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PIQSIQ tells Lisa Iesse about the new harp they’re designing … and so much more

To experience PIQSIQ’s music is to experience a hauntingly beautiful, powerful whirlwind of sound, vision, feeling and wonder. Their live performances, in alignment with katajjaq’s original form, take inspiration from the world around them combined with their own thoughts and feelings and an invitation to the audience to help steer the journey songs will take. Creating performances this way allows the audience to experience spontaneous compositions that are unique to each individual show.

As PIQSIQ, they perform improvisational looping live and incorporate the winter darkness and ethereal feel into their recordings.

I recently had the honour of speaking with Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik fresh off their cross-country summer tour, which included live performances at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, the Filberg Festival, Folk on the Rocks, and the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

RMC: You both have completed a groundbreaking whirlwind of live music performances this summer, delighting and thrilling a fan base that is quickly growing. What has that been like?

Tiffany: It was so great to get back out on the road after over two years at home and two years of performing to webcams. Doing everything prerecorded for events that were all happening virtually was just no substitute for the real thing, for sharing a space with people, for being in a collective experience at the same time. It was a really, really beautiful, profound and reminding experience of all the work, and everything that also goes into a cross-Canada tour. We’re tired. Our hearts are full, but overall it was a really amazing experience to be able to get back out on the road.

RMC: You have spoken about how throat singing itself is inspired by environmental elements including the sounds of nature, emotional elements, societal elements, and interactive elements. Do you find your experiences on the road also come in to shaping your music?

Inuksuk: Yes, absolutely. We perform improvisationally so the audience has a really big impact on how the set goes and because of the improvisational nature, we really are tapping into that ancient practice of just listening to the environment and responding to the environment around us. It’s a really fun way to perform. It makes sure no two shows are identical; they’re always different. If you see us twice, it will be a different show both times. We love that. We love being able to travel to different places and see how the environment that we’re in, and the audience that we come for, shapes the way the set sounds.

Tiffany: It was really amazing, because we were able to travel through most of Western Canada. The landscape for me, just is so different in each place. To be singing to mountains on one weekend and to prairies on the other, and to deep rain forests on the next weekend in the next festival, just visually for us was also incredibly inspiring.

RMC: Over the years, have you found that touring has maybe changed your perspectives of home?

Tiffany: I think people think when we tour that we get to see all these amazing places and really experience the vibe of the locations, and we do — but very briefly because usually when we tour, our schedules are so packed. I make the joke that we’ve seen hotel rooms across Canada

Inuksuk: And airports….and airports!

Tiffany: The things that really make me appreciate or look at my home different is the nature, and is the land. When we do have the very brief opportunities to spend time by the water — when we were in Calgary we got to sing right next to the Bow River — being out in some version of nature is really special, because that’s a different vibe than being on the stage with people. I really appreciate when we do get those little moments in the schedule where we can find some time in nature, and kind of get grounded in an otherwise pretty hustle bustle schedule. Then always coming back home, it’s so nice to be finding and doing the things that ground you and ground us, like being in nature and spending time with our families. During the pandemic, we got to spend so much time with our families, and we got to keep working and keep performing virtually, then, at the end of the day of recording something, go home and have dinner with our families. When we are on the road, it’s nice that we have an audience, but then we’re in the hotel eating take-out and are missing our families as well. So there’s always the trade off, and finding the beauty in every situation has been what’s been asked of us during the pandemic I think.

RMC: This July, you both returned to Yellowknife for the festival Folk on the Rocks, where you performed together for the first time as PIQSIQ. What was that like?

Inuksuk: Fun fact: we actually performed in maybe 2018 in Yellowknife for a farmer’s market, but we’re talking small time gig. It was nice to come back in a bigger capacity and to perform at Yellowknife’s biggest festival.

RMC: Looking back at the past couple of years since 2020, and the ways that many people have mobilized music to connect with each other, how do you feel about your music specifically, or music in general as a connecting platform?

Tiffany: I think one of the things I’m very proud about our music is artistically we don’t have lyrics; our music is lyric-less and it’s very feelings based, situations based, and it’s improvisational. In creating music like that, I think that we give a lot of room for audiences to have the emotional space and head space to go through whatever they’re going through in that moment. Two people will experience our music in two completely different ways. Even though their internal experiences might be different, we’re all still sharing this collective group experience, which is very profound especially after the very very isolating past couple of years where I know we’ve all at certain times felt completely alone in every feeling, in every situation, in every good, bad, happy, sad moment that we’ve experienced. I think something that’s really powerful about music in general and something that we really make a point of is as performers. Inuksuk and I, on any given day are also going through our own emotional realities and our own things that we’re sorting through, we have different lives and we have different stuff that we’re dealing with on the day to day. Even when we come together to make our music, we might have different experiences, even within the same song, but it’s still profound. It’s still a way that we connect together as sisters, as artists. We give a lot of space for the audience to be able to have the time and space to also experience our music in their own way, and still walk away feeling totally individualized in one way and completely connected to a collective in another sense.

RMC: In the past few years, have your approaches to creating and performing music changed? What are some of the challenges or maybe even positive elements experienced?

Inuksuk: I think as people we’re — I wouldn’t say changing who we are, but I would say learning. There’s more information to work with as you grow older in life. I think that certainly as we gain knowledge, and as we gain experience, that’s reflected in our work. We don’t really look at adversity as necessarily a bad thing. I mean as difficult and challenging as it can be, we really look at how to problem solve things in the best way that we can and recognize that difficulty is just part of that solution. We really work together well not because we don’t fight, but because we have a really great conflict resolution model based in rupture repair. I think that those elements are probably the most important to us, the values and practices that we use to work together and to overcome hardship.

RMC: Some of your songs from the album Taaqtuq Ubluriaq: Dark Star include a reimagining of traditional style Inuit legends. How did you decide to bring that in for those songs?

Inuksuk: I dabble in writing, and I’m hoping to do more of it in the future. Over the last few years, one of the things that I’ve been talking with my father about, who has received this instruction from my grandmother, is how do we use traditional Inuit values and principles in a modern setting, moving forward. Because things are certainly different, and we would be misguided to not incorporate that realism into our approach to things. So how do we engage this current generation in Inuit culture and Inuit values in a way that seems natural and authentic to them? Basically, what has come out of our conversations is that the principle will always be relevant, how you act it out will change. Because Inuit values are heavily based in balance, as a practice not as a destination, balance with nature, balance with each other, balance with the animals — those will always be able to guide us even if the actionables change. With that in mind, we took a traditional storytelling model, and we adapted it to be a new story. Every story was once a new story, so we put this story together and put the music in throughout that was inspired by the storyline. Just like our music, traditional roots — new expression.

RMC: There are no limits to the innovative and distinct sounds that characterize your songs. I recently read that you invented some of your own instruments. How do you decide what elements and materials to work with when creating an instrument?

Tiffany: We’re still in the process of finalizing a new harp; we haven’t named it yet. We’re still going to do the final tweakings and get some advice from our elders on what we should call it. Very much in the same way how we create our music and our storytelling like Inuksuk mentioned, based in a traditional value but with a modern expression. When we were thinking about creating this antler harp, we were thinking about what are the things that traditionally Inuit would have access to, things like antlers and baleen, anything natural that they would have been interacting with from the Arctic. Then we were blending it, with what do we as modern Inuit have access to. We have electronics and we have strings, and these different types of music technology. So can we be resourceful like our ancestors always were, innovative and creative, to create something that was really based in something superorganic that we can amplify, and blend with our own aesthetic, blend with our own artistic sensibility to create this harp. It was also very much a family affair. Inuksuk’s family, including her brother, Robert Karetak, scoured the land outside Arviat, Nunavut to find the antlers for the harp. We were sent beautiful pieces of Caribou antler skulls, all attached. We worked with a luthier, an instrument maker here in Vancouver named Meredith Coloma of Coloma Guitars, and we designed this instrument together. We mounted the skulls and the antlers to create this orb structure that is three dimensional, then we strung electric guitar strings and bass guitar strings across the antlers, and fitted it with electric guitar hookups. The sounds that we’re able to create from this thing are super super cool so we’re really excited to be sharing the final product with everyone shortly.

Inuksuk: [the sound is] very otherworldly, very droney, ethereal. Fits right in the vibe for sure.

RMC: As siblings, you probably share some feelings, some ideas and tastes around music. However, are there times when you might have had some contrasting views in creating and performing? Do you think that tension can enrich the music sometimes?

Inuksuk: I wouldn’t say that we have disagreements that are absolutist. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think we are [coming from a perspective of] “no, not that way because I’m a staunch believer in this style.” I think more of our disagreements happen over process, because we’re quite open to exploration and really willing to give just about anything a try. I think that sometimes our different approaches are where we find clash, but that’s also where we find success. I don’t think we see tension as necessarily a negative thing. I think that, like what you’re saying, tension for sure has its benefits. Not regarding that as good or bad, just seeing it as something that exists and working with it has helped us to really appreciate each other’s different processes and styles, even when they’re not the way we would do things individually. I think it’s really important that we don’t get too insistent that there’s one way to do this. I think that’s part of why we work so well together.

RMC: I heard that you recently started new recording and film projects. Can you share an update or is it too soon to talk about your upcoming projects?

Tiffany: We have been doing some really interesting things with some soundtracks. We can’t talk about it in too much detail, but we will be working on a few film scores coming up in the next year. We are finishing our album that has the new orb harp featured on it. We’re home for the next month, and then we’ll be starting right back up again with our fall tour. We’ve got a pretty great fall tour lined up. There’s lots still in the mix, we’re back to catch our breath at home for a little bit and then we’ll be back out on the road and back in the studio.

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