A Chat with Calgary’s Rae Spoon before the St. John’s Album Launch

Shannon has a lengthy chat with Polaris Prize nominee, Rae Spoon, who is playing in St. John's this week.

Rae Spoon peels off layers of self, and pushes electronic and personal boundaries with their latest release, Armour.

Armour adds to their (Spoon’s preferred pronoun) discography, which spans: Honking at Minivans (2001), Throw Some Dirt On Me (2003), White Hearse Comes Rolling (2006), Superioryouareinferior (2008), Worauf Wartest Du? (2009), Love is a Hunter (2010), I Can’t Keep All Of Our Secrets (2012), and My Prairie Home (2013).

Spoon is an ever-evolving, distinctive experimental artist. On the heels of their Polaris Prize-nominated My Prarie Home, part of the soundtrack to a National Film Board documentary directed by Chelsea McMullan, Armour is Spoon’s musical response to the blurred lines between the public and private self.

Prior to the cinematic release of My Prairie Home in 2013, a NFB doc screened internationally, Spoon published a collection of short stories, First Spring Grass Fire (Arsenal Pulp, 2013), exploring their upbringing in an Evangelical Christian family in Calgary, trauma and coming out as transgender.

First Spring Grass Fire garnered an honour of distinction for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LBGT writers in 2014, and a nomination for 2013 Lambda Literary Award in the Transgender fiction category. Spoon also collaborated with Ivan Coyote on Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp 2014), a book and mulitmedia touring show.

Spoon and I first met in 2008, when I interviewed them for The Coast: Halifax’s Weekly. We’ve swapped first drafts of stories, writer- to-writer, slept on one another’s couches all over the country, and travelled London, England together.

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It’s almost an annual thing for us to do an interview, Rae. We’ve been in conversation for the past six albums or so. A lot has changed in the past few years – publications, a NFB documentary, marriage, and we both now live on opposite coasts. How’s your new home in Victoria treating you?

I know! I feel like I could piece our annual interviews together to keep track of my late 20s and early 30s. Victoria is a great place to live. I lived here a long time ago and actually recorded my first two albums here. It feels like its own homecoming.

Armour blends electro-pop and confession. It’s dramatic electronic music, both angsty and artful. The album feels both personal, and universal. What songs did you grapple most with writing?

I grappled with the album in general. At first it went to a folk style of song writing until I decided to make a pop/electronic album. I pulled a bunch of the original songs off to save for later. I wrote “Flood” and “Go For The Kill” a couple of weeks before I recorded the album, so they feel like the ones I had to really focus on to get right in the studio.

The last song on the album, Try Again At Everything,” is one hell of a hopeful heartbreaker. That cello! What inspired this song?

I wrote “Try Again At Everything” in the midst of the tour with the documentary. There was a lot of personal trauma in the film, as well as in my albums and books. I also met my future spouse and we eloped. I thought a lot about what motivated me to give having a family another try and the song came out of that.

Music has always been a shield of sorts, both for listener and maker. It’s a harbour. Armour speaks to the walls you’ve built, or had to rebuild around yourself, and inevitably let go of. How does the relationship between art and catharsis relate?

Music has always been my main form of emoting. I find singing a lot easier than expressing myself in other ways. Songwriting is interesting because you write four-minute pieces expressing something and then you play them over and over. Sometimes I think the repetition is the main catharsis.

After releasing so many records, two books, and a NFB film, how has your reltationship to creativity shifted, or evolved?

Writing books and being the subject of My Prairie Home opened up the way I think of art. Everything has become more multi-media now and I try to embrace that instead of sticking to one medium.

Clearly, songwriting and literary work are different beasts, but there is a relationship between the two. How does your approach to songwriting differ from your literary work?

I have been told that my writing is very musical. I started writing songs when I was twelve and didn’t do much creative writing after high school until I was 27. Songwriting is much easier for me, but writing literary pieces has found its place in my practice. There are a lot of things I can’t express within the confines of 30 rhyming lines.

We both write from very personal, often vulnerable places. This can be tricky, as I know how exposed I felt when I first published Still No Word. Given the nature of your work, how do you protect yourself?

There is a pretty strong division between public and private in my life, probably because I started doing interviews and playing shows at a young age. I am pretty measured about everything I do, partially out of self-protection, but also because I think it’s important to really consider what I produce in terms of my audience.

We ran into conflict in 2012 when I was supposed to interview you for the cover Daily Xtra! Gay and Lesbian News. Unfortunately at the time the editors at Daily Xtra! wouldn’t agree to publish your pronoun (they), and the story got pulled. You published a Tumblr post, Instead of An Interview with Xtra, which was later included in Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp). The post sparked a crucial nation- wide conversation about pronouns and the media. How have things changed in the past four years in terms of transgender politics in the media?

The past four years have seen a lot more exposure for trans folks in the media, including for people who use the singular they pronoun. There are a lot more trans people who are household names now. The more vulnerable sections of the trans community, however, are not getting much exposure (sex workers, people of colour and/or people without legal immigration status in Canada). It would be great to see more intersectional coverage of trans issues. Also, gender identity is still not on the charter of rights in Canada. More articles about that would help put pressure on the government to pass a bill and change the law.

How can journalists work towards creating safe spaces for transgender folks and conversations around trans issues in the media?

Respect names and pronouns, and pay attention to the many lists out there of questions not to ask trans people. If a journalist does overstep, it’s easy to say sorry and print a correction.

Throughout your discography you manage to tackle tough subject matter – colonialism, queer issues, gender, identity politics –and turn these concepts into artful, intelligent and accessible pop tunes. “Stolen Song” addresses forms of appropriation in art. You’ve said it’s your apology for stealing other people’s identities. Why is this important to take into consideration as an artist?

Racism is commonplace in the Canadian arts industry, from appropriative band names to the exclusion and/or othering of people of colour in every medium. I’m transgender and queer, and I’m also white. I can’t ask other people to reconsider stealing identities that don’t belong to them unless I take responsibility myself. That’s what “Stolen Song” is about: a request that if someone tells a person they have stolen their identity to just apologize and try really hard not to do it again.

I’ve seen you perform everywhere from the UK to Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, St. John’s and even at a friend’s wedding at Camp Mockingee. What can we expect from your show at The Ship on March 3rd with Neil Conway?

I played my first shows in St. John’s with Neil Conway. He’s an amazing songwriter, so I’m really looking forward to playing with him again. I will be playing a set of a couple of old songs and, of course, the new album. It will be an upbeat, electronic set.

What are you working on?

I’m working on a book and an album that are interrelated. It could take quite a while to complete. Perhaps I’ll release some EPs of new songs in the meantime. I’ll be touring Europe, Canada and the USA with Armour for the next year as well.

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