New Video: Elisapie’s Yearning Rendition of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”

Acclaimed Montréal-based singer/songwriter, musician, actor and activist Elisapie was born and raised in Salluit, a small village in Nunavik, Québec’s northernmost region. In this extremely remote community, accessible only by plane, she was raised by an extended, yet slightly dysfunctional adoptive family. Growing up in Salluit, she lived through the loss of cousins who ended their lives, experienced young love, danced the night away at the village’s community center and witnessed first hand, the effects of colonialism — i.e., poverty, hopelessness, alcoholism, suicide, and more. 

Much like countless bright and ambitious young people across the world, the Salluit-born artist moved to the big city — in this case, Montréal to study and, ultimately, pursue a career in music. Since then, her work whether within the confines of a band or as as solo artist constantly displays her unconditional attachment to her native territory, its people, and to her language, Inuktitut. Spoken for millennia, Inuktitut embodies the harshness of its environment and the wild yet breathtaking beauty of the Inuit territory. Thematically, her work frequently pairs Inuit themes and concerns with modern rock music, mixing tradition with modernity in a deft, seamless fashion. 

She won her first Juno Award as a member of Taima, and since stepping out into the spotlight as a solo artist, her work has received rapturous critical acclaim: 2018’s The Ballad of the Runaway Girl was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and earned her a number of Association du disque, de l’industrie du spectacle Québeécois (ADISQ) Felix Awards and a Juno Award nod. She followed up with a performance with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal — at the invitation of Grammy Award-winning maestro Yannick Nézet Séguin — at Central Park SummerStage, a NPR Tiny Desk Session and headlining or festival sets both locally and internationally. 

In her native Canada, she is also known as an actor, starring in the TV series Motel Paradis and C.S. Roy’s experimental indie film VFCwhich was released earlier this year. She has also graced the cover of a number of magazines including Châtelaine, Elle Québec and a long list of others. And as a devoted activist, she created and produced the first nation-wide broadcast TV show to celebrate National Indigenous People’s Day. 

Slated for a Friday release through Bonsound, her fourth solo album Inuktitut features inventive re-imaginings of songs by Led ZeppelinPink FloydBlondieFleetwood Mac, Metallica and more. Each of the acts and artists covered have warmly given their blessing to receive the acclaimed Canadian artist’s unique treatment. Fittingly, each song is imbued with depth and purpose, as the album’s material is an act of cultural re-appropriation that reinvigorates the poetry of these beloved songs by placing them within Inuit traditions. 

Through the album’s 10 songs, the acclaimed Inuk tells her story and offers these songs as a loving gift to her community, making her language and culture resonate well beyond the borders of the Inuit territory. But the album is also a testament to the power and remarkable universality of pop music, a reminder of the universality of human life, and fittingly an ode to the experiences, memories, places and people, who have shaped us.

So far, I’ve written about three of the album’s released singles: 

Taimangalimaaq (Time After Time),” a gorgeous and fairly faithful Inuktiut adaptation of Cyndi Lauper‘s 1983 Rob Hyman co-written smash hit “Time After Time” that retains the familiar beloved melody of the original paired with a percussive yet atmospheric arrangement and the Salluit-born, Montréal-based artist’s gorgeous, achingly tender delivery. 

“Taimangalimaaq (Time After Time)” was inspired by a childhood memory of Elisapie’s aunt Alasie and her cousin Susie:

“I was able to get through my pre-teen years, thanks to my Aunt Alasie, as my mother had neither the knowledge nor the experience to give me a crash course on puberty, fashion or social relationships,” Elisapie recalls. “In addition to entering a new chapter in my life, we were in the midst of the 80’s and modernity was shaking up our traditional methods. My mother’s generation had lived in Igloos, and the cultural changes were too swift. 

“Despite her struggles, my aunt ensured I felt accepted and exposed me to new and modern things like TV, clothes, dancing, Kraft Dinner and make-up! 

 Whenever I went to my aunt’s house, I was in awe of my older girl cousins. They were all so cool and stylish, and they loved pop music and the crazy makeup of the 80s and early 90s.  One of my favorite memories is listening to the radio with them and hearing Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ for the first time. It was like a lightning bolt, and I couldn’t separate the song or the artist from my older cousin Susie. For me, the song was all about her search for beauty, connection, love, and rising above pain.”

Isumagijunnaitaungituq (The Unforgiven),” a hauntingly gorgeous, dream-like re-imagining of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” that retains the song’s familiar melody but featuring an arrangement of traditional drums and flute and acoustic guitar paired with the acclaimed Canadian artist’s equally gorgeous, yearning delivery, some brooding synths and the incorporation of Inuktitut throat singing.

“Isumagijunnaitaungituq (The Unforgiven)” finds the acclaimed Canadian artist paying tribute to the Inuit men of Salluit and nodding to the time she interviewed Metallica’s Kirk Hammett in the early 90s:

“When I was 14 years old, I applied for a job at TNI, the first Inuit TV-radio broadcaster, and I was thrilled when I was chosen for the position! Everyone at the station dreamed big, and they put in a request for an interview with Metallica. The band was so loved in Salluit that we had to give it a shot. Metallica accepted only two interviews on their Québec tour, and TNI was chosen. In my boys’ eyes, I was the coolest!

As a teenager, I only wanted to hang around the gang of boys in my village. We would all go to my cousin’s house and smoke weed while listening to Metallica. The band’s music allowed us to delve into the darkness of our broken souls and feel good there. Men’s roles in our territory had been challenged by colonization, and it had become confusing what life was supposed to look like for a man. My boys were seeking new roles, and subconsciously, I allowed them to be my bodyguards so they could feel strong. Looking back, I was trying to give them the strength to find their place.

“‘Isumagijunnaitaungituq (The Unforgiven)’ incorporates throat singing, known as katajjaq in Inuktitut. It felt like katajjaq was so appropriate, says Elisapie. It is Inuit women who throat sing. Inuit women, mothers and grandmothers had to be the nurturing ones during the hard times, as men were struggling emotionally due to colonialism. Through this song, I wanted the feminine strength to balance the men’s challenges.”

Qimmijuat (Wild Horses),” a gorgeous reimagining of the classic Rolling Stones tune “Wild Horses,” which retains the original’s yearning and tender ache, but places the beloved melody in a hauntingly sparse arrangement by her longtime collaborator Joe Grass that that features a plaintive piano melody by Leif Vollebekk, a gorgeous, bluesy guitar solo and striking drumming from Robbie Kuster. Elisapie’s yearning delivery ethereally floats over the arrangement. 

The song is a tribute to a childhood friend of Elisapie who had a difficult home life due to his parent’s separation and a strained relationship with his father. “Wild Horses became a source of comfort for him and his obsession with it was palpable, as if he was riding away from all his problems on the back of this song,” explains Elisapie.

Inuktitut‘s fourth and final pre-release single “Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free),” is a hauntingly gorgeous and bittersweet re-imagining of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.” Elisapie’s rendition of the song, slow’s the tempo down quite a bit, and places the song’s yearning melody and anthemic chorus within a haunting arrangement of strummed acoustic guitar and twinkling keys paired with dramatic drumming before closing in a slow, gentle fade-out.

The acclaimed Canadian’s rendition of “I Want to Break Free,” much like the preceding singles, sees her simultaneously evoking both fond and bittersweet memories of her youth in Salluit, while paying tribute to her cousin Tayara, with whom she grew up:

“Tayara was a little older than me. He was quiet, handsome, graceful and he loved music. He was named after our great-grandfather, a remarkable and gentle man. Tayara never found his place and never lived life to its fullest. Sadly, like too many Inuit teenagers and many of my cousins, he committed suicide by hanging himself in the tiny closet of his house, right next door to mine,” Elisapie says

But despite this tragic story, the Montréal-based JOVM mainstay sees this song as one of resilience, strength and of mourning:  “When ‘I Want to Break Free’ played on the radio, something magical happened. The lyrics resonated with him, allowing him to embrace his differences and marginality with pride. It was our song. When we danced to it, he shared his inner world with me, with all its complexities and desires. Through this music, he showed me how to be punk, wild and fierce. He was my best friend. When I sing it now, it’s a way of saying goodbye. Despite all its strength and power, it’s the saddest song in the world.”

Continuing her ongoing collaboration with Phillipe Léonard, the accompanying video for “Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free)” presents a visual narrative that invites people to break free from social norms and expectations — and express their desire for freedom through dancing. “We see Simik Komaksiutiksak, a contemporary dancer who energizes members of the community through his gestures and the light he projects on them,” explains the director. “In turn, he feeds on the movement of others, and a conversation takes shape as the video unfolds. It’s an invitation to dance, to let off steam.”