Chasing Rabbits – Terra Spencer (Interview + New Album)
Nova Scotian funeral director-turned-songwriter Terra Spencer has just followed up her 2019 debut Other People’s Lives with Chasing Rabbits, a collection of songs set against the backdrop of the Canadian winter. It’s a beautiful listen, filled with great storytelling and an arrangement of charmingly folky arrangements.
“Chasing Rabbits follows the tracks of ten stories about the people (and in one case, a dog) that are close to my heart. It tells the stories of emotions when there is distance in between; distance between yourself and someone who has taken you heart, the distance between you and a wild animal in the woods, leaving to go to college, or crossing the ocean on tour. This album is about what it means to come back home.”
While hosting an adventurous weekly livestream from a blanket fort, raising funds for Feed Nova Scotia, Terra spent the quarantine lockdown crafting this new collection of songs about leaving and longing, home life and wildlife; from a grisly coyote encounter on a woods trail, to a snowbird romance in Vietnam. Taking the producer’s seat alongside legendary East Coast engineer and studio owner Lil Thomas, she shaped each song with the ’70s sounds of Carole King, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, and drew inspiration from East Coast songwriters Jennah Barry and Rose Cousins.
Spencer discussed the project with Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who shared the importance of documenting moments and experiences through an album. She then noted: “When you work as a funeral director, you often think about the things people leave behind, and it makes me happy to think of these songs outliving me in some small way. Unlike my first record, these songs are all deeply rooted in my own life.”
We had the opportunity to chat with Terra about the new album, life as a funeral director/artist, her personal mantra, favourite Canadian artists, what she’s got coming up next and more. Click below to listen to Chasing Rabbits and keep scrolling for our interview!
You recently released your new album “Chasing Rabbits”, what has the reaction been so far?
I have been overwhelmed by the response, truly – I have a very faithful and supportive circle here in Nova Scotia who have been by my side over the past three years, but to have these very personal songs be embraced by new listeners, radio DJs, and reviewers from places as far away as Alaska, the UK, and Australia is astonishing to me. It has been a great joy mailing out little parcels of CDs and merch each day from my kitchen table – feels very festive! It’s always a surprise to receive messages from people who see a bit of their own lives in these songs, especially since I tend to write with very specific details.
Chasing Rabbits follows the tracks of ten stories about the people (and in one case, a dog) that are close to your heart. Can you tell us more about the theme of this album and what made you decide to go in this direction?
When I recorded In the City during the first snowfall in late 2018 and fell in love with the piano at Sonic Temple, I knew I wanted to make a whole album set in the winter, in that snowglobe atmosphere. But ultimately the record became about home, and the distance between family, lovers, or wild animals, in some cases. I spent more time away from home last year than I had in my whole life, touring through Canada, the UK, and Europe. 2019 marked the first time I had ever left Canada; quite a contrast to this year, since I haven’t left home at all!
Who were some of your main inspirations when writing this album?
I nearly fell over when reviewer Bob Mersereau drew a comparison between the song In the City and Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher, one of my favorite songs and one of the rare cover songs I’ve played. The song Saigon owes its sound to early albums from Elton John and Jackson Browne. Ron Sexsmith and Phoebe Bridgers mean a lot to me as songwriters. On the production side, the vocal harmonies by The Bombadils are a direct nod to the Carpenters – Karen was an unparalleled singer. And Judee Sill just captivates me in every way, both an angel and a devil on my shoulder.
Did the current pandemic affect the sound of this record at all? Do you think it will affect your songwriting moving forward?
I had done most of the planning for the album’s arrangements expecting to head into the studio with the whole band, but Covid restrictions put in place right before the project began meant that we couldn’t even rehearse in the same room. Musicians could only come into the studio in ones and twos. It was an exciting and anxious process for me as the producer, trusting that all the pieces would fit together in the end the way I heard them in my head! I did a little bit of experimenting with lo-fi home recording (a single and video called Raining On A Saturday, both recorded in my bed), but it just made me even more hungry to work in a studio with a professional engineer and real human musicians. I’m still craving collaboration, and am offering up some one-on-one online songwriting experiences to help other people tell their own stories through songs. And I’m currently learning more about home recording, although I’m hoping to keep it as simple as possible!
You released a video for the single Lunenburg Moon, can you tell us about the thought behind the visuals?
I’ve worked with filmmaker Katy Hopkins several times before, on videos for In the City and Cotton Mill, and we took advantage of the project as an excuse to have a fun outing in Lunenburg together on a beautiful late summer evening! Lunenburg really is a postcard for Nova Scotia, and one of our most distinctive tourist stops. St. John’s Anglican Church, with its starry sky ceiling, was the actual inspiration for the song’s opening lines, written after I played a show there with my pals Ryan Cook and Mike T. Kerr in 2017. We were billeted for the night in the beautiful bed and breakfast seen in the video. Combined, the two places seemed like the perfect setting for a star-crossed seaside romance. And the ice cream speaks for itself!
The song features The Bombadils, how was working with them?
In addition to being first-class instrumentalists, Sarah and Luke are wonderful friends who share my taste for slightly unconventional harmonies. They helped me test drive some of these songs when we paired up for a winter show last year, and I was charmed by the chemistry between them. When they recorded their vocals together in the studio, Sarah had to stand on an apple box to match Luke’s height. They are adorable!
You’re based in Nova Scotia, can you tell us about the Nova Scotia music scene?
Musicians are packed like mackerel here! We have a ridiculous abundance of talent for such a small place. I feel so lucky that I get to see some of my favorite acts play live because they live here – Jennah Barry, Museum Pieces, Old Man Luedecke, Erin Costelo. Although Nova Scotia is widely known for its fiddle music and Celtic influences, the diversity of the music being created here is constantly broadening. A lot of emphasis is placed on touring outside the province simply because there’s barely room for all the artists here!
You’ve been playing a series of live streams, how has that experience been?
Right at the start of lockdown in March, I pitched the idea to my family to host a variety show in a blanket fort in our basement. I was reluctant to attempt a proper concert, largely because the technology required was so new to me (and I didn’t own any of it). We thought Blanket Fort Tonight (and the lockdown) would last three or four weeks, but it ran for fifteen episodes, until summertime came and I could play shows outside. My favorite part is the interactivity; I truly missed the audience that has been such a support to me – they really feel like family, and having a time and place where we could hang out together did a lot to pass the time and feeling of isolation. It also helped me keep track of which day of the week it was. I’m very excited for the upcoming Blanket Fort Festive Special, live on Facebook and Instagram on December 17!
Do you think that the live streaming platform will continue to be used by artists post pandemic?
Live music is irreplaceable as an experience for the performer and the audience, but I think live streaming will continue as an alternative. I’m trying to be careful with my own expectations of what post-pandemic means, and embrace the idea that there might just be new normals. There are performers who have really valued being able to perform during the pandemic without having to leave their family and deal with the logistics and expense of touring, visas, etc. Live streaming can be its own community – fans from all over the world meeting each other on the screen and reacting together in real time. The company Side Door has done a great job cultivating that experience!
You released your debut album “Other People’s Lives” last year, what did you learn from that release that you applied to “Chasing Rabbits?”
Well, the first time around I knew absolutely nothing! I just let go of the leash the moment the album was done. It was an experiment in all respects, from writing to recording to release, and I just had fun with it. Chasing Rabbits was a much larger project – eighteen musicians, in a full studio, with support from Music Nova Scotia and the Province of NS, so I felt like I had to do it justice. There is some pressure with a second record to not disappoint the people who enjoyed the first. Sarah Porter stepped in at the perfect moment and has been a terrific partner, helping put the songs in the hands of radio stations and listeners in new places.
Ok, so this one isn’t a music question, but you’re the first artist I’ve interviewed who is also a funeral director. How is that experience?
The balance between those two worlds has tipped back and forth over the past few years. There have definitely been times when I was writing obituaries from tour hotel rooms or festival grounds! The great gift of my funeral work is learning the interesting details of a life well-lived, or not – it is a constant reminder that our time here is precious, and can be short. I’m always aware of my Bucket List, and it gives me courage to try something that might fail. Sometimes it makes me hustle out a project when I ought to wait a bit – Other People’s Lives was a good example of that!
Who are some of your favourite Canadian artists right now?
I’m in love with Rose Cousins’ song The Agreement, a brand-new song called Poetry in Motion from fellow Nova Scotians Villages. Catherine MacLellan’s album Coyote is new folk at its finest, and she is a joy to play with. I’m a card-carrying member of the Museum Pieces fan club, and I just played a few original guitar instrumentals on my brilliant pal Mike T. Kerr’s new LP. Campbell Woods is a heartbreaking storyteller, and Stewart Legere is making beautiful new music. My daughter Sarah and I are totally smitten with Jennah Barry’s new album, Holiday. There is a growing group of strong songwriting women here on the East Coast, which is exciting to see…this list could go on for a while!
I read in a past interview that your personal mantra is “This will all make sense eventually.” It seems more fitting than ever right now, can you discuss that thought?
Thank you for reminding me of that mantra! This year has brought a lot of hardship for many people, so I am cautious of looking for silver linings, but in it I was able to let go of some of the smaller doubts and stresses I was carrying. Having so many things suddenly be out of my control was kind of freeing – instead of worrying whether I was doing enough in a day, and focusing on show bookings months ahead, I focused on dinner instead. Some of my best experiences (including this adventure in music, and last year’s travels) have come when I’ve been shaken out of what I thought was normal life, so I hope I look back on 2020 that way.
What can fans expect next from Terra Spencer?
After a few more December album release shows close to home and the Blanket Fort livestream, I want to spend time writing, with ideas I’ve been squirreling away and ones I expect will emerge through the online songwriting workshops I’m leading. That being said, I still have a considerable bank of songs destined for future albums, but I’ve made my family promise not to let me make another record next year! There are two projects I’m involved with that are still in the secretive stage – a documentary about Judee Sill, and a musical, which are both hugely exciting! I’m hopeful that show dates postponed in 2020 will get their chance in 2021, including the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival and a Maritime tour opening for David Francey. I have a dream of playing a tour of pianos in churches and soft-seat theatres, and in the longer term, I hope to retrace my steps from last year through Ontario, the UK, and Germany. My favorite time to start a new project is in the middle of the current one – still lots of rabbits to chase!