It’s been an ambitious year for Rae Spoon. Since last fall, they’ve released their first book, First Spring Grass Fire, a quasi-fictional collection of short stories that serve as their memoirs growing up in Calgary, finished work on a documentary, My Prairie Home, to debut this month at the Vancouver International Film Festival and wrote an accompanying full-length album of the same name. The three releases work simultaneously to tell Spoon’s story: finding their voice and their identity as both an indie musician and a trans person and coming to terms with their identity as someone who was raised in a religious home in Calgary. It’s an enterprising project, to say the least, but Spoon’s unwavering voice ties book, album and movie together in such a way that they could easily be considered a single work that spans three types of media.
Speaking from their home in Montreal, Spoon is cheerful and inviting. They seem both shy and effervescent, excited about the upcoming film release and, at times, relieved that this project is done and out to the public. In many ways, the trilogy represents the first time Spoon gives their audience this level of access to their life. Though they’re quick to point out that they still do separate public from private, these three releases are powerful, honest and unflinching, not afraid to examine their upbringing and share it with the world.
“I used to avoid writing too much about being queer when I was younger,” they say, “I didn’t think I had the room to write queer content… I think having the book come out first was good because there was so much content in the book. It’s much more explicit than the album and the movie, so, by the time those came out, it had been a year [and I was used to it.]”
“When I was a little girl/I thought I had to hold up the world.” — Sunday Dress
With the book as an introduction, Spoon invites us in to their upbringing, fleshed out by the album and the film. The former provides an emotional gravitas perhaps not present in the book — aided, of course, by Spoon’s sparse compositions and poignant lyrics — while the latter adds a depth of imagery that helps tie everything together in a natural and tangible way. Especially to those familiar with the wide-open prairie landscapes that make up the bulk of the film, My Prairie Home is strikingly visceral and real.
Directed by Chelsea McMullan, My Prairie Home occupies a liminal space between musical and documentary. Spoon narrates the bulk of the film, leading us through the spaces that they occupied in the past and defined who they are today. McMullan proves to be an excellent match for Spoon, stylistically: she has a painterly quality to her shots, most of which feature the enormous prairie land-and-skyscapes that define Alberta. These linger for longer than expected, functioning almost as stills, mimicking the quiet uncertainty and, sometimes, paranoia Spoon had to navigate as they came to terms with their identity. Growing up in a deeply religious, Pentecostal household with an abusive father certainly didn’t lend itself to much room for Spoon to explore non-heteronormative identities and, as they explain in the documentary, it seemed like they were always waiting for Hell to open up and swallow them in a fiery whole.
“It’s really different from what I’ve done in the past,” says Spoon about the documentary. “I hadn’t even filmed a music video before I met Chelsea. She filmed a couple of them for me over the years, like leading up to the film, so that was an introduction for me… Being filmed outside the context of a music video was different. I think I’m a pretty private and shy person… it was definitely a process.”
McMullan had originally approached Spoon a couple of years ago, wanting to document the musician’s transition from playing country music in Vancouver to playing the indie electronica music for which they’re better known today. “By the time we started filming and got funding, it was a bit after the fact. She decided to take the stories about growing up in the Prairies that I had and turn that into a film.”
These stories formed the basis for the trilogy, anchored by tropes of self-discovery and coming to terms as a trans person. Though Spoon originally identified as a lesbian, it wasn’t until they moved to Vancouver and met trans folk for the first time that they knew that was their own identity. Soon, Spoon found that they could work their identity in order to open up spaces not only for their peers, but for their music career, too.
“If someone told me when I was 22 that I was going to be in a musical documentary, I would have been like, ‘Oh, that’s great,'” they laugh. “I was having a really hard time with the media in general with being transgender and it definitely changed the way my career developed.
“When I was playing country music, maybe that wasn’t the best model — it changing to include trans folk is probably still 20 years off. However, in the indie rock world, the thing that can kind of help me with being trans is that’s actually how I stand out from everyone else. I turned it around and used it as a thing that helps people remember who I am.”
“I wanted you to think I was a cowboy/So I told you where I was from.” — Cowboy
Understandably, coming home to the Prairies has been difficult for Spoon, though they readily acknowledge a connection to the land’s shared histories. They left Calgary as soon as they were able to, first striking for Vancouver, where they hoped to find like-minded friends to help guide them, then to Europe for a quick stint, before settling in Montreal. As long as it was far from the churches and suburban neighbourhoods of their youth, it would do.
In the past years, though, Spoon’s relationship to their homeland has changed. “Living in Montreal, or when I lived in Europe for a while, I knew very much I was from the Prairies. But, writing about growing up in Calgary in the ’80s brought back very specific things, especially how people reacted to it. I still identify as being from the prairies, perhaps more so than ever.” Indeed, the film is heavy with images familiar to Calgarians and Albertans, generally, from iconic shots of the city to quiet, open spaces that define the under-populated Prairies. The film’s opening scene, for instance, features Spoon performing “Cowboy” in a diner in which the average patron seems to be aged 65. Spoon sticks out, but no one really pay them too much attention, despite them performing one of the heaviest, most emotional songs on the album. Growing up, Spoon remembers, was an exercise in invisibility unless you were part of the recognizable majority. Especially in the Pentecostal community in which they grew up, there was little room to be different. Returning to these spaces and memories for the documentary, album and book, Spoon found themselves taking strength from what once seemed bleak and poisonous.
“When Chelsea started filming and it was becoming more and more about my life, there was a lot of stuff in there that I didn’t really broach with the media when I was younger. I was having a hard enough time with just being trans, so I kind of put it away. I wasn’t being dishonest, but I was kind of trying to keep my career going and not talk too much about how I grew up and where. I think [My Prairie Home] kind of gave my own story back to me.”
“I don’t care if it’s right or wrong/I just want what I want what I want.” — I Want
If Spoon hoped to achieve one thing with their triple release, it was to further open up space in which people could feel comfortable coming to terms and talking about their identities, wherever they may fall on the heteronormative binary, within or without. Music has always been Spoon’s way of both finding comfort in the world and bridging the gap to other people. Indeed, in one of the most touching moments of the film, Spoon introduces the audience to their first girlfriend. They both head back to the school halls where they first met and, in the stairwell, they sit together once more and Spoon plays a song for her. It’s a simple moment and a common one — writing a song for a loved one — but it goes to show how powerful and central playing music has been to Spoon’s life. And, for them, it allows them to give back, to engage in dialogue.
“I think it’s cool that I can make an electronic album and [someone] can give it to their parents because there are still good songs on there… I’ve always just tried to make music people like, even if they don’t know what a trans person is,” they say.
While Spoon is cognizant of the impossibility of fully separating their identity from their work, and the fact that it will probably always be used to drive the narrative forward, they don’t necessarily shy away from that, or take offence. Instead, they use it as a positive force, helping shed some light on how patriarchy organizes all bodies and sexualities, not just ones that fall inside or out the strict binary divide. The only way to combat this is to open up that space for inclusive dialogue.
“The gender binary affects everyone,” they say lightly. “At some point or another, as cis-identified as someone can be at that far end of the spectrum, there’s going to be a moment or a thing that happens when the binary doesn’t work for a person. I think that’s all that I can really bring up with my identity: that there’s more space for that identity. People can challenge those narratives. Personal life stories and memories are fairly powerful ways of communicating.
“I think that’s mostly what the film, the book and the album are, more than like an overarching trans propaganda: maybe, if I’m sharing my life story, someone will share theirs.”
Catch Rae Spoon at the Festival Hall (Calgary) on October 10, at the Up+Downtown Festival (Edmonton) on October 12-13 and at The Windsor (Winnipeg) on November 23. My Prairie Home will debut in Edmonton at Metro Cinema on October 13 and in Calgary at CUFF.Docs, from November 21-23. The album by the same name is available via Saved by Radio.
By Sebastian Buzzalino
Front cover illustration: Mike Kendrick
Photo: JJ Levine