Prairie roles: Rae Spoon’s journey from ‘she’ to ‘he’ to ‘they’
In a new documentary, ‘My Prairie Home’, acclaimed transgender country/electro-pop artist Rae Spoon revisits their rural Canadian home and confronts memories of growing up in an abusive, evangelical household
Wall power: Rae Spoon in ‘My Prairie Home’
V for 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?”
“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 anywhere 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 Prairie 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 Prairie 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.”