"We sacrificed everything for sound."
The Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq was speaking about Animism, her wordless protest album, semi-improvised sonic sculpture and confronting, grunting, living, breathing, channelling, whirlwind piece of art. On Monday, at a ceremony held in Toronto's elegant Carlu theatre, Animism was chosen by a jury of music journalists as the winner of the ninth annual Polaris Music Prize.
It deserved to win.
At a showy gala hosted modestly by the actor Jay Baruchel, most all of the artists shortlisted for the $30,000 prize put on mini live sets. (Drake, Arcade Fire and the Montreal-Toronto experimentalists Yamantaka // Sonic Titan did not perform). Backed by a youth choir and armed with out-there ideas on how to further traditional music, Tagaq avant-garded a crowd not easily gobsmacked. By design, she was the last of the acts to perform. "It would have a disservice to the other artists to schedule anyone after Tanya," Polaris founder Steve Jordan told The Globe. "It was the only time during the whole night that the audience was quiet," added Baruchel.
The audience wasn't quiet for long. A standing ovation happened. (At a press conference afterward, Tagaq was asked if the ecstatic reception had surprised her. "No," she said. "We're kind of used to it.")
As part of her performance, a list of missing and murdered aboriginal women was scrolled on a large video screen. Animism is formally dedicated to Loretta Saunders, a murdered Inuit university student from Labrador. In the week of Tagaq's victory in Toronto, the case of the suspected killers of Saunders returns to court in Halifax.
"It's a record for now," said Polaris grand jurist Stephen Cooke of The Chronicle Herald. Cooke's office in Halifax overlooks the apartment building where Saunders was living at the time of her disappearance. "The album couldn't be timelier or more profound. It's a powerful win for Canada."
It is a win, too, for Toronto's Six Shooter Records, an indie label run by women and a new home for Tagaq. As well, Taqaq is the first Polaris winner based west of Ontario.
Animism, Tagaq's fourth full-length, is also a victory for the art of album-making, as opposed to the album being a practical marketing vehicle for a certain number of songs.
Produced by the B.C. violinist and music man Jesse Zubot, Animism (with songs Caribou, Howl, Fracking and Damp Animal Spirits) is a hymn to the human struggle and the sound of Tagaq's politics. There's a line from the outstanding rapper Shad's album Flying Colours that gets to Tagaq's artistry: "It's history, never her story and prophets get crushed / Tough topics get hushed and life is often unjust."
Shad's disc and the shortlisted albums from Arcade Fire and Basia Bulat will all age well. That being said, for this moment, Tagag's Animism has the sound of sacrifice and the only-album-that-mattered smell.