It doesn’t take much time spent in a confined space with Kelly Fraser to deduce that one is in the presence of an uncommonly strong personality.
That Fraser possesses an uncommonly strong personality is pretty much a given, of course, if one is acquainted with the logistical, socio-cultural and economic odds collectively stacked against an outspoken young Inuk performer from Sanikiluaq — a town of about 900 on the northern coast of Flaherty Island in Hudson’s Bay — ever getting her music to travel off the island, let alone outside of Nunavut.
The diminutive-but-combative Fraser has done that and more, registering a strong enough blip on the national radar with the tough-talking agit-pop of her second album, 2018’s Sedna, to score an Indigenous Album of the Year nomination at the Juno Awards and a Pop Album of the Year nomination at the Indigenous Music Awards. But, by virtue of geography, she’s had to work harder than most to get this far. One of the most intimate and revealing moments of last month’s Nunavut Music Week 2.0 gathering in Iqaluit — to which this writer was graciously invited to return as a delegate after being there for the first edition in the fall of 2017 — was Fraser’s tearful retelling to a small roomful of strangers the story of how she and her band wound up stranded in Iqaluit for a month with no money to eat, let alone to get home, after breaking the bank to finish her first album, Isuma, in 2014.
“I was glad to reiterate what it’s like up there. Even though you guys were there, you see it through the lens of an outsider, and I hope I helped you guys take a peek in, in a very human way,” says Fraser a couple of days later, laughing at the observation she must be wholly driven to ever have launched a music career from Sanikiluaq in the first place.
“Well, you can’t leave. One time I tried to run away. I tried to run away on a little island. I said ‘F–k it, I’m gonna do it like my ancestors. I don’t need no one, I don’t need nothin’.’ And my mother ended up tracking me down. She should be on Mantracker.”
Fraser has been hell-bent on making music her life for 15 of her 25 years. She “started writing really dark poetry” at 10, she chuckles, and that brewing thirst for self-expression dovetailed rather nicely with her first rock ‘n’ roll awakening.
“I watched the movie Freaky Friday with Lindsay Lohan on the guitar and I ran home and I told my parents they had to buy me a guitar,” she recalls. “I knew they had jobs, which unfortunately not many people did.”
Her early musical output tended more towards folk-rock, but the Fraser on display on Sedna and her rippin’ new single, “Rebound Girl,” is fully in love with pop music and its subversive potential. After all, she first came to wide attention outside the Nunavut territory way back in 2013 through a viral YouTube video of herself singing Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in Inuktitut and still throws Inuktitut versions of pop hits such as Camila Cabello’s “Havana” out on the internet occasionally to stoke the fires.
Fraser is unashamed of her love of pop, noting that “it can be anything you want it to be.” And in her hands, it’s a powerful tool. Sedna doesn’t let its reverence for hooks and irresistible dance beats get in the way of serious messages about the consequences of Canada’s dark colonial history, the suicide epidemic afflicting Indigenous communities or the need for the seal hunt in Northern communities. Her work, she says, “is trying to help change the perception of Indigenous people through song, through showing how human we are and the pain that we’ve gone through and how ‘decolonizing’ really means understanding that we are on stolen land and bad things have happened and to go forward we need to heal together.” While having some fun along the way.
She moved many in the audience to tears with her anti-suicide anthem “Stay Strong” during her Saturday-night Nunavut Music Week 2.0 performance at the Iqaluit Legion hall two weekends ago (full disclosure: I worked the door for that show), for instance, but seconds later brought the house down with the sassy electro-pop of “Rebound Girl,” a former ballad co-written with her “Disco Club” collaborator Mark Merilainen most recently turned into a gleaming electro-pop kiss-off with help from Greenlandic DJ/producer Aqqalu “Uyarakq” Berthelsen.
Fraser performs twice in Toronto during this Canadian Music Week, on Tuesday, May 7, at 8 p.m. at Longboat Hall and again on Friday, May 10, at Kensingston Sound at 10 p.m.
It’ll be hard to top the last time I saw her play on a makeshift stage out on the pack ice in Frobisher Bay on a freezing Sunday afternoon during Nunavut Music Week at a mini-outdoor festival dubbed “Floe-chella” by organizers, but at least no one will be risking death from exposure at Longboat Hall.
“It was so cold the day that we decided to perform outside on the ice — which is unheard of — and I’m proud to say I was a part of that and I’m proud that my Inuit ancestors were also there as I drummed my drum when I opened ‘Floe-chella.’ Outside on the sea ice while it was snowing,” says Fraser, also recalling “the time when I jumped into the Arctic Sea off a ship that was cruising through the Northwest Passage starting from Greenland all the way to the west of Nunavut, to Kugluktuk. It was snowing, there was a glacier nearby and I plunged in in my penguin hat and my gorgeous bikini. Those are two of the most cherished memories I will ever have of my home, the Arctic.”
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner