Throat Singer Mixes Punk, Folk and Poetry

By Lee Waters

It’s almost five years since Lucie Idlout released her debut CD E5-770: My Mother’s Name. The singer was in Vancouver to perform at very different venues: the Railway Club, a dim and narrow upstairs tavern; and at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, a flashy black tie event, which was televised on APTN and Global television.

The Nunavut-born singer and songwriter gained critical acclaim for her first CD, which attracted attention with its title song E5-770: My Mother’s Name; a label that refers to the letter and number registrations the Canadian government gave to Inuit people in the early 1940s and 1950s.

“Your tongue unfit, too frail to speak. Identities of thousands cattled ‘e’.” The sardonic lyrics referred to the government’s difficulty in pronouncing Inuktituk names, in her native language.

Lucie’s CD generated positive reviews but tepid sales. E5770 won her the Best Female Artist award at the 2003 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards; as well as nominations for Best Rock Album at both the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and the Indian Summer Music Awards in Milwaukee. Even The Globe and Mail praised her: “A one-woman revolution in Canadian music, taking the old blues wraiths and wrestling them into fierce new shapes.”

What sets her apart is her unique synthesis of traditional with contemporary rock, combined with a poetic sense of lyricism. Lucie’s distinct music draws from different Inuit influences, one being traditional throat singing, the echoey, grunting chant, which is beginning to receive mainstream interest.

Originally a vocal and breathing game, throat singing was used by Inuit women as a pass time while the men went hunting for food. Two women faced each other, one lead with a sound that imitated a natural noise, such as breaking ice, or a birdcall, or wind. The other woman replicated it building intensity so that each gap of silence was filled with an intonation, which created flowing rhythmic tones.

Lucie performs her own solo version of this historic singing technique on her CD. Adding to the musical tapestry of the CD, which is mainly rock, there are also traditional drums, spoken Inuktituk and chanting. These influences, indigenous to Nunavut, are what give Lucie her diverse musical image.

Following the release of her debut CD, Lucie divides her time between Toronto and Iqaluit, Nunavut. Involved in an assortment of artistic endeavors, Lucie’s recorded a throat-singing track for the documentary Silent Messenger, was the host of Buffalo Tracks on APTN; and is working on her second album Swagger. She’s newly signed with the same management as Blue Rodeo, and has toured across Canada, the United States, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark.

There are few female native artists that can be compared to Lucie. Her music is more hard-edged than Susan Aglukark, and not as folksy as Buffy Sainte-Marie. She is an original, creating in uncharted territory.

“I guess what I can say culturally,” said Idlout in an interview with Chris Yurwik of the Montreal Mirror, “is that Inuit have always been very adaptable people and have always managed to adapt to extreme situations. And so I suppose in context I’m adapting, artistically, to what I’ve been exposed to. And I’ve taken that in and chewed it up and spat it back out in a relative context to whatever else is going on in the world.”

Lucie is a rare combination of folk, punk and poet, accentuated by riveting live performances. Her voice is comparable to that of an old blues singer, at times she sounds like PJ Harvey, and other times Fiona Apple. Her physical presence during performance resembles a tamed version of Iggy Pop, and a gentler, sober portrayal of Courtney Love.

“I suppose a man could sing all my songs, but for the most part it’s not woman music. It’s not chick music. It can be crusty woman music. I wouldn’t say angry woman music,” Lucie said in an interview with Fashion Finds’ Gina Pia Cooper.

Lucie wows audiences
Lucie’s live performances during her visit to Vancouver remains on separate ends of the spectrum. At the Railway Club Lucie unleashed a blistering thirty-minute set: she burned, growled and raged at the audience; crouched on the floor, entranced, until the next song when she was back up again. She sang life into her words with animal charisma: “Does the inferno keep you from temptation? Do you live for truth and honesty? Are you scared of hell and horror? Well you should be.”

She wore black leather pants and a red t-shirt that said ‘Indian’ across the chest. Her misogynous demeanor was matched with an obvious sexual presence, which was effortlessly projected and uncontrived. There weren’t many people in the audience but it didn’t matter. As she became more absorbed in her performance, her limbs shook and trembled; an internal combustion seemed to rip through her body; fire came out of her mouth. When the crowd called for an encore, Lucie seemed surprised and without hesitation graciously returned for one more.

Her performance at the award ceremony was the highlight of the show. On stage she charged the audience with resonating questions in a deep-scraping blues voice. The audience wriggled in their seats, feet tapped, hands drummed and heads bobbed to the beat. Lucie’s dark features and small frame suggested a sense of vulnerability, as her voice seemed to echo off every wall in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, before diffusing into the sky.

The new song Paranoia taken from her CD Swagger, scheduled for release this summer, proves that Lucie still has her rough edge and her new material shows a new maturity.

“Lucie Idlout demonstrates she is a refreshing presence in a scene that lacks credible female talent,” wrote British rock critic Luke Drozd. The fan base she has built through touring, along with new management and the release of her new CD, creates a foundation that may prove Lucie Idlout to be Canada’s next prominent female artist.