On a couple of counts, Heather Rankin is charting new territory.
Long established in the music industry as a member of the award-winning Rankin Family, the youngest member of the band has just released her debut solo album. What’s more, it’s a distinct diversion from the traditional sounds of the Mabou siblings.
A Fine Line is not a trip up Gillis Mountain. And without taking anything from the Rankins’ roots, that new direction is just fine with Rankin.
“I could have gone the traditional route and I could have tried to repeat what I did with the family,” she said. “(But) I just wanted to go on some sort of exploration and see what would come out of co-writing and working with people from different music circles.”
Through a mutual friend, Rankin met an industry heavyweight in David Tyson, who wrote Dark Horse for Amanda Marshall and co-wrote Black Velvet for Alannah Myles, and produced both of those records.
“Never in a million years would I have expected that I would have ended up doing a record with (Tyson), but we actually hit it off and I think we were writing about similar stuff and we’d gone through some difficulties in our lives,” Rankin said. “It just seemed to be a good meeting of minds and we ended up writing seven of the 11 tracks together.
“It’s something I just opened my mind and my heart to, and just went with it. As a result, a lot of the music is quite a departure from what I did with the Rankin Family. For me, that’s very exciting.”
It’s an exciting time on multiple fronts for Rankin, a 48-year-old singer and songwriter who this week began a provincial tour with versatile Kim Dunn that includes stops in Sydney on Friday night at Highland Arts Theatre and back home in Mabou on Saturday night at Strathspey Place. It’s a double CD-release tour for Rankin and Dunn, and they’ll also perform together at festivals through September.
The six-concert album tour opened Wednesday in New Glasgow. After the Sydney and Mabou dates, the run includes two sold-out shows at the Carleton Music Bar & Grill in Halifax on Sunday and Monday (May 15 and 16) and a May 19 performance at Truro’s Marigold Cultural Centre.
For decades, Rankin shared the stage with her siblings as the family band rose to international prominence and won a string of Juno and ECMA awards, among others. “I’ve never thought of myself as being a solo singer, aside from … doing a lot of funerals and weddings in Mabou,” she said last week from Halifax. “I always had lots of family around me, so (going solo) wasn’t the most obvious thing to me, until those (group) opportunities became less and less frequent. Because I continued to perform with Cookie and Raylene after the Rankins stopped touring steadily. We went out (on tour) every year pretty well with our Christmas show, and the odd thing we did together aside from that. I always had my family as an outlet.
“It just made sense to me that if I wanted to do any more singing professionally that I should just make a record. And I had been writing, too, and I didn’t have the outlet to showcase that writing. A few people in the business had been encouraging me to go this route, so finally I just decided I would, and as soon as I was courageous enough to say it out loud, then I was committed.
“It’s been a great period of growth for me and I’ve learned a great deal about the business and about myself.”
Rankin has always had an ability to adapt. From singing and writing to acting and business, she has worn many hats. Even as she launches her debut solo album, the energetic Rankin continues to oversee management of the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou and expand her theatrical career, with another role lined up for this fall at Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
“I’ve really started to gun it a little bit more in that (acting) direction,” she said. “Around the same time that I decided to make a record, too, which was kind of crazy, because I was being pulled in two different directions. But (theatre) was something I’d wanted to do for a long time and I was dabbling in it, but not really establishing myself in the community as much as I wanted to.
“And then I got lucky and I got a few parts in some Daniel MacIvor plays and another Michael Melski play, so it’s been great.”
Fresh from co-hosting the ECMA Awards in Sydney last month, Rankin has unveiled an album that she categorizes as adult contemporary, because it spans the spectrum of various styles.
“Well, it certainly has a pop bent to it,” she said. “That naturally would come into play, because David Tyson comes from the pop world and he produced the record, he played on it, and he co-wrote the songs with me.
“Having said that, some of the songs lean more in the direction of theatrical music. They’re almost a couple of show tunes on there. And then, there are a couple that are very much in keeping with the music I performed with the Rankins.
“There’s definitely a theme that runs through all of the songs, and even through the 1980s cover tune that we did, that thread continues.”
Rankin covers Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and rapper Quake Matthews is featured in the Tears for Fears hit from 1985.
“That would be the most extreme departure,” Rankin said. “And Superstars is a tune that (Tyson) wrote with another writer … Charlie Sheen’s daughter.
“And then, I Got Your Back, it’s a little bit more in that direction, but it’s still kind of folksy at the same time. When you pare these songs down, they can be done different ways, so it’s kind of interesting.”
Rankin is a fan of collaborative music efforts, so it’s only fitting that she partnered with her Nashville-based siblings, Cookie and Jimmy, on one of the tracks, We Walk As One.
“For me, it’s a particularly special song on the record, because it’s a deliberate nod to my roots,” Rankin said. “It’s singing about my beginnings and the impact that that experience has on a person. So it was special to have both of them singing on the track. I was very lucky to be able to line them up and that they were able to find time in their schedules.”
With her angelic voice reminiscent of the Rankin sound, Heather explores emotions in A Fine Line, which mirrors the balancing act that is everyday life.
“It just seems to be (a commonality) that popped up on every song throughout the record,” she said. “We’re always in that constant quest for balance, whether it’s in our personal lives or business lives, or in ourselves. It’s a challenge. And at any given moment, all of that can be turned up on its head. Life can be tough.
“I think it’s reflected on all of the songs on the record — that quest for balance.”
Rankin’s historic solo album launch features a Cape Breton connection as she performs with North Sydney native Dunn, who also works out of Halifax. Dunn has collaborated with a who’s who of East Coast artists, including Rita MacNeil, Matt Minglewood and Jimmy Rankin.
“I was a big fan of Kim Dunn’s voice,” Heather Rankin recalled. “I first heard him singing on a Rita MacNeil record. The sound of his voice stopped me in my tracks and I said, ’Who is that?’ And then I learned that it was him. He’s this fabulous keyboard player and he’s most often backing other people up. So it was great opportunity for both of us, and for him to feature his singing and songwriting, as well as his fantastic piano playing.
“He’s worked with everybody. He’s really gifted and just does it all — plays guitar, plays piano, sings beautifully (and) writes.”