Elisapie’s ‘The Ballad of the Runaway Girl’ traces a powerful narrative of womanhood

Elisapie (All photos by: Le Pigeon)

Elisapie (All photos by: Le Pigeon)

In her third solo album, Elisapie has found the beauty in darkness as she embraces the complexities of vulnerability and healing in her journey so far. 

“I had a lot of things I wanted to deal with,” she says. “It’s not so much how my life put this music together, but how music was able to bring me to deal with issues that I guess we have to as mothers and grown-ups.” 

Shortlisted for the 2019 Polaris Music Prize, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl is a breathtaking and honest narrative of her experiences during the past six years, including love, postpartum depression and her own adoption, as well as celebrating and reconnecting with her northern roots in Salluit, Que. 

“I felt very depressed and scared of everything,” she says of the year-long process of writing. “I got to the point where I was afraid of going into my feelings but when you write music, you have to go there.” 

Frustrated with the writing process, she decided to put it all aside. Instead, Elisapie delved into her love of Indigenous folk music from the ‘60s and ‘70s for relief – with songs from Willie Thrasher, Willy Mitchell and her uncle’s band, Sugluk. 

“I felt like I was being reassured by these songs and it brought me back to life. It felt good to cry to these songs instead of the songs I was trying to make.”

Recorded live in a chalet, the week-long process is one Elisapie describes as “intimate and raw,” away from the technical side of production. Originally planned to be a collection of covers, which also marked a step away from the pop genre, she decided to weave in her own story.

Co-produced by the artist herself, alongside Joe Grass and Paul Evans, the album is layered with whimsical and soulful ballads in Inuktitut, English and French — the fabric of what has made The Ballad of the Runaway Girl a masterpiece that embodies the delicate and resilient dimensions of womanhood.

The album opens with “Arnaq” (the Inuktitut word for “woman”), which builds into a thundering rock-infused anthem sung in the language. Its music video documents the daily lives of women who live in Elisapie’s hometown, the second-largest northernmost Inuit community in Quebec, and honours missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. 

“I wanted to talk about how we are precious, valuable, strong and not just one kind of woman,” Elisapie says. “That’s why I said, ‘I’m your mother, I’m your daughter, I’m your grandmother,’ because when we hurt a woman, we not only hurt her, we hurt the whole clan.”

The singer-songwriter also paid homage to “artists that were as powerful as the songs themselves,” that spoke to Indigenous issues and Inuit culture. Mitchell’s “Call of the Moose” advocates for the defense of territory while Thrasher’s “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules” is an elevating and dreamy rendition of the original. Thrasher’s iconic song of Inuit culture was illustrated with archival footage Elisapie found of life in the north. 

“These were videos I found and just started crying,” she says. “I think I wanted to pay tribute to a whole lot of people that I loved and the changes that we went through and the innocence that is there also is so beautiful.”

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In an album that emphasizes connecting with her roots, “Rodeo (Yadi Yada)” recounts a young Elisapie’s desire to leave her hometown for life in the south — a song she says is about an innate desire to simply dream and the challenge of a new journey.

The Ballad of the Runaway Girl largely highlights experimentation in languages and sounds. “Darkness Bring the Light” is an ethereal but haunting track that unravels into an almost psychedelic experience towards its end, with blaring electric guitar and echoing chants of the song’s chorus. “Qanniuguma” (which means “If I was a snowflake” in Inuktitut) emphasizes percussion and features the throat singing of Inuk singer-songwriter Beatrice Deer. “Ton vieux nom,” the only track in French, concludes the album with gentleness.

Thematically, the artist also speaks to the many dimensions of love, predominately in motherhood as she navigates her own role as a daughter and mother. “Una” is where she returns to the very beginning and her own adoption as a baby in order to fully understand the present as a mother herself. 

“I thought, ‘What’s going on? Why the postpartum and all this now?’ I think if I was going to make a big cleanup of my life, I might as well go all the way back. Even though it’s a cultural thing to be adopted, I needed to ask those questions.” 

Watch: Elisapie, “Una

The emotional and powerful three-part documentary is a story of healing. It opens with “Part I” where Elisapie asks her birth mother, Eva, about what it was like to give her up for adoption. “Part II” is the song’s music video and “Part III” features a moving recount of Eva answering her daughter’s questions.

In what is her most personal album yet, Elisapie has given the listener an album that is musically and poetically transcendent, an experience she says has taught her to embrace her journey.

“When we give in to nature and the territory and spaces with a lot of wisdom, we realize life is beautiful and hard and sweet,” she says. “It taught me to love myself a little bit more and embrace my imperfections.”