Susan Aglukark: 'It's the song that I'd sing a billion times'
The acclaimed artist and activist looks back at her 1995 breakthrough hit, 'O Siem'
The year was 1995. The top of the Canadian music charts was a space of wild juxtapositions and contrasts including Alanis Morissette's "Hand in my Pocket," Crash Test Dummies' "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and Susan Aglukark's "O Siem."
"O Siem" featured Aglukark singing in both Inuktitut and English, and the song's themes of rejecting prejudice and racism were urgent and real. There's genuine warmth and hope in Aglukark's voice, but the foundation is her understanding of the consequences of colonialism and hate. When she sings, "We are all family," it feels like an honoured invitation into community, rather than a cliché.
With the success of "O Siem," both as a radio single and as a music video, Aglukark broke records, made history (the song is the first top-10 hit in Canada for an Inuk recording artist) and became a mainstream sensation almost overnight.
To mark the song's 25th anniversary, Aglukark spoke with CBC Music about the making of "O Siem" and how it completely changed her life. Due to some pandemic delays, this piece now marks the song's 27th anniversary instead, but it also coincides with Aglukark receiving the Humanitarian Award at this year's Junos.
In 1994, Aglukark signed to EMI, a major record label. She didn't know what they expected of her as an artist, but she'd gone from an independent singer-songwriter with a day job to headlining her own shows and leading a very public life. She knew she had a lot of catching up to do, but everything coalesced at a conference in Banff.
"[I'm] sitting at the head table, and there's two gentlemen from the Coast Salish nation, sitting to my right, and we're facing the audience and they spoke before I did. And they started their comments with a gesture. I learned it was a part of the traditional practice of the Coast Salish, which is that they welcome and they honour all the guests that come to their territory. And I was very moved by this and it just kind of focused me on the immediate future of my life with the majors in terms of what to do for the next six months to one year. That moment was going to take me through a lot, that early uncertainty. That's what that moment was all about for me.
"They use the words 'Huy ch q'u siem.' And so I went to speak with them afterwards, and I asked for permission to use the language in a song. And they gave me permission. I wrote their names down and went back to the studio. We had just signed a record deal. We were working on new songs. I had my producer Chad Irschick and we're spending some really awesome time together. He was coming to understand that I'm really coming to this with no experience whatsoever. And so he became a great mentor and he loved 'O'Siem' from the beginning. He saw it for what it was, which is a very special, special song. From that moment on, it always had its own life."
How to write a hit
Aglukark was still figuring out her approach to songwriting. She'd written songs for her 1992 Arctic Rose album, but she followed that up with a Christmas record, which was mostly standards. This Child, Aglukark's 1995 album that featured "O Siem," was her first real foray into writing for a major label.
"The writing of it was a lesson for me … I really had no preconceptions about writing for radio, writing a hit song. My producer Chad Irschick recognized this from the very beginning and I think he was very excited to be able to sit down and just work intuitively. The conversation around 'O'Siem' — I remember very vividly Chad was talking to me about, 'What's the message here?' As we're finding the message, I'm learning the message. And what I mean by that is, in our climate today as Indigenous Canadians, the work we're doing right now around reconciliation is correcting the narrative. I came to Ontario very much institutionalized, very stuck in my own head. So the conversations, the questions Chad would ask me around songwriting and especially a song like 'O'Siem,' it was just this beautiful thing: 'Just feel it, just trust it.' That was a whole new experience for me.
"Another moment that stays with me is Chad hired Claude Desjardins to do a lot of the percussion around the 'O'Siem' track. And at one point he had Claude on the floor in studio and had his whole drum getup all around him. When you hear the drum parts coming in, you just feel it. It was just so powerful. When he would start to play along with the track and you hear the rhythm and you feel the rhythm and you're just watching him play. It's like, 'Holy crap, that's great!' [Laughs] You know, 25 years later, I still get chills when I remember that moment with the drums."
Aglukark's Arctic Rose album tackled some difficult but important topics including suicide and suicide prevention for young Indigenous youth, and child sex abuse in Indigenous communities. Aglukark has continued to be an advocate and activist for Indigenous youth for more than 30 years. In part, this is why she's receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award at the 2022 Juno Awards. But it wasn't easy to figure out the right balance of vulnerability, stardom and healing.
"There was this really exciting period — exciting good, exciting bad — where things were moving very quickly. But I was also being forced to head-on deal with issues very quickly. On the one hand, it was very scary because I didn't fully comprehend the full scope of what was happening in the industry, in terms of celebrity and industry. But I understood what I was going through, and I was not the only Indigenous person. I learned very quickly with the Arctic Rose album that 'Oh my God, there's so many.' And so it was, you know, exciting and scary.
"I kind of opened up this can of worms with the Arctic Rose album. I needed to do it for myself, but it was never just about me. And yet my healing — I had to isolate in my heart, in my mind, my own healing journey while being a role model of sorts because I really understood what that meant. But I still had to give myself permission to make mistakes, to fall flat on my face, to be human in all of this process. But as much as it was a lot, it was time for it. There was something happening at that time that allowed me to create a space where I could go to cope with it. And that's not to say I coped with it all well or perfectly, whoever does, but well enough that I was able to compartmentalize and keep moving forward in the pace that I needed to be moving forward both in my healing and in the pursuit of the singing-songwriting career."
Writing lyrics in both Inuktitut and English was something Aglukark took very seriously. It might have looked easy, but she worked at it for years.
"Everybody assumed that because I write in both languages, I'm proficient in both languages. And I was not proficient in either when I first became a songwriter. So when we talk about the things that need to heal in the Indigenous community, I am much more comfortable to create in Inuktitut, and to perform in Inuktitut. But what I learned very quickly in the early years of songwriting was that our language, our word base was very small. And so there were ideas and concepts in my head that might be abstract, but I could not share and create a song abstractly because the language is very literal. And the other way around, I could write the entire song in English, and I had to figure out how to translate it and fit it in a rhythm. And some of our words are very, very long. And again, there are some things we just simply don't have words for, so I would have to write them kind of abstractly.
Siem o siyeya, all people rich and poor
Siem o siyeya, those who do and do not know
Siem o siyeya, take the hand of one close by
Siem o siyeya, of those who know because they try
And watch the walls come tumbling down
"It was the scariest thing because I have to respect the language. I respected the responsibility of sharing to my own fellow Inuit youth because they're listening. And yet I had to figure out how to honour my creative self. So there was this really scary balance I always worked in. Early on in songwriting, I travelled everywhere with a dictionary and a thesaurus in English because I had very limited English. So there was this period where I was like, 'What does this word mean?' and I would go and look in the dictionary. And then I would go look at the source for a similar meaning that fits in the rhythm of a song. It was a long process for me to create a song … it was exhausting." [Laughs]
How 'O Siem' lives on
'O Siem,' Aglukark, and This Child were nominated at the 1996 Juno Awards (single of the year, best female artist, album of the year, Indigenous artist of the year, and best music video). This Child was certified triple platinum in Canada. But it's also still hugely meaningful to Aglukark, her band and her audiences.
"It's the song we never get tired of playing. You know, there's even been a couple of instances where the same audience will ask for the song again, and we'll play it live again as a band. It's just one of those songs — and images, too. I mean, the video was pretty powerful. What our videographer put together, I think there's just something very universal about both the visual and the language in the song.
"The words in the song — like the ice wall, it breaks down barriers. I feel very proud that we put it together that way. Nothing was consciously decided. There was no 'sit down and say we've got to get this absolutely perfect mixture on radio and all the places.' It was just written from the heart. It was written from that very special place. I wonder if maybe that's what people sense often with it…. It's the song that I would sing a billion times over with the same audience. It's just that song."
Don't miss the 2022 Juno Awards, hosted by Simu Liu, live Sunday, May 15, at 8 p.m ET/5 p.m PT. Tune in on CBC-TV, CBC Gem, CBC Radio One, CBC Music and CBC Listen, and stream globally on cbcmusic.ca/junos, CBC Music's Facebook, YouTube and Twitter pages.