NEW YORK – Long, lean and fluid as a wave, Lucie Idlout drifted into the mezzanine of New York’s Public Theater on a muggy day in late fall wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that read “Brownish and Proud.”
A singer/songwriter from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Idlout gave her first New York performance that night, Dec. 1, to a packed audience in the Public’s famous Joe’s Pub, the most prestigious showcase for emerging musicians in the city.
Idlout was in New York in conjunction with the Native American Film and Video Festival, a four-day event packed with screenings of hundreds of new features films and shorts from Native filmmakers.
Although Idlout is not a household name in the United States – yet – she has received rave reviews from Canada’s national newspapers and magazines. Saturday Night Magazine perhaps described her best:
“Although Idlout is of Native/Indian heritage, her music is not simply a testament to being aboriginal, but rather a complete expression of being herself. … Out of her tiny body comes a deep, aggressive voice, with passionate lyrics that took you on a journey full of sad stories and emotional unrest. At times it echoes the crooning of the likes of Etta James, and then … delivers the awesome power of alternative alumni Marianne Faithful & P.J. Harvey.”
Claiming Idlout for Canada, the Globe and Mail described her as “a one-woman revolution in Canadian music, taking the old blues wraiths and wrestling them into fierce new shapes.”
But does Idlout consider herself representative of “Canadian music”?
“I think it was nice of them to say that. I’m Inuit first and foremost, but you would never know that from the music I play if you had never seen or heard of me. I’m not writing about northern experience anymore; I’m writing about universal experience,” Idlout said.
Idlout studied classical piano as a young teenager on the advice of a teacher who said music would improve her math ability. Mastering the trumpet followed in high school; later, she picked up an acoustic guitar.
“I think it was a boyfriend who taught me my first few chords, and when he and I split up I wrote my first song,” Idlout said.
Her first music was written in the Inuit ai ja ja style, but she later cut loose from her roots while, paradoxically, holding on to them.
“It was important for me to be able to break out against the restrictions that I guess Canadian society or otherwise has attempted to place on me; that is, to categorize me as strictly an aboriginal singer/songwriter, an Inuit, as though I’m incapable of coming to the world with my own perspective as an individual. I’m Inuit first and foremost for sure, but I’m not restricted by the color of my skin or the fact that I’m brownish and proud,” Idlout said, looking at her T-shirt and laughing.
Raised by her mother, a Canadian government interpreter and translator of the Inuktitut language, Idlout traveled back and forth between Ottawa and Nunavut.
“I refer to myself as a federal government baby. My family is very traditional, but my mom was the one to go off and see what the world has to offer. She wanted me and my siblings to be able to do whatever we wanted to do and have the tools to do it, and she is totally supportive of what I do. I was raised between the two worlds and I’m actually thankful for that – if I didn’t have that upbringing it would be very challenging for me to come south, especially to a big city like New York, and to travel around Europe,” Idlout said.
In fact, Idlout is fully comfortable in the world, and no wonder. She’s had a profusion of experience from modeling – her first encounter with the stage – to dance, theater and Inuit politics before embracing her music career in 1998.
As a government information officer and coordinator, Idlout was part of the team negotiating Inuit self-determination. She also monitored international human rights.
“It was very difficult. My heart was too much in it and it was so disappointing. Every time we moved four or five steps forward, they would draw us back seven or eight steps. And it meant so much to me to bring our people to a place where we were in control of our own destiny and taking care of our own health and well-being,” Idlout said.
Although the Inuits did not achieve complete self-determination, they did succeed in restoring their lands – about one-fifth of Canada’s land mass.
“We have a Nunavut government. We are a Nunavut nation, but we’re not autonomous. We make up part of the Canadian fabric,” Idlout said.
When negotiations ended, Idlout returned to Iqaluit where events compelled her forward into music. Singing and playing guitar for free in cafes, Idlout got her first paying gig representing the Native Women’s Association of Canada on National Aboriginal Day at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
“At that point, I had never really played with a band, never sung into a microphone.”
A representative from the Canada Council for the Arts saw her performance and encouraged her to apply for a showcase in Montreal, where an agent in the audience liked her work and set up a tour in Holland and Germany.
“And the whole thing took off from there, so it was never a conscious decision to become a musician. All the pieces sort of kept falling into place and this is kind of where I’ve landed,” Idlout said. And she’s very happy about it.
In 2004, the song “Birthday,” from Idlout’s debut album “E5-770, My Mother’s Name,” was licensed to the film “Crime Spree,” featuring Harvey Keitel and Gerard Depardieu. That same year, Idlout was awarded Best Female Artist at the Canadian Aboriginal Awards. She’s looking forward to more performing, and to writing for others and for films.
Idlout’s next album, “Swagger,” will be released next year. A sample of her music is at www.pinesandcoal.com/lucieidlout4.htm. The Canada Council for the Arts and Joe’s Pub co-sponsored Idlout’s performance.