Planting one’s roots only to uproot oneself over and over again. Feeling truly at home only inside oneself. Revealing one’s concept of the world to someone else only as a path to freedom. All that and much more inhabits the thoughts of Elisapie, who recently offered us her story of running away: The Ballad of the Runaway Girl.
“In the Great North, we appreciate more quickly,” says Elisapie serenely. Six years after her Travelling Love, album, she’s back with a new one that sounds like an immense cry of love that reaches those who most deserve it, as best it can. “I had new experiences that needed to be expressed,” she says. “They’re not big adventures, just my inner life.” After 20 years spent in the “South,” going back North only occasionally, Elisapie feels she’s become one with her environment. And although a sense of belonging to a place informs us, she felt a deep-seated desire to re-acquaint herself with the territory that welcomed her into this world. “When I go back up North to play shows, I feel like a baby being cradled by her mom,” says Elisapie.
Her music is at home everywhere, and can be understood any way one wants, but one thing is certain: it’s marked by a constant sense of place. “Up North, our notion of time, and of our bodies, are different” says Elisapie. “There’s this vastness. I just got back from there, and it was late-summer tundra: yellow, with just one kind of green. And now in Montréal, all I see are lines, partitions. Streets, major arteries, buildings, and all those shades of green. It’s impossible to find the meditative aspect of such immensity. I went back often, recently, because it’s much more powerful than the words of a shrink.”
The runaway girl traces her album back, on the road that led to it, while saluting those who were there along the way, and those who should’ve been there. “I’ve always run away from problems, so that I could paint something beautiful elsewhere,” she says. “I always felt I needed to protect my little world, and it hasn’t been that long since I’ve allowed myself to move on.”
The Challenges We Face Together
Now that the First Nations are finally at the heart of Canadian politics, Elisapie says it loud and clear: it cannot stop. Born of a Native mother and Newfoundlander dad, she was given up for adoption to relatives in the North. “We did go through extremely difficult times, and people always think Natives are victims, but go and see them in 2018,” she says. “What you’ll see is a people of incredibly hard workers. The territory, the language, all the stakes are still the same, but the drums are coming back. The younger generation is learning how to use them in a ceremonial way. It’s going to be a very powerful healing process. We increasingly get the impression that we’re being heard, and I felt I had to speak to my people in a language they know. I needed to make music, still.”
On the opening track, “Arnaq,” Elisapie pays homage to the Inigenous women and girls that are missing or murdered in Canada. The words immediately hit us, and leave us shivering until the end of the album. You’re a man, you’re a young boy / You’re a father, you’re a grandfather / No, don’t do it / You’re the protector. Through her words, Elisapie wished to remind men that they are extraordinary. “I’m telling them they are the balance in women’s cause,” she says. “In our history, women have always been close to their families, to care for them, while men had the duty to hunt and understand the territory while respecting our rites. Ultimately, at the end of this role that was central to who they were, men lost a part of themselves. I want them to know that it’s possible to have both that strength, and the kindness of modern men.”
The music composed by one of her uncles started to resonate strongly in her, so she covered his song “Quanniugum,” from the 1970s. “At one point, I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t tolerate any kind of pressure, everything scared me, tears ran down on his music,” says Elisapie. “I purged myself. “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules,” an iconic song of Inuit culture written by Willie Trasher, one of Elisapie’s main influences, is another cover. “The sound of this album is as close as possible to this notion of foundation,” she says. “Almost everything was recorded live, together. That’s essential, this togetherness.”
How a Team Is Built
After one of her gigs, Elisapie distractedly said “hello” to one Joe Grass, backstage. “When you meet someone like that, you want to know what they know how to do,” says Elisapie. “I did my research. For this new album, I wanted a guy who picks up his guitar, and that’s it. I had the same feeling with him as I had with Patrick Watson, for example. He’s very close to folk, bluegrass, and blues and there’s something vintage about his sound. He’s the one I needed.”
She called him about her album and he said yes almost immediately. “I had this idea of having two guitars dance together, complete each other,” she says. “But Joe Grass told me he wasn’t going to dance with just anyone!” she remembers, laughing. He chose Nicolas Basque. And then Robbie Kruster, one of Elisapie’s longtime collaborators, joined them on drums. Sound engineer Paul Evans added his own magic touch. “He works in Iceland, and is very strong in intellectual or classical music, and he brings a touch of modern to the mix,’ says the artist. Joe Jarmush (SUUNS) co-wrote “Darkness Bring the Light” with her. “I wanted something with a gospel feel to it and we sat down to talk about it,” she says. “An hour later, we had recorded the song on our iPhones.” Elisapie built a strong family around The Ballad of The Runaway Girl, a family that also includes Gabriel Gratton, Leif Vollebekk and Manuel Gasse.
After a journey that’s both soft and rough, we get to the end of the story with a song in French. “I think we wanted this album to be like a journey, and with ‘Ton vieux nom,’ we have a soft landing,” says Elisapie. There’s no doubt writing a song in French was no small feat for her. “My rapport to Francophones is special,” she says. “It’s a window on the rest of my life, because I live among the Francophones.” Her striking interpretation of “Moi Elsie,” written by Richard Desjardins, quickly became iconic, yet she was afraid of making a mistake by singing in French again. “I wanted to sing about the North in a poetic way that was different from ‘Moi Elsie,’” she says. “Instead of being the little girl who watched her white man leave her with her dreams, I wanted to sing about an experienced woman who talks with her Inuk man whom she left up North. People wrongly believe that Inuk men are hard, but when they’re in love, they’re the most sensitive ones.”
Chloé Lacasse and Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine helped the singer-songwriter create a finished song that lived up to her expectations. The poetry is transcendent: Dis-moi comment tu plantais la neige/ Comment nous sommes faits de pierre/ Je veux t’écrire une chanson/ Pour te rappeler ton nom/ Ton vieux nom (Tell me how you sowed the snow / How we are made of stone / I want to write a song for you / To remind you of your name / Your old name).
The album comes out on Sept. 14, 2018, via Bonsound and Yontanka (Europe).
Later this month, Elisapie will undertake a nearly 50-date tour throughout Québec and Canada.