If you've lost track of singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark over the past few years, don't feel too bad. It's been a long time since her album This Child and its hit single "O Siem" made her a household name in Canada back in 1995.
Now 37, Aglukark is promoting Big Feeling — released four years since her last album, Unsung Heroes.
But who's counting?
Aglukark shrugs off the long gap between records as personal "phases and stages."
"I don't want to get caught up in writing for time or schedule," the 5-foot-2 singer says over a Starbucks coffee near Yonge and Bloor Sts.
"Not that I'm not conscious of it; I have to respect that. But I prefer to do it the way that I do."
Big Feeling, like all of her records, mixes stories from her Inuit culture with lush, memorable pop arrangements. It won a Juno Award this month for Best Aboriginal Recording of the Year.
Born in Churchill, Man., Aglukark grew up in the western Arctic community of Arivat, now part of Nunavut. In 1992, she released a successful independent record and one year later signed a worldwide deal with EMI Music Canada. Her past four releases have sold almost 500,000 copies in Canada alone.
"It's a real personal, evolving, progressing journey between each album — 'Am I ready to go onto the next album? What's it gonna take from me? What am I going to give to it? And can I do that?'
"It's not a simple experience. Each album, it's huge for me."
It's huge for Aglukark because she is not only a famous singer, but also one of Canada's highest-profile Aboriginals. By default, with every album, demand increases for her to serve as both a role model and a spokesperson for the entire Aboriginal community.
Those pressures almost led her to quitting the music business altogether.
"There was a breakdown coming off of the This Child tour," she reveals. "For the longest time, taking on the responsibility as a role model was out of a sense of duty and obligation, rather than a choice. And that burned me out."
After performances, she would often meet with fans and stay up all night counselling people. As a sexual abuse survivor, she spent hours and hours talking to victims and abusers off-stage.
She wrapped up her two-year tour "devastated and broken" and unsure if she was willing to carry on.
"I came off the tour thinking 'I'm not making a single difference here. I'm doing it all wrong.' You take on so much responsibility, you just feel like you've wasted that whole two years and you haven't gotten anywhere."
Eventually, she decided to continue on, but has re-framed her vision of being a role model.
"It's a scary thing," she says. "You really gotta watch your steps in the things that you do and say. And you know what? I wanna live. I just wanna be alive. It's a lot healthier for me to say, I made a mistake, but that's okay. I'm human."
Aglukark is now married, has a seven-year-old son and is living in Oakville, Ontario. Even though she has settled into family life, she still struggles with her confidence while on stage and during recording.
"I've never actually come to a point where I enjoy my own performance or my voice," she says. "I've never considered myself a performer singer; I'm a storyteller singer more than anything."
Still, she has survived and thrived for more than a decade in the music business, exceeding her own expectations, and discovering herself in the process.
"I've learned a lot about myself and my potential — professionally and personally — through this career.
"I think if I ever leave… I'll leave as a stronger person."
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.