Kathleen Merritt is having quite a year. The Rankin Inlet native is gearing up for the Alianait Arts Festival, for which she is training to replace the Executive Director; she’s also releasing her debut record, Ivaluarjuk, and preparing for her first trip with Adventure Canada. We caught up with her over the phone, just returned from a whirlwind press tour through Ottawa and Winnipeg.
Adventure Canada: Tell us about your work with Alianait.
Kathleen Merritt: It’s been a crazy time, for sure. I started working with the festival in 2010 as a volunteer. I guess they enjoyed me. [laughs] For the last two years I’ve been preparing to succeed the executive director—I love working in arts administration.
AC: What is it about AAF that attracted you initially?
KM: We truly believe that through the arts and connecting people, a lot of healing is possible. It’s about so much more than presenting art. When you see a bunch of northern people connect—magic happens. Our mission is to help build a healthier Nunavut through the arts. It’s obvious in all our programming that it’s geared towards a positive impact; we run alcohol-free, tobacco-free programming, we enter into real partnerships with communities. We work with World Suicide Prevention Day. We work with National Remembrance Day and Tobacco Has No Place Here. We want to promote and present healthy living more generally, and of course, share the artists’ talents with everyone.
AC: And the response has been positive?
KM: Absolutely. That’s the backdrop, but on the surface we’re not confronting—but really thinking—about different social justice issues and trying to target them through the arts. It’s a positive angle, not combative. When the big top goes up every year, the children come running. They volunteer; everything is open to the whole community free of charge, and we put together teaching workshops and musical jams and make it up as we go based on who’s coming. We really focus on creating on the spot—that’s where the magic happens. The audience has the chance to interact one-on-one with the performers; the artists are so willing to share their time. It’s beautiful.
AC: Can you tell us anything about Ivaluarjuk? You must be excited about the new record!
KM: Yes! I’m working part-time with AAF this year, so that gives me the time and the space to focus on my own art. I started singing in 2008; I moved to Ottawa to study traditional throat singing. For two years, every day, I practiced and practiced and practiced. I’ve always enjoyed performing, and at first I was immersed in more traditional Inuit art forms; throat singing, drum dancing. But the more involved I got, the more I realized that I wanted to learn everything, try everything. Hip hop, beat boxing, and electronic music have begun to have a real impact on traditional throat singing—any throat singer wants to try to work outside the box like that.
AC: Are those influences present on the record?
KM: [laughs] No, not so much. The last couple of years I’ve been wanting to put together a project that really represents me; who I am, where I come from. So that meant it’s somewhere between Celtic music—my dad is Irish—and traditional Inuit sounds. It’s very folky, very much a collaborative project.
AC: Why do you feel like your work is a good fit for Adventure Canada?
KM: Well, I’ve lived around. I grew up in the North, but I’ve travelled extensively. I hope that my perspective—someone who’s lived in northern communities but also in the south—will be valuable. I do my best to educate people; the perspective of someone from up here is so important. The colonial experience and the history of the North and how that has shaped Inuit culture—it’s important stuff to think about. More than anything, I want to share that the North is a place of wicked, harsh environments, but that life is about so much more than just survival, you know?. There’s so much beauty here, and so much life. That’s what I want to share with everyone.
Kathleen’s record will be released in July, around the same time she joins Adventure Canada aboard the Ocean Endeavour for the 2015 Arctic Explorer expedition. You can check out the forthcoming record Ivaluarjuk here, find more of her music through the CBC, and read more about her work in the latest issue of Inuktitut magazine. Alianait Arts Fesitval runs from June 26–July 1 in Iqaluit.