Interview with Jimmy Rankin, Interviewed by Shaylynn Hayes
Do you feel maritime culture has been a huge influence on your music? If so, how?
Yes, definitely. I’m from Mabou, Cape Breton – a place steeped in Celtic music and story-telling. A lot of my songs come from that place; for instance, Mull River Shuffle, Haul Away the Whale, Feel the Same Way Too and many more.
Growing up what was your exposure to folk music like?
Cape Breton fiddle music was on constant rotation in my house from as far back as I can remember. This kind of music was part of the backbone of my childhood and I’d say those melodies are in my DNA. We also listened to John Allan Cameron and everything from folk to country to pop – whatever was on the radio…
What is the most important part of making music for you?
Making music is, in a sense a journey for me that starts with inspiration which might come from a story I’ve heard, or something I’ve seen in my travels… The process of finding the right melody or lyrics is interesting to me and I guess one of the most important ingredients.
Where do you draw the most inspiration for your songs from?
I never know where inspiration for a song will come from. Like many artists, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting ideas that might spawn a melody or a song. Inspiration comes in many forms; maybe from a particularly compelling photograph or painting or at times from a conversation, story or personal experience.
Are there any of your songs that you identify with more than others, or are more personal?
Yeah of course there’s some sort of personal element in all of my songs. But I can’t say that I identify with one more than any others in particular. Perhaps you could say that there are some songs that people would identify me with – songs like Fare Thee Well Love, Mull River Shuffle, Tripper…
For me, personally, “Tripper” has always made me emotional. What inspired this song?
When I was in high school, a few fellow artists and I made a sketch book. My friend, John Gillis did a sketch of my neighbor, entitled “Tripper”. The song is based on Tripper’s hard scrabble life and my imagining of his last days.
Do you find a different emotional quality singing in Gaelic as opposed to singing in English?
The Gaelic songs I’ve sung have strong melodies and for me, that’s where the emotional quality comes from. I think a great melody is universal and can inspire in any language.
Do you believe folk music in the Maritimes is on the rise, or has been falling? Why or why not?
I think folk music in the Maritimes is healthy, perhaps now more than ever. In 1970, Ron MacInnis made a documentary “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler” because folks were concerned that fiddle music was becoming extinct. Over time and with some TLC, things turned around. The successes of artists like Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family and many others have inspired a whole new generation of players. And just lately, the TikTok Sea Shanty craze has made the music almost trendy. Who knew?!
What’s your favourite part of performing for crowds in the Maritimes?
There’s nothing like playing for a Maritime crowd and I love watching folks fill the dance floor when I play Mull River Shuffle. Each time it’s like a true homecoming.
What song is your favourite to perform live?
It varies depending on the time and place. Recently, Fare Thee Well Love was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and I’ve added the song to my set list. I’m really enjoying performing that song after having not played it live for so many years.
What challenges do Maritime artists face that might be unique to the area? Do you believe it’s the same as being a musician from other parts of Canada? The USA?
Right now artists worldwide are experiencing huge challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions and the inability to tour. In terms of unique challenges to Maritime artists? Generally speaking, I’d say there’s a shortage of live music venues. Also, because the area is not densely populated, it’s hard to tour the Maritimes year round. It’s a tough place to make a living as a musician. I suppose that’s true of many parts of Canada because the distances between venues is great and the population less dense than the USA.
Do you feel like streaming, iTunes, and the digital music industry has been helpful for Maritime acts, or do you feel like we’ve sort of been slow to adapt?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s great that these digital platforms provide an outlet for Maritime artists. However, it’s hard to cut through the crowded marketplace to be seen. Also, these platforms offer such low royalty rates, so it’s difficult for artists to make money through streaming.
What advice would you give an up-and coming Maritime musician or band?
Practice, practice, practice and play live as much as possible…. Then become a jack of all trades. Learn how to maximize social media opportunities; get out to industry events and showcases and network; learn your craft – originality and presentation are key.
Is there anything that you’re working on now that you can talk about?
I’m developing a series of online shows and contemplating a new album.