It’s been 20 years since the last time Heather Rankin got into the holiday spirit on record, with her sisters Raylene and Cookie on an album that became a Canadian Christmas classic, Do You Hear.. .
The timing seemed right to return to crisp, wintry sounds and her new release, Imagine, due out on Dec. 1, is a gorgeous evocation of Christmas and a compendium of the complicated mix of emotions the annual event often brings. There is nostalgia, and a nod to the party element that arises as we blow off steam at the end of the year, but Rankin wanted to go deeper on a record where more than half the songs are new compositions that carry a deep personal connection to a time where there can be as much sorrow and anxiety as joy and celebration.
“It’s not a happy, frolicking representation of the season, and I think that comes with age,” says Rankin over the busy hubbub of Java Blend cafe. “It becomes a time that’s more about reflection and gratitude than it is about celebrating gifts and parties. And that comes into play in some of the writing.”
About to embark on a series of Maritime Christmas shows with fun New Brunswick folk duo Tomato Tomato and Pictou County’s favourite singer-songwriter Dave Gunning, Rankin began preparing for Imagine last winter, when she started writing with guitarist Jamie Robinson. The collaboration continued in Toronto with producer and songwriter Steven MacKinnon — who previously worked with the Rankins on their 2009 album These Are the Moments — and the cherry on top of the Christmas cake is the snowflake-dusted cover art by longtime Rush collaborator Hugh Syme.
“We wanted to do something that was classic, something that sounded beautiful . . . music that isn’t intrusive in any way,” says Rankin of Imagine’s contemplative feel. “It’s music that you’d want to have playing in your house, maybe while you’re having dinner, and I wanted it to stand the test of time.
“We kept it very simple. We were trying to create that aura of peace . . . peace and love, man!”
Rankin chuckles at her own impression of a blissed-out hippie but it feels in sync with a record that is named after (and ends with) John Lennon’s post-Beatles plea for peace. It’s not traditionally thought of as a Christmas song, but the sentiment suits the season in rapidly changing times, as does Olde-Fashioned Christmas, written with MacKinnon and Juno Award-winning songwriter/producer David Tyson (Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall).
The song compares yuletide memories from her native Mabou, with 12 siblings hanging up stockings while listening to Nana Mouskouri and John Denver Christmas LPs before rushing off to midnight mass, to having eyes glued to a small screen and getting lost in a social media haze.
“It’s a chance to say that stuff in a different way; an interesting and musical way that’s challenging,” she says of the contrast between Christmas past and present.
“Those memories are still strong. And when you team up with great writers it’s really rewarding to see what can come out of your ideas.”
One of Imagine’s most striking moments comes early on the record in Dark Eyes, a gorgeous ballad written and performed with Canadian/Cuban musician Alex Cuba, whom she met on a shared leg of the Canada C3 Expedition. After taking part in the ocean voyage through the Arctic with artists, scientists, historians and Indigenous and community leaders, Cuba and Rankin became new collaborators.
When Rankin had an idea for a Nativity-inspired lullaby written from Mary’s point of view that she was trying to pair with a Gaelic lilt, she gave her new songwriting pal a call.
“I thought in the spirit of diversity and inclusion, I thought it would be good to include somebody from the expedition,” she recalls.
“Alex’s voice is so gorgeous, so I called him up and played him a dinky piano version of what we had over the phone.
“He instantly got a counter melody back to us over the phone, and I think that’s what he ended up using for the most part.”
Before the record ends with Lennon’s anthem, Rankin cuts loose with Wrap It Up, an upbeat earworm in the style of the Rankin Family’s Movin’ On that also has its roots in fond Christmas memories.
“It was inspired by a true story of making up a bad batch — or a good batch, depending on how you look at it — of eggnog,” explains Rankin with a mischievous grin.
“Before midnight on Christmas Eve, a couple of us were under the tree.”