Find A New Favorite: Terra Spencer, “Other People’s Lives”

Terra Spencer

While we shall always willingly seek to share our personal tastes in Canadian folk-roots music with our audience, this little online journal of ours has also helped foster connections with many wonderful and talented artists from all corners of our northern neighbor.  We consider ourselves incredibly honored when independent artists ‘discover’ our blog, and reach out to introduce themselves.  For artists such as Black Suit Devil, Doris Folkens, and Hearts & Knives, taking that first step and contacting us via email or social media has not only allowed us to discover their unique creativity, but has led to great new friendships too.  We have plenty of time for rising independent singer-songwriters, and are genuinely interested in their stories and music.

Hailing from Windsor, NS (the unofficial birthplace of ice hockey, no less), Terra Spencer recently introduced herself and her music to us. Easily tempted to discover more about her 2019 debut album, “Other People’s Lives,” our curiosity was naturally piqued by this self-described “record of relationships held together with nylon strings and Scotch tape.”  Recorded in both Windsor and Bedford, NS, and co-produced by Jake Smith at Moe’s Place (Windsor), Terra offers twelve self-penned tracks “crafted from autobiographical details woven with gentle instrumentation on piano and guitar … a collection of complicated relationships, told with a warm wistful voice.”

Opening with the track “Brooklyn,” hints of popular folk music from both the 1960s and 1990s are embedded in the relaxed soft acoustic guitar tones and instrumentation. Such influences are further reinforced by Terra’s equally soft and pure voice, drawing instant connections to both 60s Joni Mitchell and 90s Sheryl Crowe for me.  And with the same spirits of both peers, Spencer displays the fundamental ability to share tales through some craftily constructed lyrics.  “I took the bus to Brooklyn where I spent my younger days / It was where I earned my war wounds and I faked my way to A’s / Flannel shirts and blue jeans were a suitable disguise from the eyes of guys around me / But then one day, one found me.”

It only takes a couple of spins of this album to recognize the consistency within Terra’s lyrical abilities.  Whether you are the type of listener that likes to gloss over the depth in order to pursue just a hook and melody, or one who wants a deeper connection with the artist’s psyche, there is no shortage here to keep you engaged.  Gloss-over crowd – enjoy the album. It’s great. You can move on now.  Avid listeners – don’t leave yet, there’s plenty more to be discovered here.   It’s impossible to not be moved by “The Therapist,” with the noticeable ‘recording’ that precedes and closes the track.  Both near, yet distant; hearing, but not always listening, the slight fade in Terra’s voice signals that your session with the “one hour fairy” is not only intimate and isolated, but condensed here and summarized in a short four minute appointment.  “You tell me you’ve been dealing with anger and frustration / And you can’t feel if you’re healing and you stopped your medication / And all the while I’m thinking that a doctor should be selfless / I’m a shrink but I am shrinking, I should help but I am helpless.”

More of the earlier Mitchell/Crowe influences are found in “Everybody Knows,” a true folk tune with a splash of crossover-pop vibes thrown in for good measure.  But don’t be misled by the nice gentle pace here, accentuated with the same soothing guitar and addition of some wonderful backing harmonies.  Terra’s vocals are delivered beautifully once again, but dig a little deeper into the subject matter and you’ll quickly notice the nonchalance in her voice to signify the weariness of dealing with an adulterous partner.  Keeping up appearances is the key to this tale, until Terra simply says ‘no more’ in the final verse: “When you don’t hurry home I don’t worry over things like one-night stands / I know you’re a real good man and that you are in good hands / But if the door is locked and outside there are boxes of your books and clothes / You can ask anybody why, ‘cause everybody knows / The light’s on at her place tonight, and everybody knows.”

It is impossible to tire of the soft acoustic instrumentation favored across the album, especially on tracks such as “Not The One” and “Rotten Apples,” which adds some incredibly moving piano strokes.  The closing track, “Other People’s Wives,” adds some delightful horns that truly accentuate the protagonists’ heartfelt concerns, delivering the lines: “I never feel I am where I should be / My woes and worries would be through if there were two of me / One to work out in the cold burying the dead / The other making love and taking bread.”  With some stunning harmonies offered by co-vocalist Stewart Legere, “Cotton Mill” is one of the highlights amongst this collection of songs.  The declining manufacturing industries in the Maritimes are depicted here by Spencer and Legere during this slow-burning biographical tale of an empty textile mill in small town Windsor.  “Someone had a vision that rose out of the steam / To bring the place to glory, a developer’s dream / They changed all the windows, but the new ones have gone blind / From staring at the highway with nothing on their mind.

There is a noticeable shift in both tempo and sound during “Satisfied.”  A little bluesy in tone, a little sultry in Terra’s vocal delivery, and a little alt-country in style, the twang from an electric guitar demonstrates a daring, upbeat side to her music.  The added burst of a perfectly timed trumpet only serves to increase the gratification of the listener, and made “Satisfied” a firm favorite as I spent lots of time with this album.  “Divide all the times that we shared / Subtract acting like you cared / Add a dash of life’s not fair / Our troubles multiplied / No matter how we do the math / You always get the better half / I’d never seen our lawyer laugh / Instantly gratified.”

Quoting lyrics from multiple tracks is not something that I tend to do with my reviews, but feel that the quality of Terra’s reflective creativity and songwriting really has to be emphasized.  After all, while there are an abundance of artists who can simply ‘write a song,’ there are seldom few that possess a wholly natural ability to convey life experiences through well-crafted and meaningful compositions.  And just like the laurels bestowed upon the likes of Joni and Sheryl, with her deep and personally constructed lyrics, Terra’s name deserves to be held in such high regards too.  I rarely tip my hat this far away from the year end, but “Other People’s Lives” has quickly become short-listed on my list of ‘must-have’ releases of 2019.  Strongly recommended listening!

Martin Noakes

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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