stark, lovely new album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, was nominated for a Juno award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. In addition, Elisapie has branched out into documentary filmmaking. In her interview, she discusses the nuances of languages vis a vis performing and the process of keeping indigenous Canadian culture alive.
Can you tell me how you started about your musical background, how you started performing?
I started, you know, learning the guitar. And of course, loving folk music. This is naturally what I did until I moved to Montreal when I was 22, 23, and then I met a guy who was a musician/composer, and he heard my voice, my little demo I had done and said, “Let’s work together.” I was like, “Oh my god really? You want to work with me?” And two years later, we came out with an album.
One thing I notice is that you’ve recorded in English, in French, and in Inuktitut (the native Inuit language). Did you grow up speaking all three languages?
No, not at all. I spoke Inuktitut. And then English came much later on–the TV and music, of course, that’s like in my teens. We had the chance to learn French because we’re in the Quebec Province. I was maybe about seven years old when we started, you know, going to school in French with a French teacher. But yeah, I mainly spoke Inuktitut. We speak our language still up to now.
But yeah, musically, I think Anglophone music, I guess Americana sound, it’s a very natural place for me to go to when I have to write songs. They’re usually very naturally in English.
I listened to “Ton Vieux Nom.” That was a little reminiscent of Francoise Hardy. I wondering if you ever listened to those kinds of artists?
You know what? I think naturally in my mind when I sing, I hardly sing in French. Once in a while. Like I have one song in my album. There’s something so, I guess, romantic in you know, the language and it’s, it’s such a complicated, very, not strict, but there’s so many rules….You have to be very precise. So, it’s really hard for me to work on a French song. But this one was very special because when I want to express something that is about my culture and about being from the north and the dualities we have with the south, naturally, it’s fun doing that in French, because I guess French have a very different view than us, even from Anglophone speakers.
When people think of Canadian music or Canadian culture, I think they tend to forget about northern Canada, the area you grew up in.
Well, Canadians tend to forget about the north also. They absolutely have no idea most of the time. Also, because they don’t really want to start the conversation about that, because they don’t want to be seen as ignorant. So, it becomes this cycle where they’re just not, you know, they know more about Africa or Asia. And I’m like, why is that? I mean is it because it’s cold, because we’re so far away that people tend to think that it’s like this image of people living in the igloos when it’s no longer that? So, it’s very weird. And people are very, very curious.
But yet there’s a lot of ignorance still, but it’s coming. It’s a lot better… I mean, I started my career about 15 years ago and I’m happy to be talking about music before I have to do a one-on-one Inuit culture. It became kind of frustrating. Hopefully with the technology and Google people will be a little bit more aware. Because it is a land where people lived since way before settlers came in.
Do you find that you get a lot of people come up to you and ask you like, you know ask you about Inuit culture and the indigenous people?
Of course. You know, we never wanted to make music to politics, but in a way we kind of are forced to because anything we do now is political. Also, the new revival, new movement where we’re finally…acknowledging that we deserve equal representation in Canada, anywhere, and that’s very new.
You know, it’s not long ago, people were still thinking that they don’t have a voice, but now I think the young people are totally taking back what was also kept on the side. Rituals are coming back because we need to heal, you know, we’ve gone through so much. So, it’s a very beautiful place to be right now as an indigenous person.
It’s still a struggle in many places. There is still huge, huge, huge racism towards kids who are very innocent, towards so many people, just because people don’t want to see them and it’s like, why? They were put on reserves when this was the land. Their spiritual side was so connected to everything that’s in the territories, animals. So yeah, a lot of broken people, but I think our voice is starting to be heard.
We finally can understand but we have as much value as any other people living in Canada. And hopefully this is what’s going on in the States too.
Another question that I have is the indigenous languages. Do you find you think there’s also a push to keep those languages alive?
Oh, my God. It’s very important to, because a lot of people were, a lot of people don’t speak their language anymore. First of all, not so long ago, kids were sent to residential schools. And the first thing–I mean kids who are so innocent from five years old too, you know–punished for speaking a word of their language. So this became like a very strict military-like life for them.
So, let alone, they felt numb and they couldn’t express their feelings. But also, you know first thing is to make them lose their language, also make them feel ashamed of their culture. Our parents, grandparents, our uncles, so we really feel for them. I think it’s kind of our responsibility to really take the time and know that while this was taken away, it’s our right to try to bring it back. So, there’s a lot of initiatives to do programs, to do different activities around the communities to bring a way to promote our culture and our language.
Just curious: you’ve also made documentary films, haven’t you? Could you tell me about that?
Yeah, I’ve done a short, 27-minute documentary film a little over 10 years ago now. It’s called “If the Weather Permits”….It’s a documentary that’s talking about the duality of the young versus the elders and you know, traditional and modern world and how we try to, you know, fill that gap, because there is a gap, so it was really important for me to talk about that through my grandfather, who’s passed away and some archives of him, also. It’s a very personal film but yet very, very much of reality.
So yeah, since it’s been almost actually fifteen years of that film, I’ve been doing a billion things here and there, but mainly touring, so the next year-and-a-half is going to be going back to making films again. So, I’m really, really excited.