Triangle of Talent: Guitar, voice, songs — Terra Lightfoot has it all

Without one smile, one strut, or one hip shake, Hamilton singer-guitarist-songwriter Terra Lightfoot owns it. It’s not about flash, it’s not about swagger, it’s not about putting it out there — it’s about chops. Her fingers need not explore the fretboard — they already bought it, moved in, and furnished it in high-end boutique style. Her voice sounds like it was dredged through the Mississippi, river water and rust tempering her rich, gutsy pipes. Together, fingers and voice give life to songs written to hold up the third corner of her musical golden triangle — guitar, voice, and songwriting.

Thus, it’s hard to picture Lightfoot touring in a van — a van doesn’t seem large enough to hold that much musical real estate. Yet our interview was done with the singer inside a vehicle travelling “somewhere in Alberta, though I have no idea where it is” as she tours in support of her latest album New Mistakes. 

Which leads to the first Great Canadian Question: How do you cope with the endless maw of road that sews together audiences scattered between Canadian Shield and Canadian fields in this massive country?

Besides listening to a ton of great music on the road, including The Church’s Under the Milky Way mixed in with Patsy Klein, The Replacements, Thin Lizzy and Lucinda Williams (“It’s been an eclectic day”), Lightfoot says: “My secret is to have two great drivers in the van so I can sleep the entire time. You have to let go. It’s part of the process.”

Letting go turns out be one of the things that helped Lightfoot unleash her triangle of talent. It’s part of the reason she still lives in her beloved Hamilton, instead of making like most Canadian artists who are serious about “making it” and moving up the road in Toronto.

“Before we recorded (2015 album) Every Time My Mind Runs Wild, I lived in Toronto for six months because I thought I had to. It was one of the worst periods of my entire life.” She laughs. “I sprained my ankle, I lived in a basement, all my plants died, and I had no money. It was a crazy time. But it inspired all the tunes on that record,” she says.

“After we started touring that album, I figured out I don’t need to live in Toronto. I still like going there and it’s a great place to be nearby, but Hamilton holds my heart, for sure,” says Lightfoot, who was raised in Waterdown, a rural landscape in the northern part of Hamilton.

“I just figured if I was doing my best work it didn’t matter where I was doing it from. People work from home all the time. And truthfully, it’s 40 minutes away, down the highway.”

The Hamilton address reflects one of Lightfoot’s deeper truths. “To me, it’s about authenticity, about not changing who you are or what you’re wearing or where you’re living to adhere to some kind of standard. There is no standard; you just have to be yourself.”

The courage to be herself was boosted in no small way when Lightfoot learned her love of music while her gramma played organ at church functions. “She used to play on Tuesdays … for a seniors’ church choir, so I would get to go because she was babysitting me. My parents were at work. It was a beautiful way to start experiencing music,” Lightfoot recalls.

While it impacted her relationship with music, music is not what she most remembers about those days. The memories, instead, are laced with flavour and love. “There were a lot of sugar cookies, because after choir practice there was always cookies. There was just a feeling of comfort. When you’re the only kid amongst a room full of seniors, you’re feeling pretty taken care of, and happy and content.”

From those moments hanging out with her gramma to opening for her heroes Blue Rodeo on a recent tour, Lightfoot remembers when she realized music would be it for her. “(In) 2015 when we released Every Time, that was the year we started touring. I got to go up to Yellowknife; we played a festival in Vancouver. I remember that being such a far flung idea that someone on the other side of the country would want to hear our band. It was a beautiful realization and a moment I could feel comfortable having music as a profession and saying, ‘I’m a musician’ instead of shying away from it.”

In that vein, Lightfoot says she was influenced by many of the people she’s played with, including her workshop at last year’s Calgary folk fest with Jim Cuddy and Barney Bentall. But one other Canadian impacted her like a meteor hitting the moon.

“Daniel Lanois (has) given me so much encouragement. I met him I guess five or seven years ago at a festival he was putting on, and he’s always been 100 per cent behind me, behind my voice, behind my guitar playing, behind my songwriting. He’s always inspiring me, teaching me and mentoring me. He’s done so much in his life and he’s willing to share, and that’s really beautiful for me.”

(Photo courtesy Dustin Rabin.)

Terra Lightfoot performs Tuesday, Feb. 27 at Festival Hall. For tickets, please click here.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has been writing about her two passions, music and horses, for over 25 years.