Thor Simonsen is on a mission.
The entrepreneurial owner of the Iqaluit-based, full-service record label Hitmakerz is determined to help Nunavut musicians and recording artists attain sustainable careers through a number of initiatives.
One of these programs, Arctic Hitmakerz, finds a Nunavut collective of musicians traveling to remote Northern communities in Canada’s largest territory – usually in schools – to offer workshops on songwriting, recording, and instrumentation.
“Our program is designed to be held over a long weekend,” says Simonsen. “We usually have a concert on Friday night, and then Saturday and Sunday are our workshops. In some communities, there’s also a talent show, and concerts where the students perform a song that they’ve written.”
“The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive.” – Thor Simonsen of Hitmakerz
But here’s where Arctic Hitmakerz excels: the equipment they bring includes a laptop, a microphone, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard – all of which they leave behind, enabling the students to further experiment and express themselves.
“We teach them how to use it, so they have a way to record themselves and start their own learning processes,” says Simonsen. “We also provide an all-Inuit crew of instructors – and they’re usually notable artists in Nunavut. We’ve had Kelly Fraser and Angela Amarualik sing and speak in Inuktitut.”
In 2019 alone, Hitmakerz traveled to a dozen remote Northern communities, reaching thousands – and Simonsen says the response has been tremendous. “The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “In most communities, there are schools that have some sort of musical programming, but there’s definitely a lack of resources in terms of instruments, and especially recording equipment. So, that’s where we found we can add a lot of value by providing a small recording set-up for each community.”
Nunavut, with its 35,000 inhabitants spread over 1.8 million kilometres, faces greater challenges than most communities, especially when it comes to career development. Even in the capital of Iqaluit, there are no major venues to play – and there’s also the inflated costs of living, where a container of orange juice sets you back $27.
“It’s difficult to create a sustainable career,” Simonsen acknowledges. “Travel costs are pretty prohibitive. It’s pretty expensive to get around up here. Travel and lodging eats up most of our budget, so it’s quite challenging to put on the workshops.”
Distance is another trial. “Nunavut is the largest region in Canada and we’ve only been in one of the three areas in Nunavut so far,” says Simonsen, who admits that the Canadian Federal government and other organizations usually foot the bills. “We’ve been to 13 communities, and normally for a workshop we’ll travel two to six hours north of Iqaluit, and Iqaluit itself is a three-hour flight north of Ottawa.”
But the results speak for themselves, as in the case of Igloolik-born singer and songwriter Angela Amarualik. “Angela started out as a student in Iqaluit when we started there in 2017,” says Simonsen. “She used the studio, took the songwriting workshops to heart, and within two years she released her own self-titled album, which was nominated for three Indigenous Music Awards. She’s doing another workshop with another company now, and performing across Canada, but it’s a big milestone to have her come back to Hitmakerz as an instructor. She’s teaching other youths and inspiring them by example.”
Recently, the Hitmakerz label released Ajungi (pronounced eye-U-nee), an impressive 12-track collection featuring a variety of Nunavummiut artists, ranging from Aocelyn, FXCKMR, and Kelly Fraser to Angela Amarualik, Stuart Qiyuk, and others.
“Ajungi is an extension of the work we’ve done with our workshops in our communities,” says Simonsen. “What we find is that there’s a huge pool of talent that the rest of Canada has never heard of… and because we’re able to give them access to studios and inspire them to take the initiative to pursue these careers, we’ve been able to put together this album of artists from across Nunavut.
“We signed them to our studio in Iqaluit, have them professionally produced, mixed, and mastered, and we think we’ve created a holistic album that’s palatable to Southern listeners. It’s one thing to perform and sing songs and tell stories through our native Nunavut, but it’s another thing to try and communicate these ideas and these feelings and these stories to the rest of Canada, and the world.”
The album offers insightful electronic and hip-hop glimpses into Nunavut life through the eyes of its creators – and some proceeds raised by the project are earmarked for Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut Helpline. “We felt it was important to donate to the helpline since many of the songs were about mental health issues, and it’s a pressing issue in the North,” says Simonsen.
Just how pressing became evident when Hitmakerz received the tragic news that singer-songwriter Kelly Fraser, who was nominated for an Indigenous Music Album of the Year JUNO Award in 2018 for her sophomore album Sedna, committed suicide at her Winnipeg home on Christmas Eve, at the age of 26. Her importance to the Nunavut music scene was such that even The New York Times published an obituary.
Simonsen says Fraser was “a pretty important part of our team. We really wouldn’t be where we are without her. Hitmakerz was basically founded through the production of her album Sedna. She definitely leaves a big gap in the Inuit music scene. We’re hoping to continue to do the work that she started, which is basically to inspire Inuit Youth and help them pursue their dreams.”
Speaking of dreams, Simonsen says that it’s Hitmakerz’ intent to earn a few Grammy Awards for Nunavut. “We’d like to expand our team, get our game professionalized, and be able to really monetize this music so the artists can be doing it full-time.”