Pic by Dustin Rabin
A hard playing, big singing, soul swinging powerhouse, Terra Lightfoot is quintessentially Canadian. That can be both good and bad as she explains in the first days of her second tour of Australia.
Terra Lightfoot, in keeping with the cliché that regularly turns out to be fact about Canadians, is not just friendly and easygoing but honest. Frankness comes naturally to the tall guitarist whose deep and powerful voice almost overshadows her exciting playing, usually on her favourite guitar, a Gibson SG she’s called Veronica.
Truth matters, she says. Authenticity matters.
About most things anyway. There is one thing which will stay in the quiet corner, especially if any members of the police highway patrol are reading this. On her band’s first trip to Australia late last year someone – and she insists there will be no names/no packdrill here – driving the van as they travelled down the east coast was a tad heavy-footed and incurred $2000 in speeding fines. Ouch.
Well, ouch if that person was to fess up and pay on this current trip. If only we knew who. All Lightfoot will say on the matter is that when she started driving in semi-rural southern Ontario – in “a little black GMC” - she never drove over 40 miles/64 kilometres an hour. So, presumably it couldn’t be her, could it officer? Not with that history and this honest face.
All I’ll say on the matter is that it was interesting to note the waitress at the café we’re at asks if we can pay in advance for our food. Maybe one of us is giving off a whiff of criminality. I wonder who? (Though since only one of us is “of middle eastern appearance” and automatically suspect, maybe it’s not time to throw stones eh?)
Anyway, we’re sitting out in the laughably named Entertainment Quarter near Fox Studios in Sydney, under greying skies and in a nippy wind that still feels like heaven for a Canadian only recently arrived from a typical northern winter.
Lightfoot grew up in Waterdown, not quite in the country but certainly not the inner city, less than an hour from the country’s biggest metropolis, Toronto.
“Where I’m from is suburban farmland so I would ride my bike with my friends and I remember a couple of times getting on the backs of horses in fields and kinda getting into some shit – we were close enough where we could ride our bikes to someplace like that,” she says. “But I didn’t start venturing outside the little cradle of farmland and ‘burbs until I got my licence and my first car, whose name was also Veronica.”
On her third album, last year’s New Mistakes, there’s You Get High, a song about making (or not making) big decisions in small moments and being caught in between. “I was still just running scared, every door I opened led to nowhere” Lightfoot sings.
It sounds direct from a few all too real lives in a town much like Waterdown, or the next biggest town nearby, Hamilton. Is it a true story?
“That song is a tough one,” she says. “It’s really been true, for sure, and it’s easy to write because it came from a time when I was in Hamilton living a harder life that I live now.”
Making sure to preface the rest of the story with a Canadian “I’ll check my privilege at the door” - on the basis that she grew up reasonably well supported in a country that is hardly troubled - she says harder in this case means “creatively, I would say I was tortured at the time”.
How so? “I wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted to do: I wasn’t playing music. I was talking about playing music, but I wasn’t playing music,” says Lightfoot. “I was wasting my time and not getting anything done.”
As any “struggling artist” would tell you, going without isn’t the worst thing if you are creating or feeling like you are making personal or artistic breakthroughs. Going without and not doing any of that? Now that’s a recipe for frustration and emptiness.
“I wrote [You Get High] about the time before I recorded [her second album] Every Time My Mind Runs Wild, which was the record that brought me all around the world and allowed me to pay a band and start living the life I had dreamed of.”
Her problem wasn’t lack of ability or even lack of opportunity; it was more like too many opportunities and a lack of focus. She had a band in high school, later an all-girl country band, another country band, The Dinner Belles (with whom she made her first recordings], a couple of rock bands, played bass in a friend’s band, guested on guitar with countless others. All at the same time.
“There’s a certain brushing off that happens when you are playing with other people. I was hiding behind a lot of different things,” says Lightfoot, who took some time to feel comfortable as a lead guitarist after learning her chops in the ego-free world of the teenage rhythm guitarist. “My first record, I was not the bandleader on that record, I wasn’t the music director and I wasn’t happy with where I was going, but I was literally hiding behind that.”
What turned it around? “I give credit to every person in my life.”
“My managers – who didn’t even want to manage me – said ‘we’ve been talking to people and everyone told us that we shouldn’t come near you with a 10 foot pole because you’re not focused, you don’t know what you’re doing and you are playing in 100 bands.’”
They told her make a decision, choose a path. “Honestly, they shoved me towards it. I didn’t walk through that door easily. But as soon as we made that record, that’s when everything changed.”
Pic by Dustin Rabin
Her self-titled debut was a quieter, folk/rock thing, closer to Laura Veirs than rock’n’roll, Her second album expanded the palette and the volume, while New Mistakes with soul and blues and rock and country prominent, is a much more confident, assertive record. It’s as if Lightfoot realised, fuck yeah, I’m allowed to do more, I’m allowed to be me.
“That’s perfect way to describe New Mistakes,” she says enthusiastically. “Just saying fuck yeah.”
Is this closer to who she is? Or maybe closer to who she finally has become?
“I never dreamed of being a bandleader,” Lightfoot says, acknowledging that she couldn’t have been a leader when she recorded her first album. “I was a little kid, I was 21. When I was graced with a new band, that’s when I was given confidence. I need to be circled and pushed in a direction and everybody around me has done wonders and allowed me to be that way.”
And if the power and confidence of New Mistakes sounds exciting, in realising those songs on stage in the past year, they, and Lightfoot, have changed and grown “so much more free”.
“Authenticity was a very important thing to me on this record, where I wasn’t sure how to address that before. I’ve always been kind of afraid of being myself, as everybody is. And this record is about saying, okay, this is how I am, welcome to the show.”
In this “show” it’s clear that one of the things that Lightfoot has taken from southern soul in particular is a frankness about adult relationships and adult behaviour. It’s most evident in Two Hearts which like some of the best southern soul sung by women acknowledges that it’s not just men with a wandering eye or a transient heart.
“I have always been, and I know this doesn’t seem to correlate, a big fan of Loretta Lynn, and her calling out Mooney [Lynn, her husband] for cheating on her in the Coalminer’s Daughter song, The Man Of The House, her saying you’re never home so I’m going to go out and do my thing, that record was always important to me. But I wasn’t able to get into that space to write it until now.”
It’s worth noting too that there’s further payback for The Man Of The House on the same album, in the song Another Man Loved Me Last Night, with the kicker line “I’d almost forgotten what love was really like, but I’m only human, only a woman”.
There’s a similar level of adult understanding in Lightfoot’s Two Hearts, which comes from her “trying to be honest”.
“It is shameful, but it’s not cheating; it’s wandering eye,” she says of the character in the song. “And I think everyone does that but no one talks about it, which is why I think it’s important to shed light on those things.”
Not that the level of frankness has come easily to her but when Lightfoot measures herself against the likes of Lynn and, especially John Prine (who gets a namecheck in another song on her album, Three In The Morning), she knows she has a standard to reach.
“He is so important to me as a lyricist, as a finger picker, as everything. What I love about him is he’s not pretentious. But he is such a moral guy,” she says. “My favourite movies, my favourite books are where there this moral character that has had it a little bit tough and does everything right anyway.”
In a Prine song, moral or otherwise, the truth of a person, a character or a story, is paramount.
“Truth and authenticity,” Lightfoot says. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Terra Lightfoot plays:
Friday 20th April: The Loft - Warrnambool
Saturday 21st April: Boardriders – Bar 61- Torquay
Sunday 22nd April: The Spotted Mallard - Melbourne
Tuesday 24th April 2018: The Brass Monkey - Cronulla
Thursday 26th April 2018: Lazybones – Marrickville
Friday 27April: Gumball Festival - Dashville
Saturday 28 April: Beaches - Thirroul
Sunday 29 April: The Quarterdeck - Narooma
Wednesday 2nd May 2018: The Brass Monkey - Cronulla
Thursday 3rd May 2018: Lefty's Old Time Music Hall - Brisbane
Friday 4th May 2018: Nightquarter - Gold Coast
Saturday 5th May 2018: Sol Bar - Maroochydore
Sunday 6th May 2018: Kingscliff Beach Hotel - Kingscliff