By Bob Mersereau, CBC News Posted: Apr 12, 2016 7:00 PM AT Last Updated: Apr 12, 2016 8:04 PM AT
Getting Heather Rankin to co–host the East Coast Music Awards gala on Thursday in Sydney with Ashley MacIsaac may seem like a no–brainer, given that the singer’s roots go so deep in the region’s music community.
A founding member of the first family of the East Coast sound, Rankin and her siblings were a big part of the explosion of talent that took the region’s music to national and international audiences in the early 1990s.
But Rankin says these days she can barely recognize the scene she helped establish, 25–plus years later.
“They’re a whole other generation,” she laughed. “I’m like the grandmother at the ECMAs. Is there an award? ‘The oldest person making a record at the East Coast Music Awards goes to …'”
Heather Rankin came to fame in The Rankin Family, but now has her first solo album out, A Fine Line. (Cadence Music Group)
Yet, despite her veteran status, Rankin is feeling like a kid again, or at the very least a new artist.
For the first time in her career, she has a new album out in her own name, a solo release called A Fine Line.
Even though she has co–hosted the awards before, back in Charlottetown in 1996 with the late Denny Doherty, everything in music has changed since then.
“I feel like I’m a newcomer, it’s a completely different industry than 25 years ago,” Rankin explained.
“There’s so much expected in terms of marketing yourself on social media, and juggling all the balls yourself because the budgets are not the same, and a lot of the work is falling on the shoulders of the people who are supposed to be taking that time to be artistic and creative. So I’m learning a lot as I go on this little trip.”
While music was going digital, and new artists came onto the scene, Rankin was busy with other parts of her career.
Although she started singing with her family as a small child, she actually studied to be an actor, and the last few years have been spent on stages such as Neptune Theatre in Halifax and The Factory Theatre in Toronto.
In addition, she and some of the family bought the Red Shoe Pub in their hometown of Mabou in Cape Breton, which she helps run during tourist season.
Heather Rankin and rapper Quake Matthews teamed up on the first single from her debut solo album, Everybody Wants to Rule the World. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)
“It’s hard to balance it all,” she admitted. “I didn’t have time to do theatre in the first 10,15 years, when I was touring with the family, and then we bought the pub, and I continued to tour with my sisters, our Christmas tour, and so I really focused myself the last few years with introducing myself into the theatre community. And now that I’ve found my little place there, I can’t let the music go, so I have to get back to that.”
Except that she can’t really go back to the way it was. After her sister Raylene died of cancer in 2012, a dozen years after her brother John Morris’ death, there was no family group to rejoin.
If she wanted to make more music, she’d have to strike out on her own.
“I never really saw myself as a solo artist,” said Rankin. “Just sometimes life makes decisions for you. Music’s always been very important to me, obviously, I’ve been taking part in music with my family since the time I was very young, and as those opportunities became less and less frequent, it just seemed to be the obvious step.”
She has found the experience frightening, but exciting and liberating.
“My whole life I’ve been working with my family. Every step I’ve made in my life, except for my marriage, has involved siblings,” she said.
“The Rankin records and touring, the Rankin Sisters records and touring, the purchase of the pub, I’ve always had that support around me and it’s been liberating in the fact that it’s forced me to grow. I miss them, no question about it, and it’s different and it’s scary but it’s good for me at the same time.”
It turned out that going solo had a liberating effect on Heather Rankin’s music as well.
A Fine Line has that famous Rankin vocal sound in some numbers, pop songs with a splash of Cape Breton, but there are others that will surprise everybody.
Rankin has pushed the envelope on several cuts, exploring everything from modern rock and programmed instruments, to some tunes that feel as if they could have come from her stage career.
“When I decided to make this record, I thought there are two ways you can go, you can play it really safe and do what you always do with your family, or you can go and explore and leave all the doors open, and see where it ends up.” she said.
“I had that luxury of experimenting and trying a variety of things, and I found it very refreshing to explore territory that I couldn’t with the family. There were unspoken parameters … I can always go back and do a traditional record, a Gaelic record, or a record of covers, I’m not done yet. This is just a beginning, it’s a new chapter.”
The biggest surprise is an updated cover of the old Tears For Fears hit, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, featuring a rap in the middle by Nova Scotia hip–hop performer Quake Matthews.
“I think our version is interesting, and Quake Matthews’ rap really personalizes the song,” she said. “I kind of anticipate some people won’t like it, but that’s the risk you take when you decide to do something a little bit different.”
As she launches this new phase of her career, Rankin is pleased that the first big show will be at home in Cape Breton, once again part of the East Coast music family.
“It was instrumental in helping us find our feet,” she said of the ECMAs. “It helped give us exposure beyond the region and helped attract the attention of major labels.”
“It’s incredible to see how it’s grown,” she remarked. “I was looking at the list of delegates and they have people coming from Australia, and the U.K., and all over the world — it’s really quite impressive — to little old Sydney.”
Despite her earlier comment, she’s far from being the oldest artist at the ECMAs, though she was a witness to its humble beginnings.
“I remember one of the first years, we were performing at a convention, and I was packing up my stuff to go home, and Raylene said, ‘Oh no, no, we have a commitment, we have to go over to the pub, there’s something called the Maritime Music Awards.'”
“We walked into the pub, and everybody’s talking, and Sarah McLachlan’s up on the stage singing, and Terry David Mulligan’s interviewing us for MuchMusic. And it’s like, ‘Oh, oh, awards, seriously?’ I was laughing, we have awards? The next year we were nominated, and we were out to supper, and landed 15 minutes late, and sat in the back row, and then we started winning awards, and said ‘Oh, so this really is a thing!”
It really is a thing. The East Coast Music Awards gala is Thursday night in Sydney, N.S., co–hosted by Heather Rankin and Ashley MacIsaac.
Follow @CBCMusic and @ECMusicHour for live coverage from the event, or via the hashtag #ECMW2016.