Music

Ready to sing for the world

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 29 1999
Music

Ready to sing for the world

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 29 1999

Ready to sing for the world

Music

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Susan Aglukark won’t take a fall anytime soon if she can help it. Standing still, head bowed, on the set of CTV’s Open Mike with Mike Bullard, Aglukark has just finished her third rehearsal of One Turn Deserves Another, the first single from her latest album. Now, the shows floor director wants to introduce a new wrinkle: a roundabout, front-to-back shot of Aglukark with a cameraman circling her while she is singing. That requires her to step nimbly over a camera power cable out of her field of vision—and carries the obvious danger she may fall on her face on a national live-to-tape show. Despite that, Aglukark agrees—and waves off the need for

Canada’s Susan Aglukark is taking an upbeat new album and a renovated image to the global market

another take, saying: “I’m sure I can handle it.” When showtime comes, she does so—flawlessly.

Unexpected challenges, large and small, are nothing new to the tiny (five feet, two inches), fine-boned, 32-year-old Aglukark—and neither is her ability to overcome them. Some hardships are personal: as an Inuk growing up in the Northwest Territories, she lost some friends and relatives to suicide and alcoholism, and was sexually molested by a family friend at age 9. Other potential obstacles are career-related: she became a professional singer more by happenstance, without voice training or the ability to read music. “I always loved everything about performing,” says Aglukark. “But it seemed improbable that I could make a living from it.”

Her first album on a major label, 1995s This Child, recorded in both English and her native Inuktitut language, was an unexpected smash. Released by EMI Music Canada, the album spawned three hit singles and videos, and sold

more than 320,000 copies in Canada. It led to performances before the Queen and Nelson Mandela, among others, and a near-standing invitation to appear at Canada Day festivities every year.

But the album is now four years old—a lifetime in the music business, where trends and styles become outdated in months. Now, Aglukarks new album—Unsung Heroes, released on Nov. 9—is appearing amid great hype and some admitted nervousness on the part of singer and recording company. “Susans first album had a mainstream sound perfect for what radio emphasized in the mid-’90s,” says Deane Cameron, the president of EMI Music Canada. “Today, the emphasis is on a much more rhythm-based, young sound, and we have to show she taps into that.”

Unsung Heroes turns out to be a melodic mix of traditional pop and sounds that reflect Aglukarks native roots. That highly listenable combination didn’t come easily: Aglukark admits some “terrible writer’s block” slowed this effort. “For a while,” she says, “I was terrified of sophomore jinx with a second record. But I realized I was jinxing myself and stopped thinking about it.” Aglukark found plenty of other ways to fill her time in recent years, including marriage, the birth of a son, now 3, and a move to a suburb of Toronto. (Wary of public intrusion into her personal life, those are all the details she will discuss.) She also began voice lessons and marvels at the difference it makes to her performances. “I no longer get as exhausted at the end of a show,” she says. “And I hear a difference in my voice in the range and depth I can bring now.”

That is just one of the reasons the new album has even more commercial potential than the last. Many of the songs on This Childwere sung in a mix of English and Inuktitut, but the new album is entirely in English. Its themes are more wide-ranging and upbeat, with titles such as Stand Up, Bridge of Dreams, Believe Again and Find Something to Believe in. As a person, Aglukark says she is in “a happy but odd kind of place right now” and, to an extent, the album reflects that.

A strong part of her early appeal was built on her unique

image: an attractive Inuk woman who has a strong moral code and is an ideal role model. Many of the songs on the first album put those qualities front and centre: Kathy /mourned the death of a cousin and best friend who committed suicide, while Suffer in Silence addressed women who were victims of sexual abuse. The daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, Aglukark prays every day and does not drink or smoke. “Every now and then when things go bad,” she says sarcastically, “I figure I should get loaded—so I could know what its like to be brain-dead, and really hit rock bottom.”

In fact, Aglukarks ways of whiling away spare time are far more low-key. To cool down after shows, she sews or does embroidery. A voracious reader of everything from self-help

guides to detective novels, she is devouring the works of the late Ayn Rand, something of a cult figure as the guru of social libertarians. But Aglukark says that enthusiasm for Rand does not reflect any political philosophy other than that “I believe in people taking responsibility for themselves.” Her listening tastes range from classical to such rock favourites as Annie Lennox and George Michael. Those interests reflect Aglukarks reluctance to be pigeonholed. Although she says she is “proud to be a role model,” she concedes: “Had I known my career would develop as it has, I might not have gotten so personal” with past revelations.

Aglukarks choice of career is still relatively recent: despite singing in choirs and for pleasure throughout her youth, she had little thought of ever doing so professionally. Her break came in 1990, when she was an executive assistant with a lobby group in Ottawa who sang in her spare time. A CBC radio producer heard a demo tape and arranged a one-day recording session of songs that went on to receive heavy play on CBC North. That made her a major name in the Arctic. Shortly after, Aglukark came to the attention of MuchMusic vice-president and general manager Denise Donlon. “She was rough around the edges, but it was clear there was an extraordinary talent there,” says Donlon, whom the singer credits with playing a major role in her career development. But Donlon says she put Aglukarks new video for One Turn Deserves Another into heavy rotation on MuchMusics sister station, MuchMoreMusic, for strictly professional reasons. “The single is a terrific product in music and visual terms,” says Donlon. Partly produced by Aglukark, it was deliberately shot in an urban setting, featuring decidedly cool-looking young „ people dancing.

I Now, as Aglukark hits the road to promote the new

I album across Canada, she and EMI officials are plan's ning a difficult balancing act as they discuss ways to I broaden her appeal internationally. The challenge, s says Cameron, is to “make sure she’s not perceived as only a pop singer, or only an Inuit singer. She has many dimensions, and people need to know that.” As a result, EMI may produce a separate album for international consumption. It would feature remixes of some songs with guest artists singing in the background, and would be sold in the World Music section of stores—an area targeted for sophisticated buyers with wide-ranging tastes.

Still, Aglukark, whose serene manner does not quite disguise her strength of will, sounds occasionally impatient as she discusses efforts to market her. “I will never forget my people or my roots,” she says. “But the best way to honour them is to make the best music I can.” That’s a challenge of Aglukarks own choosing—and one she hopes to face for a long time to come. ES]