Written by Lights. Check out the photos of her trip in the gallery above. Check out her live, a capella performance of "Siberia" here.
It is 7 a.m., Jan. 13, driving away from Pearson International Airport in the pouring rain. I’ve just completed a near 20-hour trek back to Toronto from the Arctic kitty corner of our country. I’m chuckling to myself as I duck into the rain, unzipping my heavy parka in the city that, until four days ago, I thought was cold.
Flash back to October. A photo of an “igloo church” and the prospect of packing my acoustic guitar and making for the Arctic with CBC lands in my inbox. The idea is romantic, the remoteness is chilling and the thought of taking my music to an entirely new place is thrilling. With no hesitation I agree to journey to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Having spent the summer and remainder of the fall finishing an entirely acoustic version of my last album, Siberia, this could be the perfect place to launch the sounds into the air for the first time.
As the logistics of the trip unfold, I begin to learn more about the destination. Three degrees north of the Arctic Circle, Inuvik is where the road ends, literally. Driving any further north requires an ice road on a frozen river. This small place of 3,200 people has run into some hard times lately; the local food bank has been ransacked twice in recent months. Our concert would benefit this cause with food items and cash donations instead of tickets. Suddenly my trip to our great, white North is not so much about me anymore.
After weeks of emails, planning and sock shopping, Jan. 8 is upon us. The flight from Toronto to Inuvik involves an overnight stop in Edmonton followed by a milk run on half-cargo/half-passenger Canadian North jet through Yellowknife, Norman Wells and finally terminating in Inuvik. As we make our first descent into the Arctic, I notice two things: white, stunted forest as far as the eye can see and the endless, bluish glow. The locals haven’t seen the sun since Dec. 6. Though technically the first daylight after their 30 days of night should have been a few days ago, cloud cover has muted it to this dull, icy blue. The minute I stepped onto the tarmac I felt it — the bitter, leg-biting cold creep in through the threads of my clothing. And that was on a “warm” day, a balmy –20 C.
Our crew of six is met at the airport by our host, Peter Clarkson, Inuvik’s regional director and former mayor and just general know-it-all. Not in the bad know-it-all kind of sense; this man literally seems to know everything. From wilderness survival, to northern culture and politics, from the habits of arctic grizzlies and wolf packs, to local employment and population demographic trends. And as our initial tour of the town progresses, two more things become clear: Peter Clarkson knows everything and I know nothing. A career spent talking about oneself, whether through song, blog (like this!), interview or stage banter, isn’t exactly conducive to just shutting up and listening, but that is exactly what I did. I learned more about what it means to be Canadian in my first four hours in Inuvik than I had in a long time.
Upon getting into my hotel room, I instinctively double each of my layers. With dinner scheduled at the Clarkson house, we all put pants on pants on pants on socks on socks on shirts, tucked into our hats and tightened our hoods to walk the three blocks. After a quick pit stop at the Inuvik Liquor Store (the only liquor store north of the Arctic Circle), we waddle through the icy streets, padded to the brim, mitt-fisting bottles of wine all the way. That night we eat our fill of arctic char, caribou and moose meat. Locally bred meat seems to be the most affordable food in these parts, unlike the imported fruits and vegetables baring inflated prices. “Chew slowly,” we’re told of the $17 pineapple and $14 grape bunches. Needless to say, it’s a meaty few days.
Just as we are about to turn into the hotel for the night, we see four young girls shuffle toward us across the street. In the blur of my memories I believe two of them had their coats open. This concept is beyond me. In retrospect, I suppose this is why all of us at our table are pointed out as “tender feet” by the local bar band later on in the trip. One of the girls in particular has been a fan since 2009. We take photos and exchange hugs, promising to see each other on the night of the show. As an artist, you never really think about how far your music is going to reach, or even how far it will take you, moments like these are surreal.
It isn’t until the next morning that I truly feel like the tender foot I am. It’s 10 o’clock a.m. and I notice two more things: the sky is still pitch dark and my nose is bleeding from the dryness of the air. After slathering on moisturizer and the pants on pants on pants scheme, myself and my tour manager, Brad Ferguson, hop a cab to the local CBC branch for a radio interview. We feel a little ashamed upon discovering the studio is a mere block away. Having spent the last seven years living in Toronto, by nature I’ve learned to build in almost an hour of travel time if you wish to cross town. Inuvik, you see, has one street light, literally. One bulb. It takes a full day to come to terms with this scale. Ironically we hit the red almost every time.
The next stop is one I have been anticipating dearly — dog sledding. How many times in life will you be presented an opportunity to be dragged across a cold field by six white dogs? Truly a dream for some, potentially a nightmare for others. Either way, I am excited for the new experience. Quickly, we learn the difference between mushing and dog sledding (which is apparently the difference between a Ferrari and a Volvo). Mush dogs are for racing, skinny and small; sled dogs are for casual riding, big, fluffy and slow. In this respect, I also learn I had been led astray by the Cuba Gooding Jr. film, Snow Dogs. Thankfully, since this was my first try, we are not mushing. The dogs are beautiful, pure white with cold blue eyes. I board my sleigh trembling, half because it is –36 out and half because I discover I will be riding solo. We go over some basic commands and hit the snow, at which point it quickly becomes clear that dogs don’t actually listen to me. But all I really need to know is how to stop if a dog needs a restroom break.
“Do not run over any of the dogs,” I was warned. That is fair, I thought. We careen around the field and through the bush for a while; it is an unforgettable experience. The dogs just want to run and I just want to watch them run so it is a good angle for both of us. At one point we all stop to look at the sun, a small, orange ball resting on the distant horizon. This is the first time these people have seen the sun in over a month. The look on their faces I will never forget. After a while, breathing turns my hair into a white beard and my toes go numb. We call it and I give each of the dogs a rub, thankful that no dogs were harmed in the making of my day.
We make a quick stop on a high point of a nearby area that looks over the vast landscape of snowy pines. The sky looks like deep shades of a rainbow, stuck in some permanent sunset. Suddenly I am north of the wall in Game of Thrones. I strain my eyes for signs of white walkers. Suddenly, one of the massive, white satellite dishes stationed beside us catches the signal of one of its associates and swings around to track it, bringing me out of my daydream. It’s a weird juxtaposition. I sing "Siberia," a cappella, in the cold and it seems to carry for miles.
Later that evening, we take the ice road up to the Arctic coast hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. On the journey, my interview with CBC comes on the radio; I listen. I am talking too fast. The things you learn when you listen. The host concludes the interview saying, “Lights is probably on her way up the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk right now.” It’s one of those moments where everything lines up and you realize you’re in the right place at the right time.
In Tuk we receive a quick tour of the town, set our feet on the frozen Arctic Ocean, visit the local RCMP station where they have reworked the logo to feature the mountie riding a polar bear instead of a horse and, lastly, visit the “ice house.” Initially frightening, as you lower yourself 30 feet into its dark bowels on a rickety ladder surrounded by a smell best described as “unique” (another way of defining “musty fish scent”), the ice house opens up into a network of crystalline tunnels carved into ancient layers of permafrost. Countless thick levels of clear ice sandwich thin layers of sand giving away their age. It’s remarkable, a natural freezer in summer and winter alike. We ascend from the depths to a group of young fans in disbelief that I’m there. I earnestly say I’m so glad that I am. That night, my cellist Kevin Fox and I sit in my hotel room and rehearse until the wee hours for the show the following night — the reason we have come all this way.
The next day I rise at what seems like the crack of dawn based on the cold dark, but it is actually 10 a.m. The igloo-shaped church across the street from the hotel is all lit up, the dome on top is glowing. The building was designed by a man with only a Grade 5 education and no blueprints. Somehow it has sustained beautifully for over 50 years.
Standing in the very centre of the room, a warm, fast echo slaps your voice back to you. It tickles my Phil Collins fancy and I belt out “In the Air Tonight;” the reverb does its job. This is our venue for tonight, perfect for an acoustic show. I swing by the mayor’s office, where we chat for a few minutes and take some photos. I can’t believe I am being welcomed here with such open arms. It seems to be this strange symbiosis: I get to see my music move in the remote reaches of my country, and they get to see a show where few shows ever come. My nerves start to tingle.
Our last stop before show time is the local school, which teaches from kindergarten to high school. As we approach the building, kids wave excitedly through the windows. There is a poster taped to the front door with my picture on it, featuring a second shirt photoshopped underneath my loosely buttoned flannel. I can’t tell if I’m chuckling at the fact that someone thought it had to be done or if I think they could’ve at least concocted a cooler shirt. Just beyond the door there are heaps of shoes. East 3 is a shoes-off school; kids stroll around with moccasins, socks and indoor shoes. The environment is cozy and friendly, unlike every single one of my public school experiences. Between taking questions from the crowd, Kevin and I play a few songs. I am surprised when there are requests called out for other songs of mine. It seems I have underestimated the power of the internet once again.
The final hour has come at last. I stretch my fingers, arch my back and hug Kevin. We reflect on the moment. This has already been an experience of a lifetime. The warmth and generosity of these people counteracts the harsh environment, to the point where the cold becomes an afterthought. It is clear music could reach the top of Everest if you brought it there, as long as there are people to soak it in. This is the life. This time my music has taken me here, and it is beautiful. I learned to listen and to admire, and to never stop letting yourself be blown away. It seems my feet are already less tender than the day we came. I walk out to the stage and pick up my guitar. The room is full, young and old alike.
I can’t tell you how the show goes — I can’t review my own show. I don’t even know half of the faces I’m making when I’m up there. But I do know that it flies by, the smiles on their faces are warm. Before I know it, we’re on the second encore song and half the room is singing along to "Saviour." I will later find out we receive enough food donations to fill a truck.
Check back later for the video of Lights' performance from Inuvik's igloo church.
Siberia Acoustic is out on April 30. The first single, "Cactus in the Valley" is available March 19.
Lights performs ‘Siberia’ in Inuvik