Folk Music Canada’s International Collaboration Project Brings Together Kindred Spirits

One of the things artists lost immediately when the pandemic sent us all into lockdowns last year was hanging out, in-the-room-together collaboration. Over a year into this ordeal, we’re still not in a situation—at least not everywhere—which totally allows for face-to-face co-writing, recording, idea tossing, and hugging. But the idea of cutting the collaborative drive altogether just wasn’t an option for many artists, and proving once again that necessity is the mother of invention, they found novel ways of getting things done. The BBC got a couple dozen musicians together via Zoom to cover Foo Fighter’s classic “Times Like These,” Zoom music lessons emerged, and numerous pandemic records were crafted.

One such collection is the brand new project from Folk Music Canada (FMC). After narrowing down the best submissions, FMC paired up nine artists from Canada with nine other artists from Australia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, with the hopes of bolstering international audiences and connections through the writing, recording, and release of new tunes. PEI singer-songwriter Irish Mythen teamed up with Icelandic roots-rocker Svavar Knútur for “Fare Thee Well”; Nova Scotia’s Jenn Grant worked with Australians Ash Bell and Sara Tindley to give us “Sons & Daughters”; and Winnipeg’s The Small Glories wrote “Bright New World” with Norway’s Darling West, to name just a few of the pairs. 

Listen to all nine songs from FMC’s International Collaboration Recording Export Program.

For one of the project’s most cinematic numbers, Inuit-style throat singers Kayley Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik aka PIQSIQ, from Yellowknife, NWT put together the sweeping “Ovddos/Hivumuuniq” with Finnish duo VILDÁ, made up of accordion player Viivi Maria Saarenkylä and Hildá Länsman, who performs a traditional Sámi singing style called joik. “Ovddos/Hivumuuniq”—both words in the title are translated in English as ‘onward’—is a stunning marriage of the two singing styles, evoking visions of a dark and desolate, windswept north over driving percussion.

PIQSIQ + VILDÁ. Courtesy of Folk Music Canada.

Making the song over different time zones and across an ocean was not without its challenges, of course. 

“The most difficult thing was to imagine: ‘How is the intensity there, really? How is the feeling? And which places, for example, are the most intense in the song, and which are maybe more quiet and delicate?’ Saarenkylä says over the phone from Helsinki. “That’s something that I’m used to working out with people playing live, of course, or being in the studio together to create the tracks. It felt like, “Okay, I have this demo background thing, and I will just record my parts there, as I would imagine, might be nice in the final thing. And then everyone else, they had to do the same.”

Courtesy of PIQSIQ.

“When you have only one time in the studio, you kind of put as much as you can in there to give as many ingredients for the meal that you can offer,” Ayalik says over the phone from Vancouver. “And then you kind of just have to hand it over. Then after the fact you can be stripping away or helping to carve and make out the song. So yeah, it’s a totally different way to do things, and I think it’s just gonna become more and more common.”

PIQSIQ and VILDÁ actually knew each other prior to the FMC project from stops in Finland and Montreal, and both pairs were fans of each other’s music. So everyone was excited to get started once it was determined they’d be working together. Thanks to unprecedented digital connectedness, that meant finding new ways of communicating vision.

“It’s kind of cool that there are these two groups of two women blending old and new,” Ayalik says. “And that both of our styles are rooted in a traditional Indigenous singing style. We were so excited about that. And then we just started how all collaborations are starting now in the pandemic world—we had a Zoom call, and we just talked about tone and what we were thinking, and the style and feel that we wanted to have.”

“It was something rather dark, grounding, and intense—these kind of words,” Saarenkylä says. “Northern. From the north.”

Because Saarenkylä is primarily an accordionist—she doesn’t perform the joiking that her bandmate Länsman does—she has an observer’s perspective on how the Sámi singing style and Inuit throat singing work together. 

“They’re completely different, but somehow, both of them, they are so strong and they’re so rooted in their own way, both of them,” Saarenkylä says. “They somehow share a similar kind of ground. And I think they go well together. They are somehow both so personal for the singer and so, so strong.”

“It’s so cool to hear two traditions brought together in this way, two ancient, Indigenous vocal traditions in conversation with one another,” Ayalik says. “The joiking, to my ear, is quite lilting and has these nice, long lines and long phrases. And then the throat singing has a very steady, punctuated rhythmic quality that totally occupies a very different space within the sonic world. So we were able to occupy these different spaces, and still remain distinct but complementary.”

Courtesy of VILDÁ.

The release of “Ovddos/Hivumuuniq” might not be the final iteration of this collaboration, which was partly the point of FMC’s project. Both Ayalik and Saarenkylä were adamant that they’d love to meet up again sometime in the future for any number of reasons. 

“We are probably touring to Canada in 2022,” Saarenkylä says. “We already have some plans to do that. So we think that maybe it would be possible to cross paths with PIQSIQ at some point of the tour. Since now we have a song together, it would be amazing to get the chance to make a live version of it.”

Thanks to the positive experience, both parties realized that the possibilities for long-distance collaborations were more accessible than they had previously thought. Still, Ayalik thinks it would be fun to take the team-up with VILDÁ a step further, bringing them home—to a place that is likely to feel familiar to everyone involved—and reconnecting in real life.

“It would be so cool to bring them up to Yellowknife because they really are sort of sister territories in a way,” Ayalik says. “We were making the joke when we went to Finland that this is the longest we’d traveled to go somewhere that looks exactly like home. Because it really does. It’s the same sort of taiga, the forest is the same. It has thousands of lakes, just like the Northwest Territories, the caribou, the birch trees, the willows. Like, everything—even the mosquitoes! When we were in Finland, we were walking around being like, ‘This is so strange, because I’m looking at signs that are in Finnish but thinking I’m in Yellowknife.’ I think, even landscape-wise, being very inspired by the land and both of our singing styles. And, you know, we’re super stoked in the future to go and I don’t know, maybe hang out with some reindeer and do a music video. That’d be awesome.”