Interview: Terra Lightfoot on hiking and “Healing Power”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mother Maybelle Carter and a Gibson SG called Veronica.

While the surname may be familiar, Terra Lightfoot is a hard-working sing-songwriter and guitarist from Canada who is known for the time she spends on the road bringing her music to fans old and new alike, and though she is not related to Gordon Lightfoot, she has toured and played live with him, as well as artists like Willie Nelson, Bruce Cockburn, and the Sheepdogs to name a few. She is also married to the Posies’ Jon Auer. Terra Lightfoot has just released her fifth album, ‘Healing Power’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson put some questions to her about the new record, and what it was like recording as a trio with Blue Rodeo’s Glen Milchem and bluegrasser Elijah Abrams. Hiking and walking are a great passion of Terra Lightfoot, and she explains that apart from the sheer enjoyment, walking helps inspire some of her songs. There is a long tradition of guitarists giving their favourite instruments a name, and Terra Lightfoot explains that hers is a Gibson SG called Veronica. She also explains that her main guitar influences are women players such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mother Maybelle Carter.

How are you, and where are you?

I am at my home in Haliburton Highlands, a couple hours north of Toronto, in Canada. Land of trees, frozen lakes, and snow at this time of year!

Hiking seems to be an important part of your life, why is that?

I think my favourite way to experience any place is by walking, not just in nature, but in cities too, I remember walking from Brooklyn all the way to the Staten Island ferry docks because I felt excited from a day in the studio. The first time I came to the UK, I remember staying in London and going for a walk around 11 pm and not returning until 3 or 4 in the morning. I just love all the things we can notice when we move that slowly. I get a lot of imagery for my songs this way too.

What’s it like being a girl guitar player and why Gibson?

Man, this is a tough one, because at the core of my being, I just feel like a guitar player, and to me, that doesn’t involve gender. But at the same time, some of my favourite guitar players are women, because there can be so much emotion hiding behind every note.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe could express such joy with her instrument, whereas Mother Maybelle was an expert at communicating melancholy with her guitar. My great Aunt Theresa gave me my first guitar lesson around age 12, and she played lead guitar in a country band in the 70s. So, for me, being a guitar player was in my blood regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. I actually started with Fender-style guitars and then stumbled onto my sweet Gibson SG Veronica when I was 17, and I really haven’t put her down since. I’ve tried to find replacements and nothing works. She’s the one!

How would you describe your album ‘Healing Power’?

I think this is my first sort of concept record. The songs all fit together in a way that makes sense to me, it’s about joy in love, encouraging people you love to succeed, celebrating the uniqueness of friends that feel like family, and acknowledging how far I’ve come since I started writing these songs, personally, musically, in all the ways.

It continues your relationship with Gus Van Go. What are the recording dynamics with him?

Gus and I had taken an (unintentional) five-year break from working together, and I think we probably both needed that. I certainly needed to explore other options and go outside of my comfort zone before coming back to work with him. We get along like a house on fire, and we know each other’s idiosyncrasies, and we work well together, but we can also push each other’s buttons, ha! I think for this record, I was incredibly open with the possibilities for each song, and what each one could become. Gus, too, was more open, so we explored a lot of territory together before we settled on a treatment for a song, this was a little fatiguing sometimes, but ultimately I think we found near-perfect treatments for every song.

It is largely a trio performance with Blue Rodeo’s Glen Milchem on drums and bluegrasser Elijah Abrams on bass. How live is the recording?

Honestly, the recording was not really live at all this time. Gus and I worked on our own a lot of days, recording guitars, vocals, and keyboards, and we would call on Eli and Glenn when we were ready to hear drum and bass ideas, so it was a little piecemeal. But I think each song had time to percolate and wasn’t rushed as a result.

Also, I think the live band is such an important part of who I am as an artist, when I think of myself as an artist, I mostly think of myself as a performer. So to have my guys there on the recording with me means everything. The live show is the big piece, that’s the energy we are always trying to capture when we make records.

 Where did the songs for the ‘Healing Power’ come from?

I think for the first time, these songs are coming from a place of stability, which can be really tough for some people in terms of the creative process. I found it just made me feel less rushed and more willing to explore options because I wasn’t worried about the outcome. I was able to trust myself and the other musicians more than I ever have.

Has your husband Jon Auer influenced your music?

I mean certainly! I feel so lucky to have him as a sounding board for lyrics, I think he’s such a great songwriter and I trust his judgement for things like guitar tones as well.  On the inspiration side, I’ve definitely written some sappy lyrics about him too, haha.

How does ‘Healing Power’ fit with your previous album ‘Consider the Speed?

I honestly don’t think it does. I think the songwriting is still spanning across it but there is a distinct Gus sound on Healing Power that isn’t there on Consider the Speed.

How are your own favourite singers and guitarists?

Roy Wood, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine…

You worked with your namesake Gordon Lightfoot, what was that experience like?

In southern Ontario, where I live, it was a different thing to be around Gordon, because he was sort of everywhere around Toronto. He would go to people’s gigs and especially if there was a tribute to him, he’d be there. He was always willing to lend an ear or check in about how my career was going, he was a very sweet person along with being one of the greatest songwriters. I think one of my favourite days was a gig at a winery where my dad, David Lightfoot, and Gordon met, it was a long time coming since people had been assuming I was related to Gordon somehow for many years. It was a very special day for my dad, and Gordon, as usual, was all class.

You have worked hard on the road over the years. What does all that roadwork do for your music?

I think for me it’s the only path I see forward. I’m not an artist that wants to sit in the studio. I truly enjoy getting out there with my friends and seeing the world and playing every night. I think the travel and the inspiration that comes from it crops up on nearly every song I’ve ever written! Even on my first record, before I ever started touring, I wrote about driving. Something about movement is clearly inspiring to me, hahaha.

Do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?

Yes, it’s possible I’ll be back in the UK and Europe in mid to late 2024. Will keep you posted!

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

Mariel Buckley, her whole new record is great, but check out ‘Whatever Helps You’.’

Chet Atkins, ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’.

The Band, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Thanks for reading and hope to see y’all soon.

Terra Lightfoot’s ‘Healing Power’ is out now on Sonic Unyon.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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