CityFolk may have come and gone this month, but there’s still great folk music coming to town this month, capped off with Cape Breton’s Jimmy Rankin gracing the stage at the Algonquin Commons Theatre this Friday night, September 27th.
Rising to fame with his siblings in the Rankin Family, in the early 90s, Jimmy launched his solo career after the group stopped performing in 1999. In the almost two decades since, he’s built a catalog of seven albums, with the latest being this year’s Moving East.
We caught up with Rankin as he embarked on his cross country tour to discuss what he’s been up to, what went into this latest release, and what we can expect from his show.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
APT613: Before making this album, you spent a considerable amount of time in Nashville and then moved back to Nova Scotia. How was that period, and what made you decide to come back?
Jimmy Rankin: We moved there in 2010, my wife and kids and myself, and we moved home about a year and a half ago, going on two years now—time flies. I’d been going to Nashville to make records and write songs, going back to the days of my siblings with the Rankins, and I continued going back to make records and write as a solo artist.
We never intended to stay seven and a half years. But our kids were getting older and we were really dug in there and working in jobs traveling a lot. We had to make a decision whether we were going to stay there or move back to the East Coast. We’ve always maintained a house here in Cape Breton, where I’m from, so we would come back for summer holidays and Christmas and whenever we could. So we finally made the decision to come back on election night, around eleven o’clock, and said “OK, let’s go home.”
It was a hard decision to make because we were really dug in there and we have a lot of friends there. It was a really great place to live. There’s so much music there, it’s a very inspiring place. But I’m back on the East Coast now, happy to be home, and upon my return, I made a record with Joel Plaskett—I enlisted his help as a producer—and I called the record Moving East, appropriately. It features all East Coast musicians; the songs are all based out of the East Coast, there’s songs and stories and fiddle music that come from this area, in particular Route 19, where I’m from, which is the highway on the west coast of Cape Breton where I grew up.
Listening to the album, it’s not just Moving East geographically. The record itself is very much entrenched in East Coast traditions.
It’s a storytelling record. Storytelling is very much part of the fabric here. It’s very much part of our culture, whether you’re playing blues or rock or whatever, we’re storytellers here.
This record is about that. It’s about returning to my roots, as a writer, as an adult, coming back home. I really wanted to make this record. I’d been thinking about it for a while and this is what it turned out to be.
It’s very organic. A lot of it’s recorded live off the floor and live vocals, and for a lot of the songs, not much overdubbing. And it ends with a good old group of Celtic fiddle tunes, played by Ashley MacIsaac, myself and Hilda Chiasson, and that’s what I grew up listening to: lo-fi Celtic music on cassettes and reel-to-reels.
Some people that go down to Nashville write songs come back a little disillusioned with the music business there, and the perception that there’s so much focus on finding the next Kenny Chesney singing about trucks and beer, and a lack of traditional country music and traditional folk.
I had no preconceptions about Nashville being not like that, because I’d been to Nashville many times and I know people that’s all they do: they try to write for Billboard and for the radio and get covers. I could do that, but that’s a full-time thing. I made that realization there that I didn’t want to do that. I’m a singer-songwriter and I make records, write songs and then I tour and play live for people, and that’s what I love doing.
The notion of getting off the road and just writing songs every day is attractive, but not for me anymore. It’s just what I do. As I said, when I moved to Nashville, I had no preconceptions about it being anything else, but what IS in Nashville is there are thousands of songwriters, thousands of great musicians that play every kind of instrument. You can find any kind of musician there, in any genre of music really. There are even Irish pubs there. So, there’s not just people writing for the charts, or writing for the country stars. There’s a lot of other genres of music and other music scenes that are happening there.
“The notion of getting off the road and just writing songs every day is attractive, but not for me anymore. It’s just what I do.”
Unlike what I’ve heard about Austin, Nashville is a lot about commerce when it comes to music. You do have that aspect about Nashville which can be a turnoff because if you’re not cut out for that, and you just want to make good songs about personal things or whatever, and you’re not writing for the charts, then you could get turned off very easily. I’ve only been to Austin once, but I know artists that live there, and that’s what I hear about it. Sometimes I think maybe I should have moved to Austin because it seems that Austin is more about the music, not as much about commerce. In another life!
Do you think this album with Joel Plaskett could have come together if you hadn’t moved back east?
When I did contact Joel I had pretty much the album pull together. It’s an album that I didn’t want to make in Nashville. I really racked my brain about having somebody on the East Coast who understood Atlantic Canadian music, East Coast music, whether it was Celtic or the songs that we write here, and the story tradition and acoustic music. I think if I made this record in Nashville it probably would have turned out to be more Appalachian sounding, which I didn’t want. I was very conscious of not doing that.
I really racked my brain about finding a producer to work with who understood those songs and also somebody who has a good understanding of pop music. So I was pulling out of my lane in Cape Breton one day and I was listening to CBC Radio and one of Joel’s songs came on the radio and a light bulb went off and I immediately called him.
Fortunately, he had some time that fall, and he came and I played him the songs, and he understood what I wanted to do. I had a ton of ideas about what I wanted to do with this record, and of course, him being a songwriter and a terrific arranger. He’s a really good producer, and both of our heads put together made this record, and it turned out to be an East Coast folk rock record.
“It’s a record I made with friends and it’s about where I come from.”
Most of the album is very traditional, it really comes through as a good representation of what East Coast music is supposed to sound like.
All those songs and stories have some kind of basis on Route 19, which is why this tour is called Songs from Route 19. I’ve made country pop records, singer-songwriter country records, and I just wanted to make something that was more organic. I wasn’t thinking about radio. I said to hell with radio. I wanted to make something that was very roots driven, and very East Coast, and so it features all East Coast musicians, right down to the artwork, which is a couple of photographs by the late great Robert Frank who was a neighbour of mine from Cape Breton. So to me, it’s a record I made with friends and it’s about where I come from.
What kind of show can we expect when you come to town on Friday? Is it more of a solo show or do you have a full band with you?
For this show, it’ll probably be either a duo or trio, and it’ll be all of the songs. I go back into my back catalogue and I sing some Rankin Family songs that I wrote back in that period, that people are very familiar with, and then songs and stories from throughout my solo career. Generally, I travel with a guitar player who’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from electric to mandolin and sings. So we can make a lot of racket, the two of us on stage.
Jimmy Rankin will be performing at the Algonquin Commons Theatre September 27. Doors open at 6PM, with a 7PM show time. Tickets range between $45 and $60, and are available here.