The first thing i notice when I meet him at a local café for our interview is how people look different on stage than they do in person.
The last time I saw Rae Spoon, he was playing on Vancouver’s Pride stage in 2003 and, to my eyes, he seemed taller, ganglier and more assured than the guy sitting across the table.
The “live-and-in-person” Spoon is probably around five-foot-four, tips the scales at just over 100 pounds and would be better described as small and fragile. Well, show business does create illusions and myths, after all.
Spoon, a 24-year-old transgendered female-to-male country folk singer/songwriter, was raised in Calgary by evangelical Christian parents and nourished by the musical myths and legends spun by Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
His queerness is a fact of life (“I’m trans everyday, all day”) but is rarely, if ever, reflected in his songs.
“A lot of queer artists have a lot of queer content in their music but I don’t. I’m not really inspired by my own transness,” Spoon says without any hint of defensiveness.
He feels no pressure to act as a role model or spokesman for trans issues. Rather, the songs on his newly released CD Your Trailer Door (and the 2003 debut Throw Some Dirt on Me) come from another place completely.
Musically, Spoon’s material is an affectionate homage to another era-the recording includes banjos, acoustic guitars, washboards, mandolins, upright bass and harmonicas.
Spoon sings and plays mandolin, banjo and guitar on the CD, which has a very natural, live-off-the-floor sound and was recorded in only four days at Welltribe Studios in Victoria. Lyrically, the songs are inhabited by truckers, trailer trash, honky-tonk drunks and broken angels. Most of them are wistful and longing tunes with titles like Lord Send an Angel, Long Road to Nowhere and Rapture.
Spoon elaborates for me: “[I’m] playing the kind of folk that appeals to people who don’t even know what trans means. I think it’s kind of alienating to write specifically about those [trans] issues. I like playing shows that are kinda mixed.”
Occasionally, he will crack a joke onstage about being trans but Spoon thinks people’s discovery and acceptance of him as a trans artist will come about naturally and doesn’t want to force it.
Spoon has had regular, working Joe gigs like pumping gas at the Powell St Chevron station. But in the five years he has made Vancouver his home, Spoon has almost exclusively worked on writing, recording and touring his music. The latest tour started in April in Jasper, and continues with about 30 dates across Canada and has already included stops in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York State.
A special show for Spoon was the Saratoga Springs, New York show at a place called the Caffe Lena where he played on the same stage a very young Bob Dylan played on his first tour of the area back in the early ’60s. “That was special,” Spoon enthuses.
Upcoming shows include festivals in Winnipeg, Dawson City and Jasper again in July; Spoon will also play locally at The Railway Club on Jul 14 as part of a benefit for the Under The Volcano festival, which takes place Aug 7 in North Vancouver. He will not perform this year at the festival but has many times in the past.
This is the 16th year for the alternative festival (dubbed the “Festival of Art and Social Change”), which takes an anti-war, anti-poverty, pro-people stance on world issues. Because his music is basically personal and not political, supporting the festival is a way for Spoon to stay in touch with his activist side without resorting to penning protest songs.
Last year, Spoon performed about 150 dates with a band; this current tour is a solo affair. The two ways of presenting the music are quite different and, as Spoon tells me, “I like doing the solo thing. [It] beefs up the whole stage presence thing [and] helps me grow as a performer.”
Most of the shows go well but there have been some bumps in the road, like breaking his banjo and having to leave it in Toronto to get repaired while bussing down to do shows in Virginia without it.
Then there was the bar in small-town Alberta with, as Spoon recalls, “taxidermied animals everywhere and, like, a gun case on the wall. The first time I walked in I was scared.”
But then there are the highlights like getting a good old-fashioned sing-along going at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. No small accomplishment, given that Big Apple audiences are notoriously jaded.
Although he makes it clear that he does not flaunt being transgendered and prefers the music to speak for itself, Spoon is aware that being trans is also an issue which cannot be ignored: “It seems like [we’re] at a time when it’s slightly acceptable in the world. I’m pretty lucky for timing. Ten years ago, [it] would probably not been so good an idea” to try to make a career in the usually conservative and redneck world of country/folk music.
He says he feels good about being an independent artist who does not have to answer to anyone creatively. “I may as well be who I am,” he shrugs.
His short career has already seen triumphs at the major folk festivals in Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary and Regina, and a personal favourite-playing between Natalie Merchant and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs before 10,000 people at the 2004 Edmonton Folk Fest.
Spoon, who writes constantly, will probably start recording again in about a year. The tour for Your Trailer Door will see him make his first overseas appearances-in the United Kingdom in the fall; and later, in March 2006, Australia.