Three months ago, Tiffany Ayalik and Grey Gritt won their first Juno — on the strength of their debut EP, Tiny Hands. It’s a realization that comes in waves.
“One of us will turn to the other and be like, buddy, we won a Juno,” says Gritt, laughing, over the phone in a car with Ayalik in Ontario.
“I think if anything, it reaffirmed that we're doing something right, you know?,” says Ayalik. “Kind of that outside eye to acknowledge that whatever we're doing, whatever our process happens to be — even if we are not exactly sure what that is — that it’s working for whatever reason.”
Yellowknife-based Gritt and Ayalik have been playing together for (arguably, according to them) nearly four years now, having met while they were both performing in Ottawa’s Northern Scene events in 2013 — Ayalik as an actor, Gritt as a musician.
“I just remember being like, ‘Man, this person seems so cool,’” says Gritt, “and then yeah, helping Tiffany with her audition, [which] was kind of awkward because I also had to —”
“Swear at me in French,” Tiffany interjects, laughing.
“Basically the audition involved a settler, and Tiffany being this powerful Indigenous warrior and so I had to say really awful racist, terrible stuff in French. So I was like, ‘Nice to meet you.’"
“[It] sets the tone for our relationship that is just ridiculous,” finishes Tiffany, after her laughter subsides.
The ease that flows between the two artists over the phone makes it seem like they’ve known each other for decades, not a handful of years. And it translates to their music. Ayalik and Gritt, drawing from their respective Inuit and Anishinaabe-Métis backgrounds, create live performances and write story-songs about “identity and on being an Indigenous person in Canada today, or write about feeling lost about who you are,” Gritt describes. Their themes, coupled with Ayalik’s throat singing and Gritt’s bluesy leanings, add up to a full-length debut album that sounds like a beautiful, safe space.
“Each of the songs [on Shelter as we go …] in their own way, you know, you're looking for safety, you're looking for that safe haven, for that sanctuary,” Ayalik says. “Whether it's in the person that you love, whether it's bringing your family somewhere else. If you're trying to protect the land that you're on; we all want safety and shelter and that just seemed like a fitting phrase to call the album.”
You can listen to Shelter as we go ... for a week before its July 7 release, in the player to the left. Read on below for Ayalik and Gritt's track-by-track guide to their debut album.
1. ‘Tiny Hands’
Ayalik: This is the remastered version that was on our EP Tiny Hands. So we wanted to include “Tiny Hands” on this album and we wrote it about our grandmothers ... the story that went along with this one was my grandmother's this very tiny Inuk woman from Kugluktuk and she has small hands, but they're so strong and I was curious about all of the things that her hands had done and you know, she lived a very traditional lifestyle and is an epic seamstress and is a hunter and a fisher and we were curious about all four of our grandmothers who were very strong women in their own way. And what were all of the sort of non-traditional things that they did and what were the roles that they played as women in their own right. These are just questions that we have asked or wish we could've asked of our grandmothers.
Gritt: “Igluvut” is like a love song for igloos. It's basically a song about “igluvut,” which is “our home,” in Inuktitut. “Walk across the ice with me/ we'll take our little family” ... it's kind of this story of travelling with your family and the igloo is a snow home and it's interesting how it can be such a temporary thing but it can be such a beautiful home that can shelter you.
Ayalik: Yeah. As nomadic people, your home is who are around you and if you're moving every couple of days, or every season you move somewhere else, this idea that your home isn't a building ... it isn't necessarily the structure, but it's who's around you and how do we feel safe and loved wherever we go.
3. ‘Freeze Melt Boil’
Gritt: “Freeze Melt Boil” is a song that came out of the frustration and the anger and the criticism towards pipelines, so it was written at the height of #NoDAPL and Standing Rock and we wanted to write something that would support those causes. I guess as much as we can be, as true musicians, we're advocates for the environment and for Indigenous rights, and so we believe there's a way forward without infringing on the rights of the people of Turtle Island and we believe that there's a way forward without oil. And so this song really is about the infringement of Indigenous rights.
Ayalik: Yeah, it's totally pipelines and ... our wish for water to be safe and protected, and whether that's #NoDAPL or in Canada with all of the boiled water advisories and how people are drinking poison and there are so many reserves in this country, [which] prides itself on being a developed country — unless you're on a reserve, and then it feels Third World. So just this idea that our water is a hot commodity in some places, which is a total shame for a country like Canada.
4. ‘Love is Love Pt. 1’
Ayalik: I love this song so much.
Gritt: Yeah, me too.
Ayalik: It's got a really beautiful story behind it. We were asked to write a song for a couple that was coming up to Yellowknife for [a] destination wedding from Los Angeles and one of the guys is Indigenous, he's part Cherokee, and they both wanted to get married in a place where it felt timeless, where they would feel safe, where they would feel accepted — and where it could feel like they were in a place pre-contact and before outside authorities told us who we could love or what we could do.
So we had a few Skype meetings with them and got to know their story and just fell in love with these two guys because they're just this beautiful couple and we asked them to send us pictures and stories about how they met and this and that, just to get to know them a bit, and they both have to work away from home a lot, so they do spend a lot of time apart. And one thing that they will often say to each other is, “I think you forget that I love you, just making sure you remember.” And so immediately we burst into tears because we're always on the road too and we don't always have the luxury of our partners coming with us, so we totally tapped into that feeling because it's pretty raw for us also. So we wrote this song and ... it's sort of our anthem to love — also and that there's many different types of love and —
Gritt: Many different types of relationships.
Ayalik: Yeah, totally. And just that they're valid and between consenting adults, who are we to say anything otherwise. And you know this idea of judgment and shame is just so not a part of who we are just as people, but also from the cultures that we come from, there were many different family structures that were accepted and celebrated and have value. So yeah, it was kind of our love anthem.
5. ‘Love is Love Pt. 2’
Gritt: In our live performances, it would naturally segue into what is Part 2 on the album, with throat singing and guitar and us singing [Gritt starts singing] "love is love."
Ayalik: And the throat singing in the “Love is Love Pt. 2” is actually sort of a modern rendition of a traditional Inuit love song that's actually called "The Love Song" … and we've sort of done our own thing with it.
Ayalik: My partner is Inuit and he's from Greenland, so when we do long distance we really do long distance [laughs]. And whether he's in Denmark or Greenland — he's also an actor, he's an artist, so we do spend a lot of time apart. And we wrote this, it has sort of a mournful, sad thing to it and the voice at the beginning is actually my partner singing a traditional Greenlandic song that's sort of called "The Sad Song." He says there's no real translation to the words but it's just a phrase and that's a tune that people sing if they're sad.
So he recorded that and then sent it to us and we incorporated it into another one of our shows during a particularly sad, heartbreaking part of the show ... it was actually a seven- or 10-minute improv — but then we sort of distilled it down to the essence of that musicality and for a long time it was just called "Sad Song" because we didn't really know what else to call it. But then I was looking around for translations for "strait," like the David Strait between Canada and Greenland. It's the space between two land masses. And so we settled on Ikersuaq, which is a Greenlandic word for "strait" or "the water between two bodies of land" … it's our homage to our Greenlandic-Canadian love connection. While we're never together [laughs].
7. ‘Tiny Hands (Reimagined)’
Gritt: I think that was inspired by our live performances. At first we tried performing “Tiny Hands” with kind of the back-track ... and singing. And we were finding it wasn't as hard-hitting as we felt the song was recorded. And so finally we're like, “We gotta redo this.” … So we figured out a way to perform it live and we just loved it so much that we were like, we should include this.... We find that it feels a bit darker and it feels a bit more —
Gritt: Melancholy, yeah. And we just love it so much. So we felt like maybe this reinterpreted way of sharing it would bring about a different emotion or a different feeling toward the song, and we wanted to share that.
Ayalik: You might pick up on different lyrics in this version than you would in the original version.
Ayalik: This is my little eight-year-old cousin, her name is Angnahiak, and she's from Kugluktuk, up in Nunavut, and she's a singer and performer and she actually came to Europe with us when we went on tour and she performed with us in Copenhagen. I’m her cousin but I'm also her godmother. So I feel the little cultural knowledge that I have that I'm still learning about, I do feel is important to pass on to my cousin and my goddaughter Angnahiak as well as my nephews and basically any child who will spend any more than five minutes with me [laughs].
So we have a special bond and she's never ever shy for anything in her life except for throat singing, she gets a bit shy, so it was great for her to agree to be brave and throat sing in front of people but also to throat sing on the album for a bit ... so when Grey was recording us, we were giggling and Hannah [Angnahiak's English name] was super silly and we were trying things out and then Hannah busted out her own version of something and she just started riffing and going for it. And I was smiling and there was a tear coming out of my eye, too, and it was so beautiful to see her get really brave and close her eyes and just focus and sing.
Grey and I, we cleaned up the track a bit and then Grey put this beautiful effect on our voices and it just made it seem like the room dissolved, that we're out on the ice somewhere and echoing across the water … Grey has made what it feels like on the inside to throat sing with someone you love so that other people can hear it.