By: David McPherson
This Child was Susan Aglukark’s second album. No sophomore slump here. Released on EMI in 1995, the record was the artist’s commercial breakthrough in Canada, spawning chart hits with “O Siem” and “Hina Na Ho (Celebration).” The record sold more than 300,000 copies (three-times platinum) in Canada and peaked at No.1 on the Canadian RPM country charts.
With its success, Aglukark became the first Inuk performer to have a Top 40 hit. She was a trailblazer of Indigenous folk-pop, and guiding light for the current crop of Indigenous artists who are gaining more widespread recognition (iskwe, Tanya Tagaq, etc.) today.
In the latest Record Rewind, Amplify caught up with the 53-year-old songwriter, now based in Oakville, to chat about This Child on its 25th anniversary.
Amplify: Take readers back to that time 25 years ago leading up to the creation of This Child. Where were you at in your career and musical journey as a songwriter?
Aglukark: Leading up to This Child, my process of writing was still really new. Arctic Rose, my debut album, came out a few years earlier with little distribution. Those couple of years meshed into this ‘holy crap’ experience … that’s the only way I can describe it. That is why I invest in the expressive arts now. Those years were equal parts, ‘this is happening,’ and there was also a lot of fear. When it came time to record This Child, suddenly I had a whole team behind me: record label, manager, agency, etc. That meant I had to take things more seriously and find the right mentor and producer. I looked around to see who was out there for Canadian music. I’ve always been drawn to the East Coast sounds –– The Barra MacNeils and Ron Hynes –– and the common denominator I noticed was Chad [Irschick].
Amplify: How did you connect with Chad and what did he, as a producer, bring to the This Child sessions?
Aglukark: My label reached out to him. I knew I needed to create a support group of people to make me feel safe, where I could express myself and write. That happened right away with Chad. He offered me space and time to just explore the language. We spent a lot of time early on in conversation. Some days we would come up with only a line or two of a song. That was the process. We had no end goal of making a hit record for the label, or creating a music video, etc. Chad just said, ‘Let’s see what we come up with.’ It was the perfect environment. I was always afraid that one day I was going to be discovered as a fraud … I was just in the right place at the right time. With this record, I found my people. I felt like, ‘Wow. I’m happy here.’
Amplify: How did the songs arrive? Did you write them in the studio with Chad?
Aglukark: It just happened. Songs like “O Siem” and “Nina Na HO (Celebration)” just happened with Chad as my mentor and collaborator. We didn’t expect a hit, it just happened. “Nina Na Ho,” I had first heard with my previous producer Randall Prescott just after the release of Arctic Rose. We tried something with this traditional Dené song. The person we credited with the writing was a Dené from Yellowknife. I tried a demo with Randall before bringing it to Chad during the This Child sessions. With the exception of that one, and maybe one other song, all the others were written in the studio with Chad. We did a lot of collaborating. Two songs (“Breakin’ Down,” and “Slipping Through the Cracks”) were written by other songwriters [Bill Candy and Kelita Haverland].
Amplify: What did your days look like during the This Child sessions at Inception Sound Studio?
Aglukark: There were two studios at Inception Sound: one smaller and one larger. I was given access almost exclusively to the smaller studio for a couple of weeks. I would arrive in the morning and bring music with me. I always had music playing while warming up or writing. Stuff like Enigma that had just come out. I was really drawn to the way they wrote these simple and powerful messages. I also liked Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox … concept-type songwriters. I would spend a couple of hours on my own getting into the zone, then find Chad and co-write. Some days we would write and work for one hour; other days for six hours. It was truly an incredible experience. We had no schedules. No boundaries. It was more like what do you need right now to access the stories and the ideas. We were in the studio for four to six months. I was still maintaining a touring schedule, but if we had a full week at home, it was spent in the studio. I still get goosebumps thinking about being in that room 26 years ago. Chad brought in these top-notched studio musicians and I immediately felt like I belonged. There was no feeling from them of, ‘What are we doing here?’ or ‘She is in over her head.’ Even though I felt that way at times.
Amplify: Exploring Indigenous issues and bringing these to a mass audience runs throughout this record, especially in songs like “Kathy I” [an ode to a niece that committed suicide] and “Suffer In Silence” that speaks to those in your community who endured trauma and the pain of addiction, assault, and abuse. As an Inuk artist, was raising awareness of your people’s plight part of your goal as a songwriter?
Aglukark: I went through a period of questioning about this. Had I known Arctic Rose would become my life/career, would I have been as honest in the songwriting? I would. I decided then that for the albums that followed, I would stay on the theme of issues we face as Indigenous people, while still honouring the creative spirit and always including something not at all connected to my Inuk experience.
Amplify: Do you have a favourite song from This Child?
Aglukark: The title track “This Child.” I love “O Siem” and “Nina Na Ho,” and always play them live, but “This Child,” was a true exploration for me. I was very, very uncomfortable expressing myself about personal stuff. I would bring every line to Chad and ask him, ‘Does this make sense?’ Until I finally said to myself, ‘Don’t worry about approval and people editing you.’ “This Child” was written previously. Listen to it and you hear the timings. It is a frustrating challenge for the band and I to play live as it’s not the standard three verses, chorus and bridge. Instead, I followed how traditional Inuit perform where there is no standard timing. I was so proud of that. Even now, I feel I honored myself as an awakening songwriter. As much as songs and the creation of music is for radio, or for someone else, I decided this is what I feel in this song, stood up for it within myself, and Chad produced it beautifully.
Amplify: Looking back, 25 years on, how do you feel the record stands up?
Aglukark: I don’t think there will be a single concert where we don’t perform “O Siem” and “Hina Na Ho.” “Kathy I” is another favourite; it really resonates with a lot of Indigenous people. After all these years, at every concert I give, so many people say that is their favourite album and they still have it at home. That is a beautiful thing to hear. This Child was the album where I discovered that somebody saw me seriously as a songwriter and it was time for me to get serious. That record was several notches up from my debut: both emotionally and creatively. As they say, we hit the ball out of the park on that one.
THIS CHILD FAST FACTS
Producer: Chad Irschick
Studio: Inception Sound Studio (Downsview)
Singles: “O Siem” “Hina Na Ho”