On the title track of her first solo record A Fine Line, Heather Rankin sings about the ever-shrinking barrier between our public and personal lives, the need to maintain a brave face when so much of what you go through is exposed, and finding that desire to keep moving forward, either on your own or with the support of those around you.
It’s a line she’s been walking since she was fresh out of college, and she and her brothers and sisters in the Rankin Family were growing from one of Cape Breton’s best-kept musical secrets into a headlining act around the world.
But now that line has transformed into a high-wire act, as Rankin forges ahead without the onstage safety net of brother Jimmy or sister Cookie — although both appear on We Walk as One, a tribute to the strength of their family — transforming her summer tour into a voyage of discovery.
“It can be a little bit scary!” says the wide-eyed singer over coffee at the Wired Monk. “I just did my second 60-minute set the other night, and the response has been very positive. It’s not a big hootenanny, ceilidh-style kind of thing you’d get with the family; I do some songs from those days, I do my new songs, and tell a few stories in between.
“Doing solo shows does feel like exposing myself a little bit more than before, but there’s something really liberating about it all. I remember in the days of touring with the band, I used to get a bit of anxiety about it because I was worried about whether the show was representing all the other members, I was afraid to say too much or not enough onstage. I’ve been nervous at times, but now I’m just representing myself, and it’s a whole new feeling.”
Rankin came out of the gate strongly with A Fine Line’s first single, a cover of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World, which featured some extra rhymes from Halifax hip-hop artist Quake Matthews. The upbeat pop song became a radio favourite, with an overwhelming response when Rankin asked fans to submit footage to use in the video clip, while We Walk as One’s video prompts an immediate emotional response with old home movie footage of departed siblings John Morris and Raylene.
“For this record I really did, as they say, step outside of the box, or pushed the edge of the envelope,” says the singer, who teamed up with Canadian producer David Tyson (Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall) in Los Angeles. “I think people often want to keep you in there, they’re comfortable with you being in that one particular spot on the shelf.
“When I really thought about it, I think I always tried to push the envelope a little bit. Not in a giant way, but some of the choices I made with the Rankins are about testing the boundaries, just like any person in their 20s. Singing Jimmy’s A Long Way to Go, it was a little rebellious for the Rankins, or singing from a man’s perspective on Fisherman’s Son.”
So far, Rankin’s summer stage run has been a series of festival appearances, which continues this weekend when she headlines the Harmony Bazaar Festival of Women and Song in the South Shore fishing community of Lockeport. She’s also slated to appear at Maritime Stomp at Jost Vineyards in Malagash on Sept. 17 and Deep Roots Music Festival in Wolfville, Sept. 22 to 25, as well as perform in Daniel McIvor’s new comedy Small Things at Neptune Theatre from Oct. 25 to Nov. 13.
But immediately on the horizon is making her Harmony Bazaar debut — “I’ve heard lots about it, and it’s especially flattering to be invited to a celebratory musical event that’s all about empowering women,” she says — and looking forward to seeing acts likeChristina Martin and Makayla Lynn, and working with its artistic director Errin Williams for the first time.
“She’s lovely, she’s been wonderful at every juncture,” enthuses Rankin. “It was actually her mother who suggested she call me, and I thought it was a great idea to come to Lockeport.
“Kudos to her and her community, because it’s not the most easily accessible place in the province. It’s just like Mabou, or Canso, it’s just a little bit out of the way. So it takes that extra bit of effort and energy, and faith in people, to put something like this together. But Errin knows what she’s doing and she’s got the right people on board.”
After a lifetime spent making music, and nearly 25 years in the music biz proper, Rankin knows the value of working with the right people, including producer Tyson who encouraged her to go places vocally she’d never been before. But she also takes A Fine Line’s recurring themes of self-reliance to heart, taking an active role in the handling of day-to-day tasks like booking shows, and being front and centre when it comes to communicating with fans via social media.
“It’s something I’m still learning,” she says of working with new people and jumping new hurdles. “I think when you’re in that safe place of creating with another person, you’re a lot more willing to expose yourself, and then you realize that a lot of people are going to be experiencing this. I read one thing that described A Fine Line as ‘like reading her diary’.
“And that’s how it feels at times. And now with social media, it’s a real challenge at times, knowing what to say and when to say it, but you absolutely have to be part of it, in this climate, to get people’s attention, and to keep it. I struggle with it constantly, because I grew up in an environment where everything was kept private, although there were no boundaries within the family. Now you’re posting every little thing on Facebook and hoping people will notice, and engage.”
HARMONY BAZAAR SCHEDULE
(All shows on the Lockeport Mainstage, unless otherwise noted)
5:00 p.m.: Mersey Swing Band
6:00 p.m.: Hello Delaware
6:30 p.m.: Makayla Lynn
7:00 p.m.: Norma MacDonald
7:30 p.m.: Doris Mason
8:00 p.m.: Linda McLean
8:30 p.m.: Christina Martin
9:00 p.m.: Heather Rankin w. special guest Holly Carr
10:30 p.m.: Late Night with Shirley Jackson and Her Good Rockin’ Daddys (Aly Kat Lounge)
10:00 a.m.: Check It Out! at the Lockeport Library w. Christina Martin, Norma MacDonald, Hello Delaware, The Mother Pluckers
Noon: Open Mic with Julie Balish
12:30 p.m.: Silk Painting Workshop with Holly Carr (Lockeport Baptist Church Hall)
2:00 p.m.: Youth Songwriting Mentorship Songwriters Circle
2:00 p.m.: The Mother Pluckers (Surf Lodge Nursing Home, open to the public)
3:00 p.m.: Home Grown Stage w. Connie Saulnier, Cathy Cook, Shelley Meisner
4:00 p.m.: Votes for Women! Songwriting Retreat Celebration w. Makayla Lynn, Julie Balish, Linda McLean, Connie Saulnier, Doris Mason, Patricia Watson, Cathy Cook, Shelley Meisner
6:00 p.m. Home Grown Stage w. Connie Saulnier, Cathy Cook, Shelley Meisner
7:00 p.m.: Legends Stage w. Norma MacDonald, Christina Martin, Doris Mason, Coco Love Alcorn
8:00 p.m.: Coco Love Alcorn
9:00 p.m.: Ria Mae
10:30 p.m.: Late Night with Christine Campbell Band (Aly Kat Lounge)
9:00 a.m.: Restorative Yoga with Linda McLean (Crescent Beach Centre)
10:30 a.m.: Sunday Morning Music with Doris Mason & Patricia Watson (Crescent Beach Centre)
11:00 a.m.: Harmony Voices – Youth Performances
1:00 p.m.: Christine’s Invitational End of Festival Jam Session