Five Questions With… PIQSIQ
The acclaimed throat singing duo returns with a vibrant take on a classic holiday carol. Here the sisters discuss their love of the season and the song, an upcoming full-length debut, and hopes for 2021.
By Jason Schneider
Sisters Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik, better known as the acclaimed throat singing duo PIQSIQ (“pilk-silk”), are in the holiday spirit again this year with a new single, a stunning rendition of Coventry Carol, which dates back to 16th Century England. Along with being one of their favourite holiday songs, they felt its bittersweet theme was appropriate this year to acknowledge both the joys of the season and the pain of being separated from loved ones.
As a song often sung by choirs, the sisters also chose to record Coventry Carol to symbolize how their two voices can replicate the power of many. With pandemic restrictions limiting mass gatherings, PIQSIQ have attempted to reinvent the choir and provide a sense of community that is being denied this year to so many.
The release of Coventry Carol comes only weeks after PIQSIQ’s previous offering, Taaqtuq Ubluriaq: Dark Star, an ambitious song cycle about a young woman who stretches the confines of her humanity through a strange encounter with The Beyond. It’s the kind of project that PIQSIQ is quickly becoming known for, as it continues to push the sonic boundaries of their traditional Inuit art form.
This is the second year in a row that you've done a Christmas release. What makes this time of year special for you?
Inuksuk: It’s actually always a complicated mix of emotions, which I'm sure is the case for many. Community games in Inuit communities are an absolutely jovial time filled with laughter, traditional games and feasting. It is also a time where we come face to face with celebrations surrounding the cornerstone of a faith that was used to colonize our nation. Recording our  holiday album Quviasugvik: In Search of Harmony using throat singing, a traditional art form that was once illegal as a result of that colonization, was an interesting journey in stitching together our varied swatches of experience. This year the themes of pain and joy continue. With Covid on the rise in many places, a gathering will not bring the safety and community it once did, and one thing we have always loved about Christmas is choirs, which certainly are not in the holiday plans this year.
What made you choose to record Coventry Carol?
Tiffany: The melody of this carol is stunning but the lyrics are actually pretty dark. It is a very old lullaby that recounts the murder of innocent children by King Herod when he heard prophecies that a saviour was coming. It is a devastating thought to think about the death of children that Jesus' birth brought on and it made us think about the pain and suffering that colonization and forced conversion brought to our own communities. Christmas and Christianity are very complicated and painful things that many of us have had to navigate as Inuit.
We want to balance the conversation. If people really do want to keep “the Christ in Christmas” as they say, we also need to be honest about the pain that this figure has brought. Insisting that it only be “Joy to the World” all December is disingenuous. Very much in the vein of our last Christmas album, we wanted to examine these things that are seemingly at odds—the beauty of a melody, the pain of past traumas, the longing to come together, the pain of separation. These are all disparate things to draw on and we wanted to bring them together in our own way.
What other music do you have in the works that you can talk about?
Inuksuk: We are in the early stages of producing our first full-length album, set to release this coming spring. We are collaborating with Coloma Guitars here in Vancouver to create a one-of-a-kind stringed instrument from antler that can be plucked or played with a bow. It will feature on our upcoming album.
How have you adapted to engaging with your audience during the pandemic?
Inuksuk: As tough as this time has been, we have made the very best of it as possible. As a cultural value, we wholeheartedly believe in resourcefulness and adaptability. As gig after gig cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic, we quickly realized we were going to need a plan. So we cleaned out the storage part of my garage and set up a stage for recording performances. So many artists are already multi-taskers with skills in many, many areas, and the need for that has only increased during this difficult time. Suddenly we find ourselves putting in shifts as set designers, lighting techs, camera crews and sound engineers, and often for much smaller fees than what we would have earned for live performances.
One of our favourite projects during the pandemic so far has been with the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts here in Vancouver. They did such a lovely job of capturing one of our performances to share with their viewers. It has a special place in our hearts. We have also focused on content creation as a way to connect with our audience. We released Taaqtuq Ubluriaq: Dark Star pretty quickly in October, and it’s been great to see how well its been received so far by radio.
What's your mindset looking ahead to next year and the prospect of hopefully playing live?
Tiffany: We are thrilled to see the vaccine rollout happening. It is giving us a lot of hope that some aspect of live performance will be coming back at some point. We miss audiences and connecting with people at the moment. We have learned a lot of new skills during this time that we will carry forward with us whatever the future brings. I don't think we will be or want to be “getting back to normal.” We are loving the time with our families, not needing to be on the road touring all the time, collaborating virtually on projects with folks who don't live in the same place. But it all comes back to how focused we are on innovating our practice.