When Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Terra Spencer penned VHS, she felt the song about a man learning to live on his own after his wife passed away would benefit from another voice.
“I thought about who would be my first choice of someone in the world to sing this song, and it was Ben Caplan,” says Spencer. “Ben has a character in his voice, a kind of gravel that comes with age and experience, and that’s what I was after.”
Reaching out to Caplan in early 2021, Spencer’s cold call to the Halifax folk singer would eventually lead to the creation of Old News, a collection of eleven new songs from Spencer, with Caplan making his debut as a producer.
“We didn’t really know each other, but I told him I had this song that I would love to hear him sing,” she says. “He was very gracious and had me over for a cup of tea at his house in Halifax and I played the song on his kitchen piano along with a few others.”
Thinking that would be the end of it, after sending him a thank-you note, the response back from Caplan was unexpected.
“He said, listen, why don’t we make a whole album?” says Spencer. “I love writing songs, and I started pulling some together. Ben had always wanted to produce someone else’s album, so we decided to experiment together and made this album.”
In hindsight, Spencer realizes she took a risk in approaching Caplan.
“I understand it’s not a cool thing to do, to reach out to musicians that you don’t know and have no relationship with and throw some songs at them,” she says. “But the great thing about entering into music later in your life is that you realize you might as well go for it. How much is there to lose other than just making an embarrassment of yourself? Sure, I was a bit nervous, but I also expected it to go nowhere and was quite prepared for that. So the most shocking thing about it was when he wrote back and said he wanted to make a record.”
The collaboration didn’t stop at creating the new album, as Caplan invited Spencer to join him on his recent Canadian and United Kingdom tour.
“I would open the show, but he would invite me to sing a couple of songs with him, typically to give people a sneak peek of the album, which hadn’t come out yet,” says Spencer. “We would do VHS, the song that started this whole project and then we would sing a song called Good Friends, a fun, cheeky duet about a friendship that kind of steps over the line into something more. Then, of course, we had to clarify every night that this is not necessarily autobiographical.”
Inspired by the music of such legends as Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong, the album is a departure from the duo’s work individually as folk artists.
“We also listened to a lot of Tom Waits, and the group that we put together for the album included piano, upright bass, and drums for a jazz combo feel,” says Spencer. “So we started there and let the songs grow from that.”
The choice of Old News as the album’s title came from the recording’s sound and the notions of closure, something Spencer experienced first-hand as a funeral director turned musician.
“After a funeral when everyone goes back to their lives, those people who are mostly deeply afffected, who are grieving, can’t just snap back to normal,” explains Spencer. “And that was fresh in my mind.”
Set to take the new album on the road, Spencer will appear on her own and with Caplan as he can.
“Some will be just me, and some will be Ben and me together when I can snag him because he’s a very busy fellow,” says Spencer. “I’ll do the launch here in Halifax at The Stage at St. Andrews, and then I’ll meet up with Ben for two shows in Toronto and Montreal. And then, I will continue on my own with shows in New Brunswick and out west through the end of January.”
Spencer celebrates the release of Old News with a solo show at The Stage at St. Andrews (6036 Coburg Rd, Halifax) on November 11. Visit terraspencer.ca for tickets and more information.