Many artists deal with mental health issues in their daily lives. But not that many discuss their issues openly and directly in their work, which is one of the reasons why Rae Spoon’s latest album, Mental Health, is so powerful.
Mental Health is the Victoria-based, gender non-binary singer-songwriter’s 10th album, and it frankly discusses their struggles with the lingering effects of childhood trauma, the siren call of suicide, and the inability to sleep, or pay for crucial medications. And yet despite some heart-wrenching lyrics, Spoon’s sweet melodies and lilting voice counterbalance the darkness with poppy optimism.
Perhaps that’s because Spoon finds relief in creativity, and in social connection. “Living with complicated issues is a lifelong process, and surviving another day can be a big victory for people with mental illness and other challenges,” they explain. “There have been a lot of losses in my communities – folks who didn’t make it through. In the last few years it’s felt very close to me. But I like how if you tell a story, you hear a lot of stories back. And I’m hoping if I start a discussion about it, other people will also have discussions, ‘cause it’s really important.”
“For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation.”
Spoon’s sound has shifted over the years, from folk-country to electronic pop. That’s partly reflective of where they’ve been living. “I grew up in Alberta, so country was all around, but I wasn’t into it,” they say. “But I moved to Vancouver and heard the Be Good Tanyas, and started to wonder what parts of my background I could explore and be part of as a trans gender person. And then I moved to Germany and Montréal, and I met people who played computers like instruments, which was new to me. I was excited about an environment where teenagers were more likely to learn to DJ and make electronic music than play electric guitar.
“But I’ve always liked a traditional song. I like using everything. I have folk elements, and I enjoy bringing them together with rock and electronics.”
On Mental Health, Spoon enlisted The Pack A.D.’s drummer Maya Miller and singer-guitarist Becky Black to pump up the rock. The collaboration came about after they played B.C.’s Artswells Festival with Carole Pope. “We learned three or four of each other’s songs and played together,” they say. “That was fun, and it informed my thinking about this record. It felt very creative to work with them. If I write a vocal riff and a singer changes it, or if a guitar player adds to something in the studio, that’s great for me.”
One song, “Blaring,” was written and sung with Northcote, a.k.a. Matthew Goud. “He sang at one of my shows and I really liked the vibe. The song just came out, long before I wrote the others,” says Spoon. “We used a line I’ve wanted to use for years: ‘I will love you until I don’t.’ It always came off as harsh, but adding ‘…or I still do’ changed that. We both worked on it, and I realized it fit the context of Mental Health.”
Spoon also writes books, and was the subject of a 2014 National Film Board documentary called My Prairie Home that discussed their painful past. But though their story is difficult to share, Spoon feels less exposed and vulnerable when there’s music involved.
“People are very hesitant to talk about themselves – we talk about issues in general,” Spoon says. “For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation, so although I feel vulnerable, there’s something cool about having the music there. Writing personal stories in a book would be more difficult. One thing I like about songs is that you can get up and play them for anybody, and people have their own experience. You don’t need to be specific for listeners to connect with it.”