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Recovering Albertan singer-songwriter Rae Spoon launches their debut novel

Be it chaste born-again hymns or Nirvana’s "Heart Shaped Box," the power of music plays an integral role in Rae Spoon's debut novel, First Spring Grass Fire. Set in a Pentecostal household in Calgary, the book follows the brilliant narrative of a protagonist named Rae who struggles with the narrow gender role foisted upon them at home and in school. Between Billy Graham rallies and the adolescent horror show of gym class, Rae must also deal with their father’s tumultuous mental health. Once Rae realizes that grunge is more interesting than the “repetitive electric pianos in songs about abstinence,” they discover music’s ability to function as a life preserver.

The potency of sound is well-tread territory for the author. Spoon, a transgender indie electronica singer-songwriter, has released six albums, received a Polaris Prize nomination, composed film scores for Chelsea McMullan’s Deadman and Jessica MacCormack's experimental animation Psychic Capital, and collaborated with Ivan E. Coyote on the multimedia show You Are Here. Somewhere amidst extensive touring schedules, Spoon penned their first novel.

Last weekend, Spoon played with their band to a packed house at Pop Montreal’s Queer Pop marathon. This Saturday, Le Cagibi will welcome Spoon once more, along with Vivek Shraya, for a First Spring Grass Fire launch entitled Recovering Albertans. We spoke with Spoon about their writing practice, geography, and future collaborations.

Photo: JJ Levine

NIGHTLIFE.CA: First Spring Grass Fire is a narrative whose linearity blurs and melds with snapshots, foreshadowing, and memories. In moving back and forth in time, I’m wondering if you worked solely from memory, or did you have any references, such as input from family, journals, photographs, etc?
Rae Spoon: I am actually estranged from a large part of my family, so I don't have many old photos to work off of. I had a very transient young adulthood where I managed to lose most of the childhood stuff that I did have. So, mostly I wrote it from memory. I had my sister read over one of the early drafts and she made a lot of editing notes for me. Some were about her own memories of certain things. That had a big influence on later versions.

Your novel made me think of Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts; they’re both wonderful queer coming-of-age narratives that contain contemporary cultural references. As a 31-year-old queer person, both novels resonate with me in a way that’s different from other books. Do you have a sense of how folks from other generations are accessing First Spring Grass Fire?
I'm just beginning my book tour this week, so I expect that I will get a lot more feedback soon. I do think there is something about reading a book from one's own generation that induces nostalgia. I am excited to see how it translates for people of older or younger generations and different backgrounds.

Adolescence is often marked by intense relationships with music. However, things must get kicked up a notch when music is forbidden because it could potentially send you to Hell—I’m thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses banning godless Smurf records. Were other forms of media contraband in your house? Did this added layer of musical damnation influence how you write songs?
I grew up in a Smurf-free house. Anything with magic or anything else deemed ungodly was pretty much banned. It's pretty funny compared to the things in the bible. I think it was great for my sense of rebellion as a teen. I had to cross over from my upbringing to listen to and write secular music. I think it added even more emotion because of the effort it took.

This leg of your book tour is entitled Recovering Albertans. When you’re on the road, how do audiences engage with that aspect of your identity—the cultural/geographic specificity of Alberta?
Alberta has the reputation of being very conservative and the fact that the current right-wing federal government has its roots there doesn't help. However, there are a lot of really great people there who support the arts and are queer positive. I get varied reactions about it on tour. I try to communicate all of my experiences in Alberta and I hope the book comes off balanced by that. 

When did your artistic collaboration with Vivek Shraya come about? How do your storytelling styles complement one another?
I met Vivek when he asked me to do an Amy Winehouse tribute in Toronto a year ago. We've since played some music shows together. I haven't actually seen his storytelling live yet. By reading his book and knowing he also grew up in Alberta I was sure that our stories would complement each other. It's nice that we're both mixing stories and music, too.

Can you talk about your upcoming Gender Failure tour with Ivan E. Coyote?
Ivan and I put together a multi-media show about how we both failed at the binary gender system and about how gender fails us all. We'll be performing the show around Ontario, as well as in Montreal and New York. The Montreal show is at Sala Rossa on November 21.

Cover illustration: Elisha Lim


Recovering Albertans: First Spring Grass Fire book launch
Saturday, September 29 at 3 PM
Le Cagibi | 5490 St. Laurent

First Spring Grass Fire
Arsenal Pulp Press | $14.95 | arsenalpulp.com