Label mates Geoff Berner and Rae Spoon toured Ontario this October to support their new records, books, and booklets.
They played at the ANAF on Oct. 18. The set was unique in two ways. First, the two took turns playing their own songs. Second, there was no setlist. Instead, they chose each song based on a theme present in the previous one played.
Armed with his accordion, Geoff Berner writes songs that make listeners laugh and cry at the folly of Canadian politics.
The Vancouver musician released a new album with Coax Records in September, and a new novel in October.
Brady Patterson: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your travels?
Geoff Berner: Here’s an important lesson: I see people travel as musicians and go to a place one time. They have a negative or a good experience and they go, “People there are all stuck-up,” or, “Oh, it’s the best,” or whatever. You can’t just go into a place, spend a couple days or more and make your mind up about it. You have to actually keep returning to places to really learn what they’re like. Reserve judgement about a place until you’ve spent a fair amount of time there.
BP: Is there any particular place that resonated with you?
GB: Well, for musicians, I can tell you that it’s easier to get a following and make stuff happen in cities and towns where the university is in the centre. When the town is integrated with the university, it means that the business community is more open to interesting ideas and the academic community is less ivory tower and more practical. So that’s something that I’ve learned: it’s a huge mistake to put the university outside of downtown. Vancouver made that mistake twice with University of British Columbia far to the west and Simon Fraser University far to the east. And … that sucked. Victoria made that mistake … all of BC made that mistake. It’s part of car-centric urban planning, when they think, “Oh, we’ll just keep everything separate because people can just jump in their cars.” Which is a stupid, stupid plan.
BP: Yeah, because that places a lot more pressure on using fossil fuels and all these unsustainable resources.
GB: That’s one of the things, but the other thing is that it atomizes society. Instead of integrating rich and poor smarties and business-ies, everybody is in their own silo and nobody actually sees each other on the street. And that’s a problem.
BP: Do you find, as a musician, you’re able to speak to different demographics: richer people and people that have less resources available to them?
GB: I hope so! I mean, I think that a lot of the people who I play to I would characterize as odd, bookish people who like to drink. And that can mean people who are university educated. So I think my audience tends away from the hardcore working class, and that’s a shame, but I do get people who like my stuff who come from poverty. And I’m proud of that. So I hope that what I’m doing can do that, but it’s not for me to say.
BP: What was your first exposure to music?
GB: Well it would be a combination of Jewish sacred music from going to the synagogue and stuff like that … and my parents were really enamoured with the early ’60s folk revival so I grew up in a house where there was quite a bit of Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary and so I heard a lot of that first thing as well.
BP: There seems to be a big connection between folk music and the social and political issues pertinent to your music.
GB: Yeah, well, “folk” is a weird word, you know. Any time you try to compartmentalize music you’re doing a bit of an injustice. Music is music, you know? Duke Ellington said, “There’s good music and there’s bad music,” and that’s about it. And I think if you really listen to music you can hear when people are being themselves and talking about things that matter to them and when they’re putting something on and being a performing seal. Whether it’s religious, folk, or punk music you can actually tell when someone is putting their whole selves into it.
BP: So one thing I’m getting from this is Geoff Berner is no performing seal.
GB: I hope not, it’s not for me to say. I’m trying not to be.
Rae Spoon’s music spans from country to electro-pop.
Spoon, a prominent member of Canada’s transgender community, also runs Coax Records.
Brady Patterson: In an interview, you said that your first exposure to music was in a religious context. What was that like?
Rae Spoon: I grew up in a Pentecostal Church, so … yeah. I don’t remember the first time, you know what I mean? It’s something very much private so … I take learning to sing as a positive experience.
BP: What is a Pentecostal community like?
RS: It’s very fundamentalist, pretty out there … like healing meetings and speaking in tongues … It was very much difficult to [stop], it was almost like having withdrawal. Like, “I guess I’m queer, I have to quit being Pentecostal now.” I mean, I think … that was a very long time ago and, yeah, I meet a lot of people coming from fundamentalist Christian families and I kind of like that they make so many of us (laughter) despite their best efforts.
BP: What things do you see as necessary to have around you to make a space for creation?
RS: I just need to be sitting still somewhere. I definitely like to be in my studio. Writing books and stuff like that’s a bit different, that requires more concentration. It’s hard. I have to write as soon as I wake up before I lose the will and become distracted.
BP: In mainstream conversation, the lives of trans people are receiving more focus. What do you believe is still left out of that dialogue?
RS: I think the historical presence of gender variant people is often left out, like it’s this new thing people are allowed to do. But there’s always been gender variant people. It’s different in every culture, every place, and it may not necessarily be how you or I think it would. The colonial nature of the two-sex/gender system that was brought here was basically designed to erase. Colonialism and the two-sex/gender system are very intertwined and, often, you don’t hear those conversations together.
BP: Given this, what are everyday actions, thoughts, gestures that non-trans people can do to encourage these changes in perspective from a colonial one to one that is more open to gender-variance?
RS: Well, I think the main thing is not gendering anyone, right? So working on…. Well, you know, I’m always working on internalized sexism and cissexism and … everyone’s working on those things. So maybe just confronting thoughts when those come up, like, “Why do I think that?” I generally tend to try and wait until I hear someone’s pronoun or they tell me to use it.
BP: Until that point, use ‘they’?
RS: I don’t even use “they” because it isn’t really gender neutral. It’s another pronoun, but I’ve found some people don’t like it. So then it would be like misgendering them. Maybe they want to go by “he” or “she.”
BP: So until that point refer to them by name?
RS: Yeah, you can learn to avoid it. It seems hard at first, but just trying to wait until people tell you what they want or…. They don’t have to either I guess. Just try to make that space.
Photo by Brady Patterson