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Heather Rankin – That Fine Line

Heather RankinCash Box Magazine Canada
Submitted by Bill King

We’ve visited places and declare never to return or check off a wish list. Then there is the unexpected – a place of authentic magic – a place we develop a surreal affection for. Sometimes it’s just the nature of things – others, the people and surroundings and others – all three. Cape Breton is my north, North America land love.

September 21, 2004 Ivan’s Hurricane force winds tapped Cape Breton. I had the marvellous opportunity to drive the long winding mountainous cliffs that rise over the rolling seas and travel the interior – the Cabot Trail – then hang tight through Hurricane Ivan – play chicken with a fierce ocean and meet the people. It’s the terrain and warm embraces – the picturesque villages that color memories trimmed in the eloquent natural light of a Vermeer painting.

I’ve always appreciated the Rankin’s – that big Celtic tradition. Any chance to rekindle my long distance fondness for the East coast is always a welcomed treat, especially through its people. I caught up with celebrated singer – songwriter and actor, Heather Rankin for a chat about her first solo effort – Fine Line. Here’s a bit of that conversation.

Bill King: Do you still run the Red Shoe Pub?

Heather Rankin: We certainly do.

B.K: I take it’s a seasonal operation – when does it open?

H.R: It opens last weekend in May this year.

B.K: Partners with your other sisters?

H.R: I bought it with my sisters – Raylene and Cookie and Genevieve who was not in the band. Raylene passed away three and a half years ago.

B.K: Once the season arrives, how much time do you invest in the pub?

H.R: It stays open for five and a half months. In the first few years we were open – I actually managed it – I was in there seven days a week and didn’t do much else outside of running it. We have hired a fulltime manager who does all of the “hands on” work now.

We are actually going into our twelfth season. It’s this little general store that’s in the middle of nowhere we’ve converted. You have to drive quite a piece to get here. There isn’t much between the Cosway and here so it’s really remarkable when you see the people who make the trek to come and have this experience and it’s always worth it.

B.K: It’s along the picturesque Celidah trail and the draw must be the music too?

H.R: Yes. We feature music at least once early day. During early week it’s free at super time and it’s mostly traditional fiddle music. We have a matinee on Sunday and music Friday and Saturday music later in the day.

B.K: This all evolved with local musicians?

H.R: It’s all local. Monday night we have a jam session that welcomes anyone who wants to come and sit in with a couple local fiddlers. That’s always fun.

B.K: Do you do some singing too?

H.R: The first few years we would open the season – Cookie and I and Raylene would do a set or two. Once and awhile we now drop in and do something impromptu. We recently opened it to film a CBC television show there – it makes no sense to open during winter months. I actually went up and sang a couple songs. If I’m around I’ll get up and sing.

B.K: Where do your spend most of your time?

H.R: I’m in Halifax – that’s where my husband and I have some properties and that’s where we make our living. We both have one foot planted in Cape Breton – both of us being from there. He likes to come home and fish with his father. We spend half the time in both places.

B.K: Are you excited about your first solo recording – Fine Line?

H.R: Yes. I’m terrified and excited. You know that day they took the training wheels off your bicycle – “hey – you are on your own.”

B.K: You waited a long time to do this.

H.R: I sure did! If you look at my life – I left Cape Breton and went to university and had two of my siblings at the same university in small town Nova Scotia. I left university and started traveling the world with my siblings and when that was finished I continued to make music with my sisters and toured with them and then bought a pub with them. I’ve never really actually left my family and grown up as an independent individual. This is kind of the first experience I’m having outside of my family on my own. With less opportunity to make music this is what makes sense to me. I’m a late bloomer Bill, what can I say.

B.K: Does this complicate – how does the rest of the family react?

H.R: With Raylene and John Morris passing it really changed the face of the band. Cookie and Jimmy and I do plan to do a record together in the near future and tour. Jimmy’s been making his own records for fifteen years and we have made a couple on our own. Cookie aspires to do much on her own. I think everyone’s excited and supportive. Jimmy sang on one of the tracks with me. It’s very encouraging.

B.K: This is contemporary pop – is there a reason behind the change?

H.R: When I set out to make the record I had no preconceived ideas of what kind of record I wanted to make. I could make a traditional record and try to recreate what I’ve done with my family or do the opposite end of the spectrum and try something completely different. I ended up meeting David Tyson and although he comes from the pop world and me traditional – we seem to be writing about similar things and hit it off. We became fast friends and ended up co-writing seven of the eleven tracks. I had no real intentions of making a pop record from the get go but I was open to exploring different avenues.

B.K: Is it mostly electronic?

H.R: Most of it is programmed yet a number of songs have players embellishing. David plays keyboards and lives in Los Angeles – this is why it took me nearly three years. I’d go down and hammer out a couple songs. Take a few months – go back and write a couple more. There were no self-imposed deadlines – I’d waited this long. What’s the hurry?

B.K: How did you arrive at including Tears for Fears – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World?”

H.R: It came up in a conversation with David and Frank Davies the executive producer that we should maybe consider doing a cover song. We looked at a number of songs written in the east coast then at a number of Canadian covers and that song came up. I love that song – it’s from when I was a teenager.

When hearing as an adult it resonated with me in a different way and I thought the thematic thread that runs through the other songs continues in this and it could really fit on the record.

I also thought if I’m going to do this and it’s completely pop I want to go the full distance and try a rapper on it. That was my crazy idea and I was really pleased how he personalized the message of the song and set it apart from the original version.

B.K: This is Quake Matthews own words?

H.R: Yes.

B.K: I was catching up with people’s reactions on YouTube and it can be less accepting..

H.R: I know – I kind of anticipated. People in our fan base can been somewhat conservative I think and afraid of change. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I can always go back and do traditional music – it’s who I am and what I came from.

This is the thing. I have no delusions of competing with Katie Perry – I just wanted to explore and have fun. It’s just organically ended up in this place having worked with someone in the pop world. It’s where I am at this particular time. Some of my favourite records are collaborations from people in two different musical worlds like the stuff the Cheiftains do with so many contemporary artists or Paul Simon’s Graceland. They are great records.

B.K: Are you presently acting? What kind of roles do you prefer?

H.R: I love comedy. I tend to do comedy very naturally and do it well – I think.

B.K: I was reading when you were young you were a big fan of the Carol Burnett.

H.R: I love Carol Burnett and that show. We only had two channels growing up – CBC and CTV. Part of what I loved about the show was the Kraft commercials in between and they’d make things with the Kraft products. We didn’t have theatre here. There was no movie theater or place to go see live theatre. The only live performances were traditional music and the community hall. When she’d sing the show tunes I didn’t really understand they were songs from shows. All these years later I appreciated that aspect of her show more now than I did at that time.

B.K: Were you picking up any comedy ideas?

H.R: I’m a physical comedian – I like physical theatre. I liked her facial expressions – way over the top – Gone With the Wind – oh my – so, so funny.

B.K: You all must be cracking up with this sudden American interest in immigrating to Canada even aiming for Cape Breton?

H.R: You know what happened – a radio DJ started a website here and invited all Americans who didn’t what Trump to become president to come here. Isn’t it crazy President Obama mentioned when the prime minister was meeting with him in Washington. Even crazier – I’m watching Jeopardy the other night and the returning champion was talking about Cape Breton fiddling. He was talking about a documentary he was filming about fiddling and the different styles in North America.

B.K: I love Cape Breton!

H.R: You have to come and visit us at the Red Shoe and play the old acoustic piano – we took out the front so it has volume!