Elisapie Revisits Her Inuit Roots In 'The Ballad Of The Runaway Girl'

Mar 28, 2019
Originally published on March 28, 2019 6:46 pm

At the northern tip of Quebec, tucked in a valley and hugging the ocean, is the Inuit community of Salluit where the singer-songwriter Elisapie grew up. At age 19, she left to settle in Montreal — a decision she's still grappling with 20 years later.

She examines her connection to the land and people of her birth, and the traumas they've endured over the last half-century, on her latest album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl.

"I never really knew how to make peace with the fact that I left," Elisapie says. "Not only did I leave my community, I left my family, I left my mother who was sick, I left my brothers and sisters who were younger than me. So I think this album is based on the fact that I want to find those traces of my childhood in order to really understand a little bit more who I am."

Elisapie spoke with All Things Considered about the cultural baggage behind The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. Hear more at the audio link, and watch the new video for "Una" — which explores her relationship with her biological mother who gave her up at birth — below.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the northern tip of Quebec, tucked in a valley and hugging the ocean is the inner west community of Salluit. And that is where the singer-songwriter Elisapie grew up.

ELISAPIE: We still hunt, and we still speak our language. It's a very proud and very unique place, but it has a lot of hardships, too, like many indigenous communities.

CHANG: When she was 19, she made the difficult decision to leave and settle in Montreal. On her latest album, "The Ballad Of The Runaway Girl," she examines her connection to the land and the people of her birth and the traumas they've endured over the last half century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOLVES DON'T LIVE BY THE RULES")

ELISAPIE AND JOE GRASS: (Singing) Wolves don't live by the rules. Wolves don't live by the rules.

ELISAPIE: I never really knew how to make peace with the fact that I left. Not only did I leave my community. I left my family. I left my brothers and sisters who were younger than me. So I never really could live fully because I was always, like, OK, maybe I'm too independent; I'm too white now in the South, you know? So I think this album is based on the fact that I want to find those traces of my childhood in order to really understand a little bit more who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISAPIE SONG, "ARNAQ")

ELISAPIE: There's a lot of heavy stuff we carried for so long, a lot of changes in a matter of 50 years in the North. The government of course - in order to bring people to stay put and not be nomadic anymore, they built a school. So it became our village. That's where we decided we were to stay. We didn't decide. We had to stay there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISAPIE SONG, "ARNAQ")

ELISAPIE: Kids were sent off to residential schools, told not to speak their language. Cut the boy's hair right away. I mean, take every Indian out of them, you know? People felt very powerless losing their kids. Like, kids became orphans like that. We felt so alienated by everybody for so long. Like, my parents grew up afraid when a white man comes to the igloo because they were treated like animals, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARNAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

ELISAPIE: So that's the beginning of a lot of intergenerational trauma. It even goes to me now. Sometimes we're like, oh, I'm not suffering as much as my cousin; and I'm fine. No, we're now finally learning to accept that a lot of us are in pain, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNA")

ELISAPIE: (Singing in foreign language).

My mother was not married, so my grandmother decided I was to be adopted at birth. And that's how it is for many people I know. Like, half of the people are, like, adopted out, right? So I had just had my second child, and I was, like, isn't this beautiful, like, a little baby in your hands, like, so fragile? It's a very strong moment. And then I started thinking, like, did I have that, like, with someone who gave birth to me, like, who carried me for nine months? So this song I wrote for her. I kind of wanted to tell the story of, when she took me in her arms, did she cry of joy?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNA")

ELISAPIE: (Singing in foreign language).

My biological mother actually came to Montreal in October. So she saw the song live in this beautiful theater, and then she came back to the green room after the show. And it felt like I'm on a blind date with a man that I know I will absolutely fall in love with. She looked at me, and we hugged because we couldn't look at each other. We couldn't address it. It's too intense. But it was beautiful. And I felt like we made peace without saying a word, through a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISAPIE SONG, "UNA")

CHANG: Inuit singer Elisapie - her latest album is "The Ballad Of The Runaway Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISAPIE SONG, "UNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.