Home Feature 5 trailblazing Canadian women in music for International Women’s Day

5 trailblazing Canadian women in music for International Women’s Day

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Happy International Women’s Day, women!

As always, I woke up in the morning and made my own breakfast, and tonight, I’ll probably bake my own damn cake. Because we can take care of ourselves, dammit.

And so can lots of women who have blazed a trail in a music industry where promoters and sound guys still mistake them for groupies.

In honour of IWD, we’re saluting five of them here today.

1. Tanya Tagaq

Odds are, nobody in a record company board room in Toronto ever uttered the phrase “I think Inuit throat singing’s going to be huge.” But Tanya is such a completely authentic performer and human being, someone so capable of channeling primal emotions through this art form, that she utterly transcends conventional boundaries of genre and audience – which, let’s face it, is what great art does. Tanya survived the meteoric transition from small-town Nunavut teacher and art school grad to world-touring performer and is now a Polaris winner with a career that is as unique in the business as she is.

2. K.D. Lang

I will always remember walking up the steps of the original Little Sisters’ bookstore location in Vancouver to buy the copy of the Advocate magazine in which K.D. Lang came out. It was only a few years after the place had been repeatedly fire-bombed, and I remember keeping an eye out for suspicious packages while climbing the stairs. In some ways, it’s hard to believe now that it was ever so hard to come out as gay – although the current persecution of trans people in particular is sadly making it easier and easier. K.D. Lang was a butch lesbian cow-punk country singer and performance artist at a time when that should’ve been a one-way ticket to obscurity. Instead, her voice, her confidence as a performer and her utter authenticity won the day.

3. Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy’s career began like that of many folk singers – in coffee houses – but her songwriting talent captured attention well beyond the genre, resulting in her songs being covered by Elvis and Neil Diamond and winning an Academy Award (“Up Where We Belong”). At the same time, she toured Indigenous communities and appeared on Sesame Street, becoming the first person to ever breast-feed on the show. She’s been a powerful protest singer – so powerful she was blacklisted – an advocate for First Nations and a pioneering digital artist. She has a long list of honorary degrees to her name and was awarded the Polaris Music Prize in 2015.

4. Ferron

Although she is arguably one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, Ferron never achieved the mainstream success of acts like Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie. But in the lesbian community she is an icon. Songs like “Testimony” and “Misty Mountain” are veritable anthems, and acts like Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls count her among their influences. Ferron also brought a distinctly working class perspective to her music on songs like “Shadows on a Dime” and “It Won’t Take Long,” a perspective that no doubt resonated with many of the pioneering feminists who were trying to break free from cultural expectations and live independent lives.

5. Loreena McKennitt

Few artists were as determined to retain their industry independence as Loreena McKennitt was in 1991 when she signed a distribution deal with Warner Music. At the time, a major label deal was still seen as the only viable ticket to stardom and, for most artists, the only ticket to musical success, period. You could make a modest living as an indie – perhaps with a few day jobs in between tours – but you’d toil in relative obscurity. Loreena matched her musical talent with business acumen from the start. She famously busked in the St. Lawrence Market to save money to produce her first album. She stayed connected to her fans and built up her base to the point that, when Warner came knocking, she could sign with them on HER terms – and that meant a distribution deal that allowed her to retain ownership of her recordings. Countless world tours, TV specials and gold and platinum albums later, Loreena remains a quintessential example of an artist that achieved success without selling her soul.

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