Cana­dian singer­song­writer Rae Spoon on their jour­ney from she to he to they,

In a new doc­u­men­tary, ac­claimed trans­gen­der coun­try/elec­tro- pop artist Rae Spoon re­vis­its their ru­ral Cana­dian home and con­fronts mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in an abu­sive, evan­gel­i­cal house­hold. Tara Brady gets the low­down

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Vfor she. Vs for his or her. And how many Spi­vak pro­nouns can you name? The brave new world of post-gen­der lan­guage is a thrilling, if tricky fron­tier. Just ask The New York Times: last Novem­ber the Grey Lady came un­der fire for mis-ti­tling trans­gen­dered Broad­way star Justin Vi­vian Bond as Mr Bond in­stead of Mx Bond. Last month, prime­time drag star RuPaul had to de­fend the use of the words “tranny” and “she-male” against a flurry of ac­cu­sa­tions of trans­pho­bia.

There are, as Rae Spoon knows, no one-size-fits-all se­man­tic so­lu­tions. Spoon is gen­derqueer. Or should we still say gen­derqueer?

“Ha. I’m not em­bar­rassed by gen­derqueer. I guess it does ap­ply to me. Trans­gen­der is an um­brella. So is gen­derqueer. But it’s a smaller um­brella. I’m hap­pier with that one.”

The Cana­dian singer-song­writer is part of an in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble and var­ied com­mu­nity: Spoon iden­ti­fies not as a woman or as a man, but some­where in the vast space be­tween

“I think that ev­ery­one should be al­lowed to choose what gen­der pro­noun they use and what­ever gen­der iden­tity they wish to as­sume,” says Spoon. “And I also feel that within these gen­der iden­ti­ties people should be al­lowed to ex­press them­selves how­ever they want. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If you limit that, it’s just sex­ism recre­ated, right?”

It’s com­pli­cated. Rae Spoon was raised as a girl in Al­berta, Canada, but has spent most of the last decade as a trans man.

“I spent years try­ing to get people to call me ‘he’ and to be male,” says Spoon. “And I lost faith in that process. It started to feel like a so­cial joke. Still now when I go out­side I don’t know if some­one thinks I’m a woman or a man. But I don’t mind. I feel out­side of the sys­tem where you’re male or fe­male. So I just re­tired from car­ing. I don’t rep­re­sent my­self as a man or as a woman. I rep­re­sent my­self by not par­tic­i­pat­ing as ei­ther.”

In 2012, Spoon pub­li­cally de­clared for the neu­tral pro­noun “they”. We can’t ar­gue. Look­ing at Spoon, with their strik­ing, teas­ingly neu­tral fea­tures, it’s a per­fect fit. But why “they”, I won­der, in­stead of “per” or “v” or the other terms in con­tention?

“That’s prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar one in Mon­treal where I’m based,” they say. “At the time just be­fore I was 30 I was meet­ing people who were 20. They were com­ing from this new wave in the queer scene and were go­ing by neu­tral gen­der pro­nouns. And I thought ‘They’re onto some­thing.’ It does fit. So ba­si­cally I’m just learn­ing from a lot of dif­fer­ent people who are younger than me. Which is al­ways a cool thing to do.”

Wasn’t it ex­haust­ing hav­ing to re-brand all over again?

“A lit­tle. But I came out about 13 years ago as ‘he’. So I don’t find it too much dif­fer­ent go­ing by ‘they’. People of­ten make as­sump­tions go­ing by ap­pear­ances or cer­tain sec­ondary sex char­ac­ter­is­tics. So I do my best to make sure that people know. The rest is not up to me.”

Spoon’s post-trans­gen­der jour­ney forms a vi­tal strand in My Prairie Home, an ar­rest­ing new mu­si­cal doc­u­men­tary from di­rec­tor Chelsea McMullen. In keep­ing with its sub­ject, this genre-de­fy­ing chron­i­cle utilises Canada’s vast prairies, mu­si­cal num­bers, spo­ken word rec­ol­lec­tions and fly-on-the-wall tech­nique.

“I first met Chelsea be­cause she was look­ing for sub­ver­sive coun­try mu­sic for one of her ear­lier films and some­one pointed her in my di­rec­tion,” re­calls Spoon. “So we knew each other for a few years be­fore we started film­ing. And she had de­cided like there was a story there. At first I found it dif­fi­cult. Be­cause an in­ter­view for me­dia and an in­ter­view for doc­u­men­tary are dif­fer­ent things. It’s re­ally hard to have those con­fes­sional mo­ments. So ba­si­cally I started email­ing her sto­ries from when I was grow­ing up. Be­cause emot­ing in front of a cam­era is not my idea of a good time.”

In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing My Prairie Home with a com­pelling nar­ra­tive, those emails have sub­se­quently blos­somed into an al­bum and First Spring Grass Fire, a book of short sto­ries about grow­ing up in Al­berta.

“I’m a pri­vate per­son so writ­ing a mu­si­cal about my child­hood was a pretty big step,” says Rae. “I only did it be­cause I was writ­ing it for Chelsea. She pushed me for­ward in terms of be­ing per­sonal. Be­cause be­fore that, as a song­writer, I al­ways wanted to leave enough space for people to project their own sto­ries onto the songs.”

It’s no ac­ci­dent, says Spoon, that the de­ci­sion to switch pro­nouns hap­pened dur­ing the film’s four-year pro­duc­tion. Even their mu­si­cal out­put has shifted dur­ing that time, from be­ing some­thing like punk coun­try to be­ing some­thing like in­die elec­tron­ica.

“I moved to Ger­many for two years and that changed my mu­sic. Mon­treal is more of an in­die rock town. It’s the home of Ar­cade Fire af­ter all. In Ger­many, I made friends with people who make com­puter mu­sic. And I came to re­alise that the com­puter is a very in­tri­cate in­stru­ment. And that be­came part of a whole big­ger process.”

Rae Spoon was born in Cal­gary, Al­berta to evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian par­ents, in­clud­ing an abu­sive, men­tally un­sta­ble fa­ther. Spoon’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries are dom­i­nated by Chris­tian ral­lies and thoughts of the Rap­ture. But when they re­count these years on film and in song, they do so calmly and clearly with­out a trace of mawk­ish­ness. How have they tran­scended such a trau­matic up­bring­ing with such, well, grace?

“I’m prob­a­bly far more of an anx­ious per­son than you think,” smiles Spoon. “Grow­ing up and con­stantly hear­ing about the end of the world didn’t help. But I also feel that I’m out­side of the spir­i­tual world I was raised in. And dis­tance from spir­i­tu­al­ity does make for a sense of calm.”

Spoon also cred­its Canada’s vast land­scape, a big sup­port­ing char­ac­ter in My Prairie Home, as pro­vid­ing a med­i­ta­tive space. Noth­ing gives you time to think like hours and hours spent star­ing through a win­dow of a Grey­hound Bus.

“Tour­ing Canada isn’t like tour­ing any-

“I didn’t choose to be­come this gen­der. But I’m not em­bar­rassed about it ei­ther. I’m happy that when people see me they’ll know there’s an­other gen­der op­tion. And maybe an­other thou­sand op­tions too”

where else. Even in the States the places are a lit­tle bit closer to­gether. You’re driv­ing eight hours be­tween shows and not re­ally see­ing any place in be­tween. So I think the prac­tice of that has def­i­nitely in­formed my mu­sic. And me.” Spoon’s fa­ther is glimpsed briefly in My Prai

rie Home, hid­ing at the back of one of the per­former’s gigs. A sup­port­ive brother ap­pears on cam­era to help re­count the Rap­ture years. But how have other fam­ily mem­bers re­sponded to the film?

“Some people have asked: are you go­ing to lose your fam­ily over this film? No. I am in touch with some of them. But you al­ready lose your fam­ily if you’re in this kind of sit­u­a­tion. I don’t hang out with people who are ho­mo­pho­bic or trans­pho­bic any­more. Even if I’m re­lated to them. I make an ex­cep­tion for my grand­mother. My grand­mother is Chris­tian and she has her be­liefs. But she doesn’t act ho­mo­pho­bic to­wards me. We just don’t talk about it.”

“They” fits. And so does My Prai

rie Home, a film that’s far more joy­ful and po­etic than its sub­ject would seem to al­low for. And that’s them all over.

“I didn’t choose to be­come this gen­der,” says Spoon. “But I’m not em­bar­rassed about it ei­ther. I’m happy that when people see me they’ll know there’s an­other gen­der op­tion. And maybe an­other thou­sand op­tions too.”

Rae Spoon will per­form at the Ir­ish pre­miere of My Prairie Home at Belfast’s Cathe­dral Quar­ter Arts Fes­ti­val in as­so­ci­a­tion with Out­burst Queer Arts Fes­ti­val, on May 4th

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