The year is 1971. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Sinclair got hitched and welcomed son Justin into the world. Hurricane Beth wreaked havoc in Nova Scotia and the minimum wage in the province averaged about $1.20, with two separate rates for men and women.
…given the cluster of hits from 1971 marking their 50th anniversary, and the anticipated return of live music here in Nova Scotia this summer, it seemed like the perfect time for a celebration. – Terra Spencer
In popular culture, All in the Family made its debut on television and Billy Jack was the year’s biggest movie. George Harrison, John Lennon, Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones all ascended to the top of the music charts.
It is also the year Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Terra Spencer will focus on in her summer music tour of the province, celebrating the 50th anniversary of classics from such artists as Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, the Rolling Stones, and the Carpenters, with a few of her own songs woven in.
In this Q&A, we find out more about the significance of 1971 for Spencer and why she planned an entire tour, including a July 30th stop at The Carleton in Halifax, around that particular year in music.
This interview has been edited.
What was it about 1971 that inspired you to create this tour?
I organized a Judee Sill tribute show with a wonderful group of Halifax musicians back in 2019. It was such a rich and rewarding experience, honouring her and her music. My own shows are usually me playing solo and typically only include one or two cover songs because I’m afraid of mucking up songs I love. So I thought it would be a fun personal challenge to tackle the music that inspired me long before I was a songwriter, recreating it with a full band. I felt that maybe given the past year and a half, and there might be some comfort in hearing familiar songs that I remember from classic rock radio growing up. I’ve always believed that some of the greatest recordings ever made came out of the ’70s. I think 1971 is where I’ll set the dial of my time travel machine, even just for the wardrobe.
It’s been called a “passion project” – how long have you been working on putting this together?
Back in January, I saw a list on Twitter of albums and singles released in 1971 and was astonished by just how much great music came out in that one year. I’d already had notions of paying tribute to some of the other artists of that era. Given the cluster of hits from 1971 marking their 50th anniversary and the anticipated return of live music here in Nova Scotia this summer, it seemed like the perfect time for a celebration.
How did you go about choosing the songs?
It was more a process of painful elimination, really. There are so many iconic songs that simply can’t be omitted, so in some cases, we’ve trimmed a verse or two like American Pie, for example. We’ve had a bit of fun stringing together a few medleys just to squeeze extra songs in. Hopefully, we’ve struck a balance of crowd favourites and our personal picks. I’m curious to see if the crowd agrees with our setlist choices.
Have the artists & songs you’ve chosen for the tour influenced your own music?
Absolutely. I grew up before the age of streaming music and cut my teeth on the record collection in my grandparents’ basement while I was learning to play piano and guitar. Although I’m mostly known as a folk singer-songwriter, the records I loved were big studio productions from Elton John, The Carpenters, even the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar. It has always been a dream of mine to recreate that sound.
If there was one song from the tour that you had to play forever, what would it be and why?
Oh gosh, that’s hard, especially since many of these songs are tied to my own nostalgia. Some of those stories will be part of the show, sharing some of my personal ties to the songs. I can say that I love playing Think About Your Troubles, a bizarre little song from a Harry Nilsson album called The Point. I heard that album once when my grade four teacher played it for our class, then thought for years that maybe I’d just imagined it, well before Google and YouTube existed.
The tour also features some of your own music. How do they fit into the 1971 theme?
I did tuck in a few of my songs that illustrate just how much this music has influenced my writing. I’ve been an unabashed student of an era where a song would take eight minutes if needed. I’ve always loved the warmth of the recordings, the detailed lyrics, the marriage of LP crackle with lush strings and horns. You hear the humans making the music, the rhythmic push and pull in a song like the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. Sometimes that’s lost in contemporary music production.
You’re touring with a full band. Who are they, and how did you gather them together?
In a sense, I’m touring with two bands in the Class of 1971, anchored by our brilliant bandleader drummer Jordi Comstock. I handpicked Jordi, bassist Adam Fine, and multi-instrumentalist David Christensen to record my album Chasing Rabbits. I was thrilled to add Katelyn Bonomo on guitar. I’d heard her play a Van Morrison tune a few years back at a jam after a show in a barn in the Valley and have watched her career bloom. As the project grew from one show into a whole tour, I pinched bassist Mike Farrington from Erin Costello’s band and guitarist Reuben Gilbert, whom I’ve known for years and who has burst into the Canadian folk spotlight in a trio with his siblings, The Gilberts. We had planned to rehearse through the spring, but with COVID restrictions, it’s been a mad dash through the jukebox over the past few weeks. Fortunately, my bandmates are all-stars.
How does it feel to be back on the road playing music?
I had a taste of playing with a full band for two miraculous album release shows for Chasing Rabbits last winter and wanted to catch that magic again. Given the precarious state of live music, planning a show like this was ambitious, and we all know the rug could get pulled at any moment. It seemed like a shot in the dark that we’d actually get to perform these songs together, but it looks like we’re in luck for the summer. Getting to play with other musicians is always a real treat for me as a solo musician, but now it feels especially precious.
Can we expect an album based on the music from the tour?
I love those songs so much that I would never have the nerve to record them. I had promised I’d wait a while after Chasing Rabbits before making another album, but it looks like I may be headed back to the studio as soon as this tour ends in September, which is very exciting. A hallmark of any project I tackle is to have the next project already starting to simmer. Fingers crossed.
Terra Spencer performs with The Class of 1971 on tour across Nova Scotia, including a show at Halifax’s The Carleton on July 30. Visit terraspencer.ca or thecarelton.ca for tickets and information.