Meeting Elisapie Isaac is like hooking up with an old friend you haven’t seen for years. Within minutes, you are in deep conversation catching up on past events.
As the electronic music pulsated over the speakers in the designer lounge of the Sofitel Hotel in downtown Montreal, the strikingly attractive Inuk singer delves into her professional and personal life without missing a beat.
Possessing a beautiful smile that disarms everything around her, Isaac discusses her life growing in Salluit, Nunavik, her extended family and her burgeoning career.
Professionally things have fallen into place for Isaac in the last 10 years. As she puts it, “All the antennas were in the right place.”
Ever since moving to Montreal in 1999 to study Communications at John Abbott College, Isaac has pursued her artistic interests in filmmaking and music after realizing school wasn’t for her.
Hailing from the Arctic, Isaac is interested in polar communities. In 2000, she worked as a host and journalist on Peoples of the Circumpolar, an Inuit-produced television program that explored Indigenous people living around the Arctic. “The film totally changed my perspective on life. For a year, I traveled to Greenland, Norway, Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada and realized that we’re all connected, we’re all from a very long tradition.”
In 2001, Isaac won the National Film Board of Canada’s First Nations Filmmaker Award, which gave her a bursary of $200,000. This allowed her to direct Sila piqujipat (If The Weather Permits), a short film focusing on the difficulties the Inuit confront as they try to bridge the gap between their traditional heritage and modern culture. Released in 2003, the short picked up the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Grand Prize at the 13th annual First People’s Festival, an award given to films that depict small communities resisting their disappearance.
At the same time as she was pursuing her film career, Isaac started to focus on her music. In 2000, she met guitarist Alain Auger and together they formed Taima. The duo went on to release an award-winning self-titled album in 2004. The following year, the album won the two a Juno award for Aboriginal Recording of the Year. After much success nationally and internationally, the two dissolved their partnership in 2007.
In October 2009, Isaac released There Will Be Stars, her solo debut comprised of 11 beautifully crafted songs revealing her interest in folk, pop and jazz music. “I am very proud of this album. Of course, it’s not perfect, but I put all my energy, love, spirit, and joie de vive into it – and I cannot be more honest than that.”
What’s striking about the album is that the Montreal-based singer assembled an impressive creative team to work with her. This included producer Éloi Painchaud (former Okoumé guitarist) and singer-songwriter Antoine Gratton, who’s responsible for the masterful string arrangements. “They are all people I know – they are a bunch of cool dudes.”
It’s a busy summer for Isaac, who will perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival July 3, the Festival d’été de Québec in Quebec City July 14, and as part of Lilith Fair at the Montreal Bell Centre July 23. Isaac admits she’s getting excited because it involves more than just a singer strumming a guitar and singing songs, it’s about the band, the musical direction, and the performance.
“I’m trying to find a balance between being over-organized and being too loose. It’s a fine line you have to walk. When you try to control everything and make it all happen, you can easily focus on the wrong things. And then on the last day, you’re just nervous and not even enjoying it.
“In a way, it’s just a show, but at the same time since I have a full band and a string quartet, I want to try new things and make sure we maximize our talent. I want to focus on not just the musical part, but also on the spectacle.”
On her album, Isaac sings in three languages – Inuktitut, English and French – each one expressing a different side of herself. “Each language allows me to become a different personality. In Inuktitut, I am a purist and very traditional. Then I have this laidback English side, as well as a Québécoise side.”
Though fluent in French, Isaac says she hasn’t mastered writing and singing lyrics in that language. “I speak French, live in French and my boyfriend is Québécois, but for some reason it’s not natural for me to sing in French. It’s a very strict and disciplined language.
“Bob Dylan and Neil Young produce the most beautiful songs, which are raw and simple. Things are easy to say in English, like ‘Hey baby, I love you.’ Plus, there are a lot of pop music references in English that we’re so used to hearing. So singing in English is like putting on your slippers and relaxing. It’s much more natural for me.”
While each language possesses its peculiarities – French is wordy and formal, and English is loose and inventive, but what about Inuktitut? “It’s a difficult language to express yourself poetically. We have a culture that is very oral and straightforward and there aren’t a lot of words that we can use lyrically. Every year, we invent new words because of our world is changing,” explains Isaac.
In many ways, Isaac is a pioneer who has to find a way to convey certain feelings and ideas that have never been articulated before. “Inuktitut is very simple, but it’s my language. I have fun finding new ways of expressing myself, be it in an existential or sexual way. These are things that we are not use to saying in Inuktitut.”
Being of mixed ancestry – her mother Inuk and her father a Newfoundlander – Isaac says she never felt excluded growing up in an Inuit community. “Of course, people would make comments about my freckles or big eyes or my height. They would call me ‘little white’, which is a compliment actually.”
After Isaac was born, her birth mother gave her to family members to raise. “I was the last of four children and she was not married. Her mother told her, ‘Since you are pregnant again and single, you should consider giving your child to my second cousin.’ It shows great respect when you listen to your mother.
“I grew up with parents who were a little elderly, spoke no English or French, super traditional, with an ‘igloo’ mentality. So there was a bit of clash, because I knew my birth mother was a super-modern TV host, who I would see in the community. And my biological father was this white guy who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
Isaac says she was 11 the first time she met her biological father after he moved back to Salluit. “It was a shock. I thought I was going to see Tom Cruise, and here was this big middle-aged guy. He had no t-shirt on when I arrived, which really didn’t help. I was used to my father, a short yet built Inuk, dark-skinned and lean, who never ran around without clothes on.”
Yet her initial shock about her biological father quickly disappeared and was replaced by curiosity. “When I met him I realized our genes are super strong. I looked so much like him. I’m a tall girl in Salluit, but all my cousins in Newfoundland are taller than me and all have freckles.”
Isaac says she used to get frustrated explaining her identity to non-Natives. “I always have to say I am not Innu, but Inuk. I’m not Indian, but Inuit. At the beginning, it was so annoying. But now people know more about these differences, and I can deal with it better. These days I feel more connected with things. I have my CD, I’m 33, I’m a mother of a four-year-old, and I am proud of who I am.”