Photo by Leeor Wild

Elisapie on her album Inuktitut, and the classic songs that resonate with her and her community

“We’d listen to these songs and in our minds, we were in the Inuit world. I really can’t believe how natural they sound in Inuktitut. And that’s the magic, or the mystery, of how or why, because somehow, these songs are important for a reason.”

Elisapie Isaac is reflecting on her return to the stage on the last day of August, under the Blue Super Moon, at le Festival de Musique Émergente in Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

There, the Salluit, Nunuvik-raised singer debuted selections from her new album, Inuktitut, a collection of covers from the canon of classic rock revisited and translated into the Inuk language, released on Bonsound two weeks later, in mid-September. 

Specifically, Elisapie is describing the moment of connection and first contact with her FME audience. 

But the internationally acclaimed artist could easily be describing her relationship to the music she chose to cover. Or indirectly, to the artists whose work she has reimagined, and the fact that she even managed to bring the idea to life.

“It was weird. And it’s fun. And it feels real, even though it could feel very artificial because we don’t know each other. And yet we do, through music. I don’t know how to explain that.” 

A love divine

Even in preconceiving Inuktitut, the stakes were high, if not completely out of reach. The loftiness of Elisapie’s ambition stood in contrast to the project’s roots in her imagination, however. 

Those initial stages required one high emotional standard: her own tears. 

The music of her childhood and her adolescence is, in many instances, also the music of her parents and even her grandparents’ generations, popular radio songs that are as ubiquitous on the dial today as they were 30 years ago, or 50 years ago.

Among a younger Elisapie’s earliest musical role models were her cousins and uncles, one of whom, George Kakayuk, cofounded the group Sugluk, who had a significant profile across Canada in the ’70s and ’80s. 

She points to Inuk-language versions of early ’60s folk classics as part of her own cultural DNA.

“I grew up listening to music like  ‘Four Strong Winds’ and Charlie Adams doing ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ thinking they were Inuktitut songs. 

“And my uncles, being in Sugluk, sometimes they would cover a song. It’s almost like I’ve always been familarized by other Inuktitut artists, where it’s natural to sing other people’s songs but translate them into the language.”

In the late-mid 20th century, popular musicians often covered their peers, turning their songs into hits. Elisapie is less interested in that wider phenomenon than with her own emotional experience, and the associated memories of times gone by that stir her soul even today. 

She points to the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses,” still a standard-bearer for contemporary rock ballads, as an example of where music takes her, and why she chose the pieces featured on Inuktitut

Hearing the original version on a jog during the height of pandemic isolation, Elisapie found herself confronted with the weight of shared sorrow as it made her reflect on a friend who sought solace in the Stones classic. Back at home, in tears at her dining table, her partner asked her what she felt coming out.

“I just realized we were sad!” she said. “There was so much sadness, and I was sad about that. I was like, ‘It’s so unfair! Why did we have to inherit all this pain?’ I thought of my friend who would listen to ‘Wild Horses’ and I think it wasn’t just because he was sad, but because he was also hurt. He was just this young, beautiful, innocent teenager. And I wished I could just go back there and hug him and say, ‘Hey, my friend, it’s gonna be okay.’

She reflected on the idea of what he might have been thinking when he listened to it, why he would come back to it at sad moments. 

“I realized he had issues with his dad. That’s one thing I knew. I then realized, maybe he also loved this song even more than I knew because his father loved it. It’s from his father’s era, his generation.”

Play the way you feel it

If a song she thought of couldn’t bring up that level of associative self-examination, Elisapie decided, it didn’t make the cut. 

That process may reveal new insight into what constitutes true timeliness. Now in her mid-40s, Elisapie in her teen years was as informed by then-current popular music as she was by the rock classics that made the cut.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” are ’70s rock classics. Blondie hit at the end of that decade with “Heart of Glass.” 

In the mid ’80s, Cindy Lauper dropped the megahit “Time After Time,” while Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” performed modestly on the Billboard charts.

The only song on Inuktitut that actually dropped when Elisapie was an angsty teen is Metallica’s “Unforgiven,” the album’s first single, which received near-immediate praise from the band. 

“I thought about Pearl Jam or Counting Crows. But I didn’t cry to them! So that’s how it goes!”

The imaginative process, the act of going back in time and actually attempting to put herself in the shoes of people she remembered along those memory journeys, became the more powerful inspiration to move the project forward.

“I love imagining my uncles in the ’60s and ’70s just being these young kids, going back home to the North after a year at the residential school and just trying to forget about how the gap has developed between them and my grandfather. He was a tough Inuk man who had lost access to his teachings with his kids, because they were taken away. So he was just being quiet. And probably very strict. And not really understanding why these kids were now a bunch of hippies,” Elisapie speculated.  

She considered as well that the feedback she gets, whether it’s for this project or along the way of her music career, is not always comfortable for either family or friends who are in a different environment. 

“I’ve been in the south for over 20 years. And also being an artist who has the ability to write songs, for sure I’m in a good situation to either doubt or raise questions about certain emotions. So I guess I have the ability to go to the vulnerable world.

“The whole system we were raised in makes us all, in a way, victims of a certain injustice. Even though not all of us suffered the same way individually, collectively it’s something that is present. And I think that’s why I cried so much. Just having witnessed something marks who you are.”

But Inuktitut isn’t bogged down in burden and pain. Joy and celebration were birthed by Elisapie’s process of recall, and nothing short of magic brought the unlikely project to the finish line.

New blood

Perhaps no other song featured exemplifies the challenge endured by Elisapie, her management team and her collaborative partner Joe Grass, and the triumph of their persistence, more than Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” 

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hold a notoriously tight grip on the rights to their music. As enormous and enduring a rock ’n’ roll phenomenon as Zeppelin is, the number of times their music has been granted licence to be used commercially or otherwise can be counted on two hands. 

Not that securing rights for the other songs was easy, but getting Led Zep would be the holy grail. Until then, all of Elisapie, Grass and everyone else’s work could just as easily have existed as a personal project on their own hard drives, never to be heard except by friends. 

“Almost a year after we recorded, we were still waiting for music rights, and we still didn’t have news from Led Zeppelin,” Elisapie explained. “I asked management, ‘Can we just try one more email?’ Let’s just try. We have nothing to lose, and we can say we’ll have tried everything.”

Elisapie had the name of Serge Grimaux, a Montreal concert producer responsible for local tour stops by Pink Floyd, among others, “back in the day.” 

“I called him through his daughter, whom I know. She told me to call him up because he knows Robert Plant. (And Grimaux) liked the idea of the project.”

Word came down to prepare a short description and to get the track ready to send. But before it was even ready, on Grimaux’s recommendation, Robert Plant approved the cover, sound unheard. Jimmy Page’s approval came next, and the Inuk-language cover of another cultural touchstone was green-lighted. 

“I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’” Elisapie exclaimed, still squealing with disbelief. 

“This was like a week before Christmas! And it started like that. Then we got the rights for Pink Floyd, and then Cindy Lauper, in a matter of like four days. I don’t know what happened. Sometimes life is very mysterious.”

So can be said of the transformational, emotive language of music itself. And their translations, surprisingly, came easily. 

“I always say that maybe we already heard them in our heads in Inuktitut when we would hear them. We’d listen to these songs and in our minds, we were in the Inuit world. I really can’t believe (how natural they sound) in Inuktitut. 

“‘The Unforgiven’ is like an Inuk story, really.  And ‘Wish You Were Here’ really makes sense in Inuktitut, too. Because these songs were really close to us, and made sense for us.

“And that’s the magic, or the mystery, of how or why,” Elisapie mused. “Because somehow, these songs are important for a reason, I think.” ■

Elisapie will perform three sold-out shows at Usine C (1345 Lalonde) Dec. 7–9. For more on Elisapie, please visit her website.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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