KitchenFest! Q+A: Heather Rankin
Leah: Good morning, Heather, it’s nice to talk to you. You’re in Mabou this morning, is that your home base?
Leah: Neat, which theatre?
Heather: Neptune, I did a couple of shows there last year. Have you heard of Daniel MacIvor? He’s from the Sydney area. He’s written plays like Marion Bridge, and dozens of other plays and a few films. So I did one of his shows at Neptune, in the Fall of 2012, and then I did another of his shows called Something Small, a new show that was sort of a workshop of his show, I did that at the Chester Playhouse, in the summer of 2013. And then I did a Michael Melski show. He’s also from the Sydney area. He’s a screenwriter and playwright, and his play called Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, I did that at Neptune last fall.
Leah: Neat, so is that a new interest of yours?
Heather: It’s actually what I studied in University! I had planned to go and continue my education in the theatre, but then we made our first record in the Fall of 1989, and that was sort of like a tsunami, it happened really fast. And then I was committed to working with the Rankin Family for five years, the commitment we wade when we first sat down to see if we could make a living, at this. And it wasn’t five years and we were off to the races.
Leah: Yes, you guys did really well!
Heather: Well, yes, but it was something we’d been doing most of our lives, so I guess, you know, it didn’t feel like it was overnight to us, because we’d been working at it our entire lives. But once it got going, it was … it snowballed. The big stuff happened really fast. Like, we did two records, our first two records, within one year. “The Rankin Family” was the first one, and then before the year was up, we were in recording our second one. And then it wasn’t long after our second one, a year and a bit, that we had a record deal. And then we went in and recorded “North Country.” It all happened really fast.
Leah: But like you said, you’d been practicing your whole life, pretty much.
Heather: Yeah, yeah. The first two records, the first one especially, was mostly music we’d been singing since we were kids. And we threw a bit of everything in that we’d been doing.
Leah: So you’re going to be opening KitchenFest, essentially! You’re going to be playing the opening concert on June 29th. I’ve heard that you’ve been practicing lots of material for this show, as well as working on an album with David Tyson, in LA. That’s exciting!
Heather: What’s interesting about it all is that I’d never felt that it was an ambition of mine to be a solo artist. It’s just because of the circumstances, that if I want to continue to sing, this seemed like the obvious step. I’d been writing a little bit on my own, but I really didn’t know what kind of record I wanted to make. Because I could have gone into the studio with somebody and done all traditional material, and when I started the process I did go in with a completely open mind. I had a bucket of songs from other people, I had some traditional material, but I really wasn’t certain what direction I wanted to go in. Until I met David Tyson, and he’s a prolific writer.
Leah: He wrote “Black Velvet,” right?
Heather: Yeah, he co-wrote a lot of the songs on that album, and he produced that album for Alannah Myles with Christopher Ward. But he also co-wrote and produced an Amanda Marshall record, that was really successful, which included the song “Birmingham.” So, we met, and it was mostly just discussion, the first couple of meetings. We shared a couple of our songs, and we ended up writing a couple together. He invited me to contribute to a couple of his songs, and vice versa, and before you knew it, we had a pile of songs! We’re still picking away at it. I don’t have a deadline. Although, I’ve said the release date is this fall, I’m taking my time. I want to make sure that I’m, you know, not pressuring myself with a deadline. I don’t have a release time, so that’s all open.
Leah: Is the album already with a record company?
Heather: No, I’m releasing it independently, and independently funding it, which is part of why it takes so long. Because it’s an expensive venture! Travelling back and forth to LA, as that’s where David Tyson is based.
Leah: I would think it’s good to take your time, then you know you’ve honed everything to the point where you’re really happy with it.
Heather: Exactly. And you know it’s interesting, because he comes from a completely different musical background than I do. I think our different backgrounds make for an interesting mix.
Leah: Would you say it’s more ‘pop’?
Heather: Yes, I would say it’s more pop, I think some of the writing could be considered country, too.
Leah: Well, that’s really exciting! Will you be singing some of the new material at the concert here on the 29th?
Heather: I’m going to try and do a couple, of my new songs, yeah! And a couple of songs from the Rankin Family days. And a couple of things that are more traditional. It’s only a 25-minute set, so that’s really just four or five songs, but I am going to try and get that all in. Now, because it’s a completely different animal than jumping back into what I did with the Rankin Family, it takes time, sitting around with a new group of players, sculpting some of the older songs. And I don’t have a big, full back-up band to cover all of the instruments that you would hear in a recorded version of one of my new songs. So it really does take time, sitting around with a group of players and sculpting out a good representation of the songs for a live performance, with only four players.
So I’ve been working with Mac Morin, Wendy MacIsaac, Cathy Porter and Clarence Deveaux in Mabou and Halifax working up versions of the songs. Mac Morin tours with Natalie MacMaster mostly, these days, but he’s probably one of the most sought-after piano players for that genre of music. He’s very conscientious, a very artistic guy. He can play any style if he puts his mind to it. And Wendy MacIsaac, she’s covering some mandolin parts and some violin parts. Clarence is a beautiful guitar player and he toured with the Rankins back in the day. Cathy brings some very complimentary percussion to the mix. They’re all great musicians.
Leah: Wow, that’s going to be an amazing show!
Heather: Well, I hope so! It’s all just trial and error, at this point, for me. It’s exciting. But it’s terrifying at the same time. You know, I always considered myself to be a cog in the Rankin Family wheel, and now all of a sudden, all of that sibling support is not there, so it’s about trusting myself and trusting these other people, that we’ll be able to carry it over.
Leah: What a good place to be able to do that, at the Gaelic College, it’s such a supportive atmosphere.
Heather: Yes, exactly, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to launch. Rodney’s been so generous, inviting me to be part of [KitchenFest]. I was really quite touched and I feel very privileged to be part of that event. I think it’s a brilliant concept! It’s such a fantastic time of year. When you wake up and see the buds on the trees, and farmers tilling the soil, and the fishermen going out with their traps, it is like a rebirth, and what better thing to celebrate than the coming of the new season. I think it’s a brilliant concept and I hope it’s well-attended. People have really put in a long winter and it is time for celebration.
Leah: Absolutely! Now, this next question I wanted to ask you is something I’ve been asking the various people I’ve been interviewing. The name of the festival, of course, is KitchenFest. And I wanted to talk a little bit about the kitchen, and a bit about memories. We all know that the kitchen is so central to the Gaelic culture, and the Cape Breton Scots culture. I’d love to hear more about your memories of the kitchen, what has it meant to you? Do you have a specific kitchen that you remember when you think about the Cape Breton kitchen?
Heather: Much of my childhood memories are from our kitchen, in the old house on Back Street, the house that we grew up in. Across the street from Katie Ann Cameron. We didn’t have much, but there was linoleum tile on that kitchen floor and it kind of sloped to one end of the house, because it was built over a cellar, an old, uneven foundation. The tiles were grey and white, and my mother, once a week would clean it on her hands and knees, and then she would wax it. And then she had this big polisher, an electric polisher that she would go over it with, and it would shine, you could see your face in it!
But she and my father, and our family, we entertained many people in that kitchen. In the centre of the kitchen was a big wood stove, where my mother baked bread, at least once a week, at times it may have been twice a week. One of our regular visitors… which is sadly a dying tradition, visiting, and one of the few places you can go in the world where that still happens, I think, is Cape Breton… I don’t know if it happens everywhere in Cape Breton but in Inverness Country where it’s still very rural, people still visit one another. Anyway, Katie Ann Cameron (mother of John Allan Cameron) used to come over in the afternoon, and she would sit at the end of the table, and she would share stories, and whoever came, they never left without having a cup of tea, or a drink, or something to eat. It was part of the custom.
And often, I remember, in our summers, we would be outside playing. Summer, you know, is the time when people who were born and raised in Cape Breton and transplanted to different parts of the world to find work, that’s the time people come back and visit. And get a taste of home. And so often in the summer people would make the rounds, visiting, and I can recall being called in from playing to sing, or to stepdance, for whoever was in visiting.
Leah: And that tile floor must have been good for stepdancing!
Heather: Yeah, oh yeah, that poor floor.
Leah: No wonder your poor mother had to clean it all the time!
Heather: Yes, and you know, the dining room, too, although it was usually messier! Oh, our mother tried so hard, she had seven girls, to get us to clean with her, and we did all that time but there was just nowhere to put stuff! Closets didn’t exist, and there were fourteen of us living in a three-bedroom house, with an attic space where we had a couple of beds. It was a crowded space, but I have a lot of good memories.
Leah: One last question… so you’ve travelled pretty extensively with the Rankin Family and your own ventures, but you maintain close ties with home. You co-own the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, and like you said earlier, you and your husband come home often and spend time here. So could you speak to that connection to Cape Breton? I mean, we all know that feeling, that feeling of being rooted here… but could you speak to playing for a Cape Breton audience, how is it different?
Heather: You know, I think it’s probably one of the hardest things to do in a way, because those people know good music. They know good playing, they’re appreciative of good music. But it’s also a good feeling because you know people really want you to do well, and they’re supportive. And they’re proud! So that’s a big responsibility to live up to all of that.
It’s interesting, you raised the point about the rootedness, and it’s a good topic of conversation because, you know, you try and define what it is that makes people long to return here. And even people who weren’t born and raised here, when they come here they make this connection, it’s a very powerful place. I’ve often thought, is it nostalgia? For my childhood? To be able to run free and never be afraid? Or is it the strong sense of community? For the people who settled here in Cape Breton, family and community and supporting one another, and faith, were all very strong things. And people who grew up here identify with all those things.
Leah: Yes, there’s a strong sense of community, and of caring about each other.
Heather: And a strong sense of belonging, that you matter. Especially in a time when we’re living in a world that’s so homogenized, and it’s so difficult to connect with other people, those things that we identify with Cape Breton ring more true now than they ever have.