Interview – Terra Spencer

Terra Spencer, a funeral director (and “chocolate inspector”) from Summerville, Hants County, turned singer-songwriter and most recently – a producer – released her sophomore album on November 13. Chasing Rabbits is ten tracks that tell the stories of people that are very close to Spencer’s heart. I think that these quotes below speak best of what you can expect from this beautiful collection of tunes.

A short synopsis of what Spencer says of Chasing Rabbits,

“It tells the stories of emotions when there is distance in between; distance between yourself and someone who has taken your 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.”

David Francey, a JUNO Award-winning Canadian folk singer-songwriter, who is also a dear friend and mentor to Spencer, played a key role in the making of the album and he notes,

“Sometimes when you’re walking on a dark street at night you catch a vignette unfolding in a lighted window and the whole story’s there. In the moment. The songs on Terra Spencer’s new album Chasing Rabbits are like that, replete with seamless, shifting arrangements and angel band horns. They are each complete stories, compellingly wrapped in a blanket warm voice. This is an artist who knows both sides of the heart well, who’s seen enough of life to still reflect kindly, if keenly, on its continuous unfoldings.”

Now, on to the interview I had with Terra Spencer, via email. This was a great opportunity for me, through Canadian Beats, to chat with Spencer about her album and more. Check out our questions and her answers. You will enjoy what you read.

People have a need to hear new music right about now and we at Canadian Beats would like to congratulate you on the release of your sophomore album, Chasing Rabbits.

Let’s chat about your album, Chasing Rabbits

Tell us a bit about your album and how it came to be? The soundtrack seems to be real and from your heart, the kind that people can relate to, especially on a snowy Canadian winter day.

When I recorded “In the City” at Sonic Temple with Bela String Quartet in late 2018, on the first snowfall of the season, it made me imagine what it would be like to play a concert inside a snow globe. I vowed on the spot to go back there and make a whole wintery record and started saving up songs set in the wintertime. What surprised me is that the songs I collected didn’t end up being so much about winter itself, certainly not about the holidays, but more about my family (including my dogs) and my home, especially being away from home. Traveling was a big part of my life in 2019 – this year, not so much!

I love that you shaped each track of Chasing Rabbits with the ’70s sounds of Carole King, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. Tell us how these artists inspired you as a songwriter.

I get pretty heavily involved with the songs and albums I cherish. I grew up listening to my aunt’s old records on repeat in my grandparents’ basement – Supertramp, Elton John, Jackson Browne – and loved the combination of piano, drums and layered harmonies. I’m pretty sure I drew from Jackson Browne’s song “Jamaica Say You Will” and Elton John’s “Levon” in the making of “Saigon,” the last track of Chasing Rabbits. That full sound is a big departure from the folky acoustic guitar-driven songs that I often write and perform. Having a piano and a band is a luxury for a singer-songwriter.

Describe the type of songs that are on this album?

Although I’ve never kept a journal, these songs feel like excerpts from a diary I might have written. They are very personal, as opposed to many of the stories of Other People’s Lives, and they reach right back to my childhood, through college days, falling in and out of love, having a family of my own, and leaving home again as an adult. Although the lyrics are always at the forefront, they are supported by beautiful sounds from a whole heap of friends and family. It’s meant for a long listen in a cozy place with a warm drink or as company for a snowy drive home.

The first few releases from an artist are usually an exercise in character building. They begin to establish who you are and what you are about as an artist. Which song from Chasing Rabbits do you believe would best represent who you are as an artist at this stage of your career?

The song “Feels Like Home” was the last to be written – I finished it this past winter, just as I thought I’d be heading into the studio, before getting delayed by the Covid shutdown. It’s a song meant to be played and sung with other people and feels like a celebration of everyone who helped me make the album. Engineer Lil Thomas, my right-hand man at Sonic Temple throughout the recording process, plays electric guitar and you can hear my family singing in the choir at the end. The song also speaks to the music community where I still feel like a newcomer in a lot of ways, but being welcomed by so many artists and admired mentors has made it feel like home to me.

What did you discover about yourself during this creative process?

I hope I learned a few things from making Other People’s Lives – namely, that it’s good to have a game plan heading into the studio! I spent a long time choosing the songs for Chasing Rabbits, and armed myself with a Hilroy scribbler mapping out each song’s arrangements, horn parts and string parts. This album was a huge growing experience for me as a producer. Because of Covid, I couldn’t ever get the musicians together in the same room to try out the arrangements and harmonies I heard in my head, and it was a leap of faith to record each piece one by one, trusting it all would fit together. I channelled Erin Costelo, a Nova Scotian musical powerhouse, to boost my confidence in the producer’s chair!

Tell us a bit about the recording of Chasing Rabbits. It seems that this was a very unique and extraordinary experience.

My pal Mike T. Kerr says that the best way to make a record is surround yourself with the best people you can find, and the record will make itself. I was able to bring in my A-list choice of musicians, including The Bombadils, Jordi Comstock and Adam Fine, in part because they weren’t away touring! The Sonic Temple studio is a beautiful space hidden in the middle of downtown Halifax, but everything about it feels comfortable and a bit broken-in. I hadn’t met Lil Thomas before the project started, and he turned out to be such a kindred spirit, right down to our shared tendency to hum while we work and eat protein bars for lunch. The whole experience was honestly a dream.

Now that this album is out for the world to hear, how does it feel for you?

It feels quite vulnerable to release a project that is so close to my heart. I’m so proud of the contributions of the musicians, engineers and artists on the record. I’ve always been amazed by the generosity and attentiveness of the audiences I play for, and I wondered if they would greet this second album the same way. It feels strange to not be travelling around playing shows, but I am grateful I still get to share this music with them. So far the response has been very warm, from listeners and reviewers as far away as Alaska, Texas, the UK and Australia, which is pretty wild!

Is there any one song on Chasing Rabbits that you feel your fans can relate to the most?

I would not have predicted that people would connect with an epic six-and-a-half-minute song that recounts the minute details of me leaving home for college, but I’ve been shocked by how many listeners have identified with “In the City.” There is a weird irony in that my daughter, Sarah, was supposed to be going to the same school in the same city – King’s College, in Halifax – for her first year, but instead she’s doing classes at home right next to my music room.

Let’s chat about some random things that will make your fans get to know you better …

Is there an artist, an album and/or event that had a profound impact on you that made you say, “I think I want to go to being a singer-songwriter from being a funeral director.” That’s a huge leap in career choices.

I didn’t really plan to be doing either of those things – I only began performing as a musician thanks to Ryan Cook inviting me to join his band, and I got my start at the funeral home by being the funeral organist! So I have Ryan to thank for showing me the ropes and inviting me to play my own songs for his audiences. My dear friend and Canadian folk icon David Francey has been a terrific mentor for me as someone who took a leap later in life when he already had a sensible job and a family. Being a funeral director certainly serves as a reminder that life is short, and you should make the most of whatever chances you get to find joy in a day.

Tell us a bit about your love of playing the piano and secretly strumming your grandfather’s guitars in a basement.

In addition to being a killer lead guitar player, my granddad cleaned furnaces for a living and as his payment, would bring home instruments he found in basements. I took a shine to an electric organ when I was seven, and my family put me in piano lessons. My piano teacher, Mr. Aulenbach, was a true gem and his enthusiasm was totally infectious. I’d miss supper because I didn’t want to stop practicing. A few years later I learned to play guitar by listening to Grampie’s Chet Atkins LPs because I was too stubborn to let him teach me. I wrote the song “Grampy” for Mike T. Kerr’s latest album as a thank you for him.

You are the recipient of the 2020 National Arts Centre “Stay Home With” Emerging Artist Award, nominated by Dave Gunning. How did it feel when you heard that you took home the hardware for this award?

When you’re in the middle of making a studio album, the best kind of hardware you can receive is a little extra funding! But, the best thing about that award was being nominated by Dave, especially given all the talent here on the East Coast. I respect him so much as a person of great integrity. His album Up Against The Sky calmed my nerves on my flight across the ocean last year, when I left Canada for the first time to tour in the UK and Europe with Ryan Cook. I spent a terrific day in Dave’s studio recording the song “Boat Harbour” last summer, and he instantly became a forever friend.

With all the many social media platforms that exist today telling the world your life story, is there anything about you that would be of interest to your fans; something that they couldn’t find on your own social network or even Google?

I have a notoriously strong stomach – I follow a number of medical accounts with great interest. But there is one thing that I often receive as a gift that absolutely and irrationally freaks me out, and it is … earrings.

And last but not least, if you can have one thing that your fans could remember about you, what would it be?

I would just like them to remember how grateful I was for their patience in listening to these marathon songs – my resolution for 2021 is to write three-minute songs. And that bringing chocolate to shows is always a great idea!

We, at Canadianbeats.ca, thank you Terra so much for taking the time for this interview and helping your fans get to know you a little more. We wish you continued success.

Check out Chasing Rabbits HERE or at www.terraspencer.ca

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