@The Feldman Agency
Jimmy Rankin Celebrates Return In Lively Collaboration With Producer Joel Plaskett
The Chronicle Herald
Greeting Jimmy Rankin in the lobby of the Atlantica Hotel, the singer grins as he hands over a copy of his new CD Moving East, pointing at the cover.
"Guess who took that photo?" he asks of its image of diverging trolley tracks which, if you stare at it long enough, resembles the face of a wise owl, with two manhole covers for eyes.
"It’s Robert Frank," says Rankin, naming the renowned Swiss-American photographer and filmmaker who found fame chronicling both the Beat Generation and the Rolling Stones. Years ago the artist befriended the musician while splitting his time between homes in New York City and Cape Breton, and they even shared the occasional road trip between Mabou and Manhattan.
"The tracks are on a street in Zurich, and he took the back cover photo at his place in Mabou Mines. I’ve always wanted to find a way to use his work."
The back shows a precariously weather-bent power pole framed by a paint-spattered pane of glass, and the images are appropriate as the musician marks his return to Nova Scotia after years of living in Nashville with a renewed sense of artistic purpose. It’s easy to forget that before solidifying his standing as an internationally successful songwriter and entertainer — both on his own and with his siblings in the Rankin Family — Rankin received a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
The artist’s eye for detail and colour permeates his work as a songwriter, he can sketch an indelible image in song with a few short lines, and on Moving East he casts that eye back to Nova Scotia with the familiar voice of the storyteller that informs his best known compositions, from the Rankins’ North Country and Mull River Shuffle to his own hits Followed Her Around and Morning Bound Train.
With new album in hand, Rankin’s Moving East tour returns to Nova Scotia for shows at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax on Tuesday, Nov. 13 and Truro’s Marigold Centre on Thursday, Nov. 15. Then he and his band head over the Canso Causeway to play Glace Bay’s Savoy Theatre on Friday, Nov. 16 and the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre on Saturday, Nov. 17.
The singer who asked "give me something handmade" on the title track of his second album in 2003 knew he wanted something with an authentic sound to mark his return home, and just needed some indication as to what direction he should go. It was his old friend the radio that gave it to him.
"I was just pulling into my driveway, and on came this acoustic song by Joel Plaskett," says Rankin, seated in the Atlantica’s adjoining restaurant overlooking the rain-soaked Halifax Common. "I just sat there and listened to the whole thing, and then the light bulb came on.
"I called Joel up, he said he had some time, and invited me to come over."
The Plaskett song Rankin heard was a track off the acoustic album Solidarity which he recorded with his father, Lunenburg folk player Bill Plaskett. Within those few minutes he began to realize the possibilities it presented.
"I wanted to work with someone who understood both pop music and folk music at the same time," says Rankin. "In Nashville, there are lots of people who can maybe do a lot of one and a little of the other, but when they think folk, they’re thinking Appalachian, and that’s not really what I was looking for.
"I wanted more of that Celtic flavour, and really the best place for me to get that was in Nova Scotia."
Rankin’s first visit to Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard recording studio in Dartmouth pretty much sealed the deal. The one big room with the analogue console inside and instruments of every description hanging on the walls, the comfy lounge full of vintage vinyl and having the New Scotland Emporium record store and coffee shop just a doorway away made it the perfect place to make some homespun music.
"I sat down with my acoustic guitar, and some crappy iPhone recordings, and I just showed Joel what I wanted to do," says Rankin, who previously only knew his new collaborator from music industry events and sharing the stage at the odd songwriters circle.
"He knew we could do something together right away."
Moving East was recorded with maximum speed and efficiency last December with a core group of Rankin on vocals and acoustic guitar, Plaskett on electric guitar plus a variety of other instruments and backing vocals, drummer Geoff Arsenault and Ronald Hynes on upright and electric bass. Rankin’s touring guitarist Jamie Robinson kicked Been Away and These Roads up a notch, and Bill Stevenson’s piano gave the rollicking Down at the Shore a barrelhouse feel. A pleasing robust vocal layer came from Cape Breton band Villages, who sing along on No More I’ll Go Roving and the story songs The Rawleigh Man and Haul Away the Whale.
The record’s Celtic flavour came from Halifax piper Glenn Coolen and Cape Bretoners J.P. Cormier on mandolin and banjo, ("I called him up, and he said he just happened to be passing through town, so he came in and what he played was exactly what I was looking for," recalls Rankin) pianist Hilda Chiasson and longtime friend and fiddler Ashley MacIsaac.
"That’s Ashley just going for it on the last track, a Cape Breton fiddle medley we called Dirt ’n Potatoes," says Rankin of the final track with the Creignish maestro. "We just hung a single microphone overhead, and I played guitar and Hilda played piano, it was like one of those old fiddle tapes you hear that would have been recorded with a portable tape machine in somebody’s kitchen.
"What you hear on the record is the first take, Ashley just tore into it and we just followed his lead. We tried it a second time, but Joel knew right away that the first time was the best."
After recording in some of the most impressive studios imaginable in Toronto and Nashville, Rankin is hard-pressed to recall having a better time in the studio than he did at New Scotland Yard, with the added bonus of recording to two-inch tape for analogue warmth that will please listeners who pick up Moving East on vinyl.
The experience allowed him to exercise his folk muscles in style, while still coming up with radio friendly tracks like the first single Been Away (co-written with Slowcoaster’s Steve MacDougall) and the opening track Loving You Never Gets Old, a collaboration with frequent songwriting partner Patricia Conroy.
The former song benefits from a guerrilla-style music video shot in the streets and subway stations of Toronto by director Jeth Weinrich, with Rankin busking for surprised passersby and jamming with a street drummer at Dundas and Yonge. All the while he’s singing about memories of Mabou with parties on the beach and cruising the back roads in cars packed with friends, over a jaunty Arsenault groove and chiming Robinson mandolin.
"To be honest, I wasn’t sitting there worrying about what radio might think of these songs," says Rankin. "But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want them to be heard.
"I feel like they’re just really good songs, and Been Away and Loving You Never Gets Old are about as catchy as anything I’ve ever done. Just because it sounds like folk, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a few hooks in there."