JUNO Spotlight: Heather Rankin
2017 | Adult Contemporary Album of the Year
(A Fine Line)
What is it like growing up in one of Canada’s most beloved musical families? Well, if you’re Heather Rankin you sum things up nicely with the word “chaotic”.
Born the eleventh child in an already musical household, she looks back now on a childhood when the Rankin Family was just, well, the Rankin family. Then, there was no touring, CDs or awards but there was still music. Lots of music. Her life was one of songs, melodic tradition and filled with pianos and fiddles; sounds that seemed to only string together the melody of the inevitable.
“I looked up to Raylene a lot. Her ability to get up and entertain a crowd with her voice all night long made a huge impression on me. I wanted to be just like her,” Rankin tells Ottawa Life speaking of her older sister’s influence on her eventually joining the musical Rankin ranks.
“It makes sense that I ended up a performer. I guess I always knew I would.”
The Gaelic traditions in her hometown of Mabou, Nova Scotia would also prove fertile for the younger Rankin’s future. Music was everywhere, not just limited to her home! The community of just over 1,000 didn’t just have roots in Irish melodies, it had gardens and the Rankins would prove to be one of the Maritimes most fruitful crops.
Though there was a point in her life where she felt she might pursue acting instead, Rankin decided to join Raylene, John, Jimmy and Cookie in 1989, leaving the small Inverness County community to share their music with the world. They recorded their debut album of traditional jigs, reels and folk songs along with some original tracks by Jimmy and Raylene that year but it was their second album that saw the group’s breakout hit “Fare Thee Well Love” catch fire while they were still selling albums out of the trunk of their mother’s car.
The band would go on to win four JUNOs before parting ways in 1999. Heather found the opportunity to pursue acting while also touring her two sisters. Music never too far out of reach.
Despite years of performing and recording, it took until 2012 for Heather to start work on a solo project, one she says was a scary step initially.
“There was nobody to share the load so I certainly spent some sleepless nights. On the other hand I am proud that I was able to follow through. In some ways it was a liberating journey discovering my own strength and abilities.”
The result became the JUNO nominated A Fine Line.
Released last year, the album saw Rankin finding new ways to shape the Celtic sound of her past work and, in some instances, create entirely fresh songs that utilized material you may not expect. A Rankin and rap? It happens on Heather’s cover of Tears for Fears’ 80s hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by way of Halifax rapper Quake Matthews. The albums mixes have a more electronic base, a surge of energy that was a cognisant shift for the musician moving not just into a new chapter of her career but an entirely new book.
“I think subconsciously I wanted to create something other than what I was known for on the family recordings. Even if I wanted to I am not sure I could have continued in that vein without the others. Removing those expectations allowed me to explore more and opened the door to all kinds of exciting music,” she says.
Rankin does have some good competition in a category that features three more of Canada's best female performers in Chantal Kreviazuk, Sarah McLachlan and Céline Dion plus powerful tenor Mark Masri.
We chat with Heather Rankin more about the new album, cherished Rankin Family memories and her future as a solo artist.
Ottawa Life: As somebody who adores Celtic music, I’m always kind of envious of those born into an area with so much of it around them. Musically, what are some of your early memories growing up in Mabou?
Heather Rankin: I grew up on the Back Street of Mabou and on one side of the street lived a prolific composer of Cape Breton fiddle music, Dan Rory MacDonald (uncle of John Allan Cameron) and on the other side, the very musical Donald Angus and Elizabeth Beaton and family. Dan Rory visited frequently in the afternoons with his fiddle to have my brother, John Morris accompany him on the piano.
Occasionally, my father would dig out his old fiddle and scratch out a string of tunes. My parents loved music. There always seemed to be music happening in the house.
In the warmer months we could sit in the back yard and hear the music streaming from the windows of the community hall. The weddings and dances were huge events in the community and the music was live and local, often provided my older siblings.
In the early 1970s I remember a film crew coming to our house to film Dan R. playing. The crew came to Mabou to gather footage for the documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. My mother had us up singing a Gaelic song and then we step danced. I would have been around five years old. Some of that footage is included in my music video “We Walk As One”.
That was a regular thing, people dropped in for tea in the afternoon and mom would call us in to sing and dance and John Morris would play the fiddle and Geraldine would play the piano. There was always music playing in the house and in and around Mabou. Music was an integral part of our community.
You are the eleventh of twelve kids. Certainly big families like this are a lot less common these days. I mean, I had two siblings and we always seemed to be getting in each other’s way. What was life like in such a huge household?
What you don’t know you can’t miss. We lived in a three-bedroom house with a walk in attic. It was a simple existence but we all took care of each other. My older siblings in particular cared for the younger members. My mom started to work when I was about 4 years old and I remember feeding the wet clothes through the ringer washer with my great uncle Freddie Wright. So they taught us early that everyone had responsibilities. There was no such thing as having your own room or fancy new clothes or privacy for that matter but we survived and we all went on to have a good work ethic and to appreciate all our parents did for us. I think it would be much more difficult growing up an only child. My mom was an only child and she loved having a big family.
You started singing in the choir at a young age. With your older siblings pursuing more professional singing projects, do you feel it was inevitable that you would go down that path too?
That’s a good question. We started performing at a young age at local concerts and community picnics and of course the girls starting at a young age were members of the church choir. Some of us took to performing and some of us did not care for it at all. My enjoying the connection with an audience may have had something to do with being second in line to the baby. (laughs)
Eventually, of course, you would all form one of the most beloved groups in Canada. What are some of your most cherished memories from your time in The Rankin Family?
Gosh, there are so many great memories! For much of that ten-year period when we were recording and touring we had our noses close to the grindstone. When I look back I question why we didn’t pause more often and celebrate the good things when they were happening but we had a lot of responsibility and had to answer to a lot of people so we had to stay focused and keep the train moving so to speak.
Touring in different places in the world was always wonderful. At one point we toured Australia and New Zealand as part of The Guinness Irish Festival and worked alongside a number of world-class Irish musicians like Donal Lunny and Sharon Shannon and Altan. We toured the UK with Mary Black and Steele Eye Span and recorded and performed with the Chieftains. These were all highlights for sure.
We had so many incredible opportunities but certainly winning four Junos on that amazing night in 1992 and having our mother along for the celebration is right up there at the top of the list.
You have stated that acting was what you initially wanted to work towards before music sidelined that. You did eventually pick that up. Was that career path never far from your mind even when working in music?
Occasionally during the touring years with the family I would receive an invitation to work on a film or stage production. Our schedule was so hectic it would not have been smart to break that stride. In hindsight I think I made the right decision. The trade off was most certainly worth it. I may have missed the window to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet but I was part of something very special. I may not have realized it at the time so I am grateful I stuck with the music. I consider myself very fortunate.
It hasn’t been easy breaking into the theatre community. When the family stopped touring most actors my age already had ten to fifteen years experience under the belt. They’d been honing their craft for years already, developing their process. I was just getting started. One thing I’ve learned is that anyone can act but acting well is not that easy. Good actors make it look easy. You can study acting but the most important training happens in the trenches on the stage while in a production.
How do you find it balancing two unique but demanding careers in the arts?
Yeah, that is tough. When I decide to go for something it’s all in or not at all. I know we live in a time when people say you can do it all but I am not so sure. At some point I think something has got to give. Since I set out to make my record it has been really challenging balancing the two, rewarding yes, but challenging.
What do you feel you brought with you from earlier work with The Rankin Family as a solo artist?
A strong work ethic, patience, and a willingness to be collaborative in whatever I set my mind to. I care about my relationships and the kind of impression I leave.
You had spent so long with such strong backing be it with The Rankin Family or touring with your sisters. How did it feel taking those first steps out on your own?
I won’t lie it was scary stepping out on my own. It took me a while to go public with my plans for a solo record. I spent my childhood and most of my adult life living and working with family in some capacity. Deciding to venture out with a solo CD was a giant leap for me. All of a sudden I was responsible for everything.
A Fine Line will celebrate its first anniversary a day before the JUNOs. Though you’ve been in the recording studio many times before, what was it like putting your first solo album together?
I know. I can’t believe how the year has flown. When I set out to record I had no idea what kind of record I’d be making. I had a handful of original songs and several directions I could have pursued but when it came right down to it I guess I was up for a challenge. I wanted to push the envelope and to explore beyond my comfort zone. So of course, I questioned every decision every step of the way but I kept telling myself it was okay to stray from the traditional world and to create my own sound.
You really could have played it safe with this release, broken out the fiddles and the Celtic gloss. Did you feel this release was a more liberating one for you as you started your solo career?
Yes, I could have played it safe and made a traditional record. It was with some trepidation that I decided not to. From the onset I was determined not to allow fear to keep me from trying something different. I had been testing the waters creatively on the final Rankin record, writing and choosing material that was a little outside what was considered Rankin territory and I felt like I was just finding my stride. So when I set out to make the solo record I think I was ready to experiment more.
And I didn’t make this record alone. I may have a Celtic, folk and theatrical background but David Tyson, the producer, came up through the pop world. It’s amazing what happens when you put two different music worlds together. Some of my favourite records have come out of such collaborative relationships. I think this kind of record takes a real and honest connection with someone who is like-minded, someone who is willing to take that leap with you. David Tyson got on board and I think we ended up with a beautiful collection of songs.
Speaking of different, you really took a classic tune from the 80s and made it your own with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. How did you come to choose that cover?
We thought it would be a fun experiment and record a song from the 80’s. I was a teenager back then so of course I love the music from that era. When “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” first came out I loved it for its melody and catchy hook and it was a great dance tune! All these years later when I listen to the lyric it resonates with me in a much more powerful way. It is spot on. The thematic thread running through the other tracks is in keeping with what this song is addressing. I figured, why not try it, if not just for fun.
A Rankin and rap music may not be two things people think would go hand in hand but it works so wonderfully on this track. Are you a fan of hip hop and how did you come to work with Quake Matthews?
I like all kinds of music. It may be cliché but music is the universal language. It knows no boundaries. There are some rappers who write material of substance and I respect the skill. It is not an easy thing to do. And it kind of reminds me a bit of traditional mouth music. It sounds crazy but its true.
I thought it would be an interesting experiment to collaborate with an artist from another music genre, someone who could give it a contemporary spin. Quake and I have a mutual friend in the business so that’s how we were introduced. I asked him to try something out and he jumped in no questions asked. He was such a good sport. I think he brings something really important to a song that is over 30 years old. I’m proud of it.
You’ve said that despite your longevity in the industry, you feel like you are a newcomer as the business has changed so much from where it was when you began. Can you elaborate on that?
Back in the 90s the industry was built around selling records. The most effective way of accomplishing that was to sign with a major record Company, land songs on mainstream radio and tour extensively. This sold records and selling records meant more touring and touring meant more record sales and around we go.
Fast forward to today, for the most part we’re not buying records. We’re streaming singles. The concept of owning a cohesive group of songs with beautiful artwork has become an old concept. (I’m still a fan of the full package). So a lot more artists are out there touring. That seems to be where the revenue is. And this shift is happening while on demand entertainment formats like Netflix are competing for the same audience.
So the touring market has become more competitive. Add to this easily accessible recording technology enabling just about anyone to record so building a fan base has become a much more complicated and competitive industry.
This is what I’m learning as I go and there’s so much more to know. It’s hectic keeping it straight but it’s exciting and the challenge is part of the fun.
I’ve read a few interviews now where you said you never really saw yourself as a solo artist. The Canadian music biz thinks otherwise, however. Does this JUNO nomination help shift that viewpoint somewhat?
Well yeah, it’s such a great compliment. It’s a great boost. This kind of affirmation from your peers is so incredibly encouraging. I think it’s normal for me to always be a bit tentative. I was a follower for a long time because I had so much support and there were so many strong leaders in the family dynamic. So this has been a huge period of growth for me and I am sincerely grateful.
This really seems not like a new chapter in your book but, really, a whole new text. What is next for you?
I’m looking forward to attending the ECMAs and of course the Junos next month. David Tyson is coming up from LA to join me in celebrating our record. To date I’ve released two music videos and plan to release a third this year. This video will be for the song Titanically and most of it was shot underwater. I’m performing and I’m writing and making plans for another recording this year. I’ll keep you posted on developments as they unfold. And I’m proudly doing my part as one of one hundred and fifty ambassadors for Canada 150 promoting Canada as a wonderfully diverse and inclusive place to visit. It’s been an amazing year!