I sat down with Elisapie as she arrived at the Polaris Prize gala where her fourth album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, is up for the award.
The Ballad of the Runaway Girl is Elisapie’s most personal album to date. “Autobiographical, but at the same time about the people, the territory [of Nunavik, where she grew up]. It’s much bigger than me; I learned so much more about the things we keep generation to generation. It just fell right in front of my face. It was beautiful – I didn’t feel alone anymore. I felt very connected to my parents, my great grandparents, to my uncles, my aunts…”
Her upbringing in the small town of Salluit, Nunavik was one of responsibility. She was a social worker and radio journalist before leaving for the bright lights of Montreal. “Since I’m from a small town. It’s not a thing that you do; dream of singing…we don’t make a career out of it.” However by the age of 22, a fire was stoked. “I needed to go be young and wild and rebellious…and that’s what I did! [Laughs] Four albums later I’m here [at the Polaris Prize].”
When Elisapie was growing up, she felt she needed to be quiet and dutiful “I was told to “be a good girl.” I’m not gonna tell my daughter to be a good girl. Sometimes I wish she was! It’s easier but really I think we have to be fearless, we have to be told to be fearless. Be like ‘Go and don’t let anybody tell you how to be you. Just be you.’ I think we tend to put women in a box and it shouldn’t be like that. Things are changing slowly but also as women we have to believe in ourselves a little more. That’s also important.”
That change from being a ‘good girl’ to being fearless has developed over time. “Having kids helps. I’ve always had it in a way. People would tell me “you’re so strong” and I didn’t feel that. Also aging is great – I love myself more than I did 5, 10 years ago. Now I try to remind myself that it’s good. That I deserve whatever I’m living, whatever love I’m getting. It’s kind of a big thing to say.” It’s a huge thing to love, accept and believe in yourself.” It’s inspiring that Elisapie has got to a point where she can feel proud and fearlessly explore and share her emotions through this album. The Ballad of the Runaway Girl is very emotionally affecting; coupled with the videos of Elisapie’s childhood home and her videos for Una, a song about her birth mother sang in Inuktitut, it feels so intimate.
While making the album, the feelings coming up for Elisapie were visceral. You can hear her poet’s heart in the way she describes making it; “I kind of felt it in my body and I just went through the music. From sweet, calm moments to very dark, deep shaking…like a blizzard has arrived. Blunt and harsh, almost violent at times because life, and nature is like that. The album’s about guts. I’m from people with guts and I wanted to highlight that. I’ve always felt very fragile, very sensitive and very sweet and I’m all that but I also realised that my people are fearless. We live day to day in a harsh environment.”
The recording process was another part of the album that called for confidence and self-belief. Recorded live in a lake house with a whole collection of musicians “it was so humbling to make these songs. It took a little while. I don’t feel like I need to be in a studio where it’s tight and technical. I wanted it to be free – to go somewhere where nobody had recorded before. I wanted to have a window and be very close to the musicians and do everything live. I wanted to live that experience because I felt like we were gonna come up with something surprising.”
“It was more about the emotional and musical connection we had live then the perfect take. The perfect take is when we hear that we’re together. Togetherness. At times it wasn’t easy because I had to let go of insecurities of my voice like ‘ah I could have redone that but I can’t’ – because we’re all taped together. Once we let that go it was so much easier and so freeing. I love this album. I can listen to it and there’s so many tones, so many layers. It’s very alive so I’m very proud. Hopefully I will be for a while.”
So is the titular runaway girl Elisapie? “I think there’s many people that I thought about. Of course it’s a song my uncle wrote in the 70s – he was my big influence. It’s me but it’s also many people I know. It’s Indigenous women who are trying to find a place where they can free themselves…we’ve gone through so much trauma. We’ve gone through so much that we have to run away at times in order to find ourselves.”
Part of the album was to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women: “Arnaq was really about freeing that woman that needs to be free, that needs to feel secure and needs to express whatever was done to her. We just need to shout it. The song was definitely inspired by how we are told to be “good”. We shouldn’t be told that. We should be told to be fierce and be wild and free and have guts, you know because that’s how we are. We tend to think it’s for the men. I think it doesn’t make sense. I think we’re always trying to free ourselves from our emotions. I just think it’s very poetic. It’s all interconnected.”
“…So the ballad of the runaway girl. It could be you.” Elisapie tells me, with an intensity in her gaze, and a laugh as my eyes widen. Her words could be for all of us, especially women. Who hasn’t wanted to run away from pressures, from sadness or from a small community to an anonymous city? Although it’s not necessarily running away. This is what we do to bring about a change we need in our life. Like Elisapie’s exodus from Salluit.
At last year’s Polaris Prize Jeremy Dutcher said in his acceptance speech that Canada was in an Indigenous renaissance, something Elisapie agrees with. “It’s so true and I think things are going so fast. We, Indigenous people, really have our place.” And were there lots of barriers? “Oh so many barriers. The industry wanted what the audience could connect to, which is mostly white people. They didn’t take risks. But it had to change; there are so many colours, so many people. It has to become a norm. I think where people are now, they have more knowledge of Indigenous people, but there are still things they don’t know. There’s still racism, there were murders and there still are. People need to know that.”
Elisapie’s emotional openness and the strong connection her album and videos have with Salluit are an invaluable way to share the lives of Inuit people with a wider audience and to show Indigenous excellence. The Ballad of The Runaway Girl is definitely my favourite album of the Polaris shortlist.