In Conversation with Rae Spoon: Mental Health

Rae Spoon1
Rae Spoon portrait by Dave Todon. Courtesy of the artist.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Rae Spoon is an award-winning, non-binary musician and author whose music bridges indie pop, rock, folk-punk and electronic. Spoon owns and runs an indie record label called Coax Records that has released fifteen albums by Canadian and international artists. They have also been nominated for two Polaris Prizes, a Lambda Literary Award and a Western Canadian Music Award. A strong songwriter and performer who has toured for over 20 years, Spoon’s music is often connected to social activism/change, especially within the LGBTQ2+ community.

Rae Spoon’s latest album Mental Health addresses their own experience with mental health and the issues that arise in LGBTQ2+ communities while navigating the stigma around both mental health and queerness. Spoon describes that “I often think of albums in themes and that will often guide my writing. I try to tie in the songs in terms of that so there’s some continuity between them.” Spoon is well known for their insightful and introspective lyrics, and their new album is initiating the conversation that we need to be having about mental health.

I noticed that water is a particular theme in your music. I was wondering if you could talk about this inspiration and what water symbolizes to you?

I moved to Lekwungen speaking people’s territories in Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ territory, otherwise known as Victoria, BC. I have lived on the west coast before, but it has been a while since I lived in Victoria. I live where the pipeline would be, intersecting with the ocean. We all know it’s a big deal in terms of politics right now. There’s a great deal of activism with Indigenous people not wanting the pipeline to be built and the government pushing back, the federal government especially. I feel even more tied to this issue especially being from Alberta originally. [As a result,] I feel especially connected to the water around. That’s how the water theme started and why there’s often landscapes and waterscapes in my songs.

Your book Gender Failure is a collection of autobiographical essays, lyrics, and images documenting co-author Ivan E. Coyote’s and your personal journey from “gender failure to gender enlightenment,” based on your live tour. I was wondering if you could talk more about this tour and the inspiration behind the book?

We started the stage show for Gender failure in about 2013, and it premiered in an off-Broadway theatre in New York. It was the first multi-media narrative show I was doing so I was very nervous.

It was interesting since we were connecting with local audiences in New York about all of these Canadian stories of growing up. It was pretty cool, we could see it was something that was really connecting people despite that since we were talking about the strict gender binary and the rules of the patriarchy or sexism. You would always end up at some point in your life when you’re like “I don’t wanna do that.” Even the people who are benefitting from it [are affected by] how toxic the masculinity is.

We were going to make a show about being transgender and/or non-binary and we realized we made the show about how the gender binary is failing everybody, connecting a lot of people when I look back. We made it into a big show, we did two sets and toured with it for a couple years and we did some in London I think and across North America and Canada. In that process, we figured out some of the book and we added more pieces to create it. Our friend Clyde Petersen who is in Seattle did the live visuals for the show and made the illustrations and visuals for the book.

I saw you in London at the brewery on top of the Root Cellar. I remember that it was really creative and intimate, it was really special. I was wondering what your favourite part of touring smaller communities and maybe difficulties with that as well?

It’s really nice to go to small communities often since the LGBTQ2+ scene is really supportive. Although I’ve also had the same things happen to me in downtown Toronto as I’ve had in small communities. I’ve had issues getting yelled at—it can happen anywhere that the people can be oppressive or violent. However, I don’t usually stick to large cities, I like how supportive it is being there in small communities.

Before I learned to drive it was a challenge to tour on the Greyhound and tour in Western Canada, but now that I can drive it’s a lot easier. It’s great, I can also make my own hours. Often a lot of different people have to hang out since it’s not big enough to separate people into groups. The [different] scenes and the sort of queer scenes will often be connected which I like, with different ages and different backgrounds.

I see that you have started an indie label, Coax, which supports LGBTQ2+ and under-represented artists through community building. Do you have any advice for gender non-conforming/non-binary musicians who are just starting out in the music industry?

I am really all about community building. I think one of the best ways to meet other musicians is to support the music community, so when you’re starting out going to other shows and you then meet the musicians who are playing or supporting college radio, volunteering at festivals, you can meet a lot of people there who like music. The easiest way to try and build a following is to meet a lot of people who like music.

To be able to tour as a new act helps that, you can meet people from other towns, and you trade having people at the shows so that they know who you are. The best way to start out, in the beginning, is to help out other people and it can help you as well. It’s great to build more live scenes and music opportunities.

Rae Spoon, Mental Health. The album will be out on August 16, 2019.

You have an album coming out in August called Mental Health. I was wondering if you could talk about the inspiration behind the album?

The beginning of the inspiration behind [the album] is the communities I am in, and also my own mental health stuff that I face. I think music can sometimes make space for that. I wrote songs about my own journey with mental health and the different perspectives [I’ve had] during my life.

I think there’s still a lot of stigma about mental health and stigma around queerness and [being] LGBTQ+. It’s important to make space for marginalized communities. Often, we lack services, or you can’t go to the hospital since they’re not going to get your pronoun right. Trauma issues aren’t going to go away but there are ways to find different tools. I was thinking a lot about that and also that it’s not something that needs to be cured. Like getting out of ‘caring’ culture [which doesn’t address mental health as an ongoing struggle], and instead, talking about the everyday journeys of survival.

Check out Rae Spoon’s latest album Mental Health which comes out on August 16th, 2019.

The album launch for Rae Spoon’s Mental Health and celebration of the long-list Polaris nominations for Kimmortal’s X Marks the Swirl and LAL’s Dark Beings is happening on August 14 at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC.

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