In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “essential” by any definition they choose. This week, Canadian songwriter Rae Spoon talks about the albums that blew their mind and pushed them towards a deeper understanding of songwriting and production.
Rae Spoon has been making music for almost two decades. In that time, hopping between Calgary, Montreal, Germany, and now Victoria, B.C., there's little they haven't done.
Spoon's music has led them through country and folk scenes across multiple countries, picking up electronic production from gay bars and techno clubs, into the literary scene with Gender Failure (written with Ivan E. Coyote) and, most recently, the film circuit with My Prairie Home, a 2013 autobiographical documentary and accompanying soundtrack about growing up as a transgender person within a religious, and abusive, rural Canadian upbringing.
In pushing through conventions and genres, they've paid close attention to other musicians. Rae Spoon's music often hints at their influences (like "There Is A Light," which namedrops Leonard Cohen, Morrissey and Kraftwerk), but Spoon decided to focus on the albums that were a little less obvious. The ones that made them stop and say "woah." The ones that made them say "you can do that?" That made them want to get better at what they did.
Those influences came especially in handy for Spoon's latest album Armour, which, they say, was a "return home" after their recent literary and cinematic excursions. No longer bound by extramusical restraints, Spoon looked back over their record collection, as well as their own deep discography, and asked "what is it that makes a Rae Spoon record?" The answer is somewhere in these Essential Albums.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (1998)
Rae Spoon: The way Lucinda Williams writes music feels like she's just talking to someone about her life, you know? It sounds to me that she was just writing what she was thinking. It doesn't seem like she was putting a lot of distance between how she was writing and what's going on. I was really fascinated with that, how you could write a song that sounded so close to your own thoughts. That stayed with me. Her presence on the record, whenever I hear it, even now, it makes me strive to write songs better.
I think I was just starting to get into country music when I heard Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. I listened to it a lot when I was starting out making country music. I always felt there was super strong production on it, and it's almost like a crossover album. It's a kind of country music that might be popular in circles of people who don't really like country music. That kind of fascinated me, the idea of writing country music that would be kind of acceptable.
Being a transgender country musician at the time, I knew I would have to create my own market at some level, or be selling it to people who maybe had certain identity things in common with me.
The Knife, Silent Shout (2006)
Rae Spoon: This album came out around the time I was living in Weimar, Germany, just near Leipzig. When I moved there I was playing acoustic guitar, playing country music and touring Germany a lot. Even in those scenes, I think there's people who like country in some ways. It's also very novel. I was actually getting a really good reception.
But then I started to encounter more and more music that was being made there. I think that was when I actually started to be a fan of a lot of Swedish music, like beyond ABBA and Ace of Base. When I found [Silent Shout], it sounded so live. It was the first electronic album I heard that just sounded like they were playing instruments. Even though it's sequencers, it sounds really alive and real. There's a lot of presence and build. You would never be able to say that there was less emotion or that they were less "playing instruments" than anybody else. That really spoke to me.
It was kind of around the time that I was learning to use Ableton Live, being fascinated with the idea of using computers as instruments. In my country music days, I didn't think of them as instruments. So I listen to The Knife when I'm about to start programming drums or anything like that, just to give myself a baseline of, like, "this is what a very present electronic album sounds like."
I had no idea [about their politics] at the time. It's interesting that they evolved that way. I mean, a lot of people don't put their politics necessarily into their music, at first. And, like, I was one of those people too, so seeing them start to put similar interesting politics that I also agree with, gender politics, that was really cool to see.
I discovered Silent Shout around when I was writing Superioryouareinferior. I think that was the album I wrote thinking more about like, okay, I've been writing these songs, country songs, folk songs that are very metaphor based. You know, not a lot of my own narrative in it. So I thought about "what would it be like to write an album about Canada and actually put myself in it as a character?" instead of being like "there's a dust bowl, there's a barn." [laughing] Obviously, I was trying to be a bit more poetic than that. But I could be like, "this is what it's like to be me and grow up in Calgary." And kind of bring in my travels of Canada.
That was kind of my first foray into even writing anything that mentions being queer, or even the word queer, at all in my music. I don't know why. I think when I first started playing music it was pretty hard to be a trans musician. There wasn't a lot of awareness, so I think I spent a lot of my time trying to get people to listen to my music. Then, you know, when there was more space for trans folks around, I started feeling more comfortable about being a bit more personal.
I think now there's at least awareness of what I am. At the beginning it was sort of like "what is transgender?" I think a lot of people at least have a bit of a grip of what that would mean, if maybe not necessarily the strict definition of it. But also, I've been making music in Canada for a while and so I know a lot of the journalists and people now, so after a few interviews it becomes less of an issue in some ways. And there's also trans people that people know of, so it's not necessarily the first thing... It still is often the first thing, but it still is way better.
I released one EP before I changed my pronouns, so it's kind of been for me since the beginning, but I feel like it's really important because if just one person reads it and their child is gender variant, that could make a difference. So it's not actually my job, or Laura Jane Grace's job, but it's also kind of our job, you know?
I think it happens to a lot of people in music. If you belong to a certain group there's always the issue of, like, being a woman, or if you're anything other than what's considered "neutral," which is really only one group of people, then there's always that discussion. I don't think anyone's neutral, but, you know, [what's treated as neutral]: a white, straight, cisgender male who's able-bodied and doesn't have mental health issues. I don't know, anything that you can think of that people would other someone for. Which is pretty much everything.
Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
Rae Spoon: I found this album a little bit after I found The Knife. It actually brought me back a bit to acoustic music. I had kind of got tired of making music where my voice was mixed quite loud, and I had gotten tired of the production side of country and folk. I liked the texture of this album, and it was fascinating to me that someone could just make it alone in a cabin, with, like, a Shure 57 microphone.
Lyrically, I couldn't understand what Bon Iver was saying, and I found it really interesting because I don't care. I just like the music so much. For me, I'd always been such a lyric based person, but it was more the production of it and the feel. It's very present, feeling wise, but I wasn't really able to understand the lyrics. It's also interesting because I was playing in a lot of countries where English ins't the official language, so maybe I was also putting myself in the place of an audience that could hear me play but maybe didn't necessarily understand my lyrics.
That doesn't usually happen to me. I do have that, like, "where's the song?" [mentality]. I think the songs are probably very good, but for me it was more about the whole texture of it and the feel.
On my last album My Prairie Home I brought more folk and gospel and country influences back in, because it was a documentary musical about my childhood and I didn't feel like I wanted to go a techno route with a film about Alberta. So I had to revisit acoustic music, but kind of bring in different textures. And I still use a lot of my electronic programming on it, but I think it was more about the other things happening, like the atmosphere, field recordings, and other things that would bring in the feeling, the influence of texture.
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love (1985)
I think I discovered this album around when I was writing Superior as well, a little bit before Germany. I was in a space of trying to be a songwriter and trying to get better and better, listening to a lot of production. I just love Kate Bush. I appreciate her as someone who's such a great producer, as well as songwriter. Hounds of Love is an amazing album. The presence and texture in it, the mixture of organic instruments and synthesizers, you know, strings, and a live drum kit. And then the narrative. All of that coming together.
For my new album [Armour], I wanted to bring a live drum kit in with the programmed drums, and that was kind of my goal, and bring in bass synthesizers, and try to make something where it would be hard to tell which was which in the end. My impression from Kate Bush was that she was doing whatever the heck she wanted. She was just in the studio and she wasn't thinking, "no, you can't put this with this." She was just like, "whatever." I guess that's kind of how I felt about Armour; I was going for a feeling, and I wasn't going to limit myself based on any genre, or worry too much about it.
I really just wanted to get back to the reason I started everything: because I love writing songs. I was kind of going song by song, and there's a theme, but it's not as narrative based. It didn't have to go along with a book and a film. I really wanted to focus on writing songs that other people could identify with as well in a way that there was space for them again, which is kind of what I used to do more, so it was nice to get back to that. It felt like going back home to something where I knew what I was doing, not like being in a film or writing a book, which is stuff that I didn't think I would ever do.
Yo Majesty, Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid (2008)
Yo Majesty is a hip-hop group from Florida. I think I discovered their music in Europe as well, or maybe when I was touring through. Me and Goeff Berner, we did a prairie tour one time and we just listened to this album on repeat. It's just, like, a really high energy rap album with a lot of old-school drum machines and stuff like that.
Basically my inspiration from it is the energy. I don't know if I could ever reach that level of energy myself. I like the idea that there's albums out there are are so dance based and party based but that also have really awesome lyrics too. Pop, while still retaining quite a lot of character. That album was also produced by a UK producer so they were also coming from Florida. So Florida based, UK produced, and just that idea of different stuff kind of bleeding together between places.
And the members of that band, I think they're queer as well. And this album just gave me the impression of what I hope I sound like, which is like, yes, maybe being queer is factored in, but maybe they're just making music that people would like, you know? They're having a good time. That can also be a factor in music. It doesn't have to be completely cathartic the whole album. You can have songs that people just dance to. Bringing in that element, I admire it.