RAE SPOON at the Gladstone Ballroom, September 18, 7 and 10 pm. $12-$15. EB. See listing.
Rae Spoon seems unrufflable. Three dropped Skype calls into a conversation, the musician laughs off the disruptions and suggests we switch to the hotel room's land line.
Things weren't always this way, however. When Spoon was a queer teenager stuck in an evangelical Pentecostal household in Calgary lorded over by a paranoid-schizophrenic father, the smallest disturbances triggered panic.
Raised to believe the end times were nigh, Spoon had anxious bouts whenever, say, a heater turned on, imagining the sound to be a trumpet signalling the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
"If you were gay and led a gay life, you were not going to be protected," Spoon recalls.
This detail about the transgender indie singer/songwriter comes during the documentary-musical My Prairie Home, hitting theatres this November. Directed by Chelsea McMullan and produced by the National Film Board's Lea Marin, the film explores Spoon's childhood through a fantastically original blend of musical sequences, on-the-road footage, first-person interview and stunning cinematography.
As ambitious as it is, it's just one - the final - part of a larger years-in-the-making project that also includes a short story collection Spoon published last fall and an album, also called My Prairie Home, released on Saved by Vinyl in August, which gets a two-show launch party at the Gladstone on Wednesday.
The album takes a step back from Spoon's last few Polaris Prize-nominated adventures in electronic-pop, zeroing in on gospel and folk in its first half before moving into rock and grunge, paralleling Spoon's real-life musical journey.
"I thought it would be disingenuous to write an electronic album about growing up in Alberta, since there wasn't actually a lot of electronic music in my childhood," laughs Spoon, fresh off a performance at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival.
"I tried to keep it closer to the genres I was exposed to. Christian contemporary music. Gospel music. Folk. But I processed the sounds electronically, and there are some samples, so it's not totally not an electronic album."
The focal point is Spoon's high, light voice, beckoning like the clarion they (Spoon prefers the gender-neutral, third-person pronoun) used to dread hearing as a kid. Sometimes it's bright and understated, other times layered and briefly fluttering. It delivers the sweetest melodies. It hides behind nothing.
Same goes for the lyrics. In Amy Grant, Spoon wishes they'd known about Freddie Mercury when he was still alive rather than the Christian pop singer of the title. In I Can't Tear It From Me, we learn about the grandmother who taught Spoon how to love and to sing their way through things. Cowboy, meanwhile, is the most vulnerable song ever written about acting tough in order to impress someone.
That song opens the film, with the diminutive Spoon bravely walking through a Calgary diner full of truckers and old-timers, strumming a guitar and singing. The rugged customers stare back with indifference, judgment, curiosity and amusement. You sort of fear for Spoon, but you're also completely compelled.
And with that, the chief conflict comes into view. Someone like Spoon, outside the traditional gender binary, flummoxes (at best) and enrages (at worst) many people. How can a person dress like a "boy" but sing like a "girl" and identify as a "they"?
Acceptance requires the embracing of a fairly new idea: that gender is fluid, irrelevant, something to let go of. Maybe there's no such thing as a voice that sounds female, or an outfit that reads male. We're all a mix of both.
Spoon met McMullan six years ago, while working on one of the director's earlier documentaries, Deadman, for which Spoon wrote the score. McMullan had a profound reaction to hearing Spoon's singing voice for the first time.
"My whole body began to tingle, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and longing. When we began collaborating and they slowly opened up and told me their story, I realized their history is all in their music. Rae carefully wraps secrets in their melodic voice."
Hence, the documentary-musical approach.
The way Spoon remembers it, the idea for My Prairie Home first arose out of a discussion the two had in 2010 about the musician's perceived lack of marketability, a criticism Spoon sometimes receives when applying for music video funding. ("Maybe I am unmarketable," Spoon says, "but there's also definitely some transphobia going on.")
"My intention for the film was to create a biography of a feeling. I want the audience to understand in a visceral way what it's like to be Rae Spoon," McMullan says. "I have so much respect for them as an artist. I don't think there are too many artists out there like Rae, who have total autonomy over their work. They don't play the industry game. They just sing it out and let the music speak for itself."
Also, Spoon's story has no shortage of narrative conflict: fire-and-brimstone childhood; family mental illness; being queer in cowboy country; gender and genre confusion - Spoon spent 10 years in Vancouver identifying as male and playing country music.
Then there's the bullying that began when Spoon started a relationship - interracial, at that - with a girl at their high school. In the film's most powerful section, Spoon and the ex reunite for the prom they never had.
"That was the most surreal thing," Spoon says. "Having the prom we never went to. We couldn't go to ours. Things were very violent. I don't think either of us went to graduation either. Because you're not out to your parents. What if someone yells something at you when you're walking across the stage? We couldn't take the risk."
And yet the tone of the film and songs is anything but bitter.
"Well, I didn't want to make music or write a book or be in a film that was full of rage," Spoons says. "Because maybe I have my share of rage, but I don't think it necessarily makes for the best art for communicating with other people, you know what I mean? And that's why it's better we filmed it when I was near or in my 30s."
These days, Spoon, who lives in Montreal, seems content, calm and clear about who they are. Even constant life on the road as an underpaid, overworked indie musician hasn't taken its toll. (Down-to-earth, comical Spoon says their trick for staying sane is to not drink, get lots of sleep and eat all the time.)
Still, a sense of tension remains. Spoon's father, from whom the entire family is now estranged, remains a menacing presence in both the film and in their life, showing up unexpectedly at shows, watching in silence and then escaping into the night. And the gender stuff trips people up daily.
"Other people decide for me what I am," Spoon says with a shrug. "That's still happening every day, which is kind of funny. Like, I don't know when I go for dinner if I'm a boy or girl or what. I only find out when people use a word or, I don't know.... I never know. But I'm more relaxed about it now. I kind of breathe through it."
McMullan says that while her films aren't overtly political, she'd love it if this one started a conversation about gender. "Since meeting Rae, my perspective on it has totally shifted. I would love for an audience to experience a similar shift, or at least have their preconceptions challenged."
Does Spoon ever regret making so much of their life public?
"I think the hardest thing about the whole project was that, because I've been dealing with issues with my family, you can feel like the more attention you pay to that and the more public you are about it, the more you're drawing the conflict back to you.
"But songwriting is the way I process things most effectively. And when you're a performer, your job is to communicate. Already, I've had a lot of people telling me they had similar childhoods. And it's a valuable thing for queer youth to have lots of examples of what you can grow up to be. You can be trans or gay or retire from gender completely.
"So it was a risk that was difficult, but I'm glad I took it."