It seems like Nova Scotia musicians are used to responding in times of crisis, whether it’s rallying to support the Stan Rogers Folk Festival with a benefit when it was canceled by hurricane Arthur in 2014, or holding an all-star Halifax Metro Centre concert to raise money for relief after a deadly tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004.
But when a tragedy happens at home in the midst of a pandemic and gathering together as a community simply isn’t possible, artists have to find new ways of combining compassion and creativity.
Heather Rankin was hoping to add her voice to the roster of East Coast talent that took part on Friday night in a televised vigil for the victims of the April 19 shootings, but her contribution — a stirring performance of the late Laura Smith’s Safe Home, Sweet Light with pianist Kim Dunn — couldn’t be finished in time for the tight production deadline. However, she’s been able to share it online after the fact and hopes it can also bring comfort to those who hear it.
“It’s been like a perfect storm of things that could go awry,” says Rankin, acknowledging that Nova Scotia has seen its share of tragedy over the years — from the Halifax Explosion to the Westray mine disaster — each one taking an unimaginable emotional toll on the province as a whole.
“But when it’s deliberate on that scale, it’s so hard to take in. You always think that stuff happens in other parts of the world, and you have sympathy and empathy for those situations. But when you are faced directly with it, and know people either directly or indirectly, it’s another level of understanding what people are going through.”
The well-known Mabou-raised singer says after she’d heard about the shootings and knew there was going to be a tribute to the victims organized in the midst of self-isolation, she knew which song she wanted to perform.
“Kim said he could come over, and we could still keep our distance, and although we got it recorded it wasn’t done in time for the broadcast,” says Rankin, who made the recording with two laptops and a pair of iPads. “But the song feels so fitting both for what’s happening with COVID-19 and the tragic events of last week, it’s just such a beautiful song.”
The singer remembers being affected by Safe Home, Sweet Light when she first heard it, as the final song on what turned out to be Smith’s final release, the 2013 album Everything Is Moving.
“What hit me about the song is that there aren’t any wasted words or phrases in the song. It says everything that encompasses what people need to hear at a time like this. It says everything, really,” says Rankin, who planned to sing the song with Dunn at the keyboard at a tribute to Smith that was planned for March 29 at Casino Nova Scotia’s Schooner Showroom.
“I said right away to Kim that if he decided to do some kind of a benefit, I’m in. Around that time, he also knew he wanted to do something, and I knew right away that was the song I wanted to sing of hers,” says Rankin, who was disappointed when the tribute had to be canceled due to the required health restrictions.
But her rendition of Safe Home, Sweet Light isn’t Rankin’s only musical contribution to providing comfort in these turbulent times. She’s also one of a number of the region’s many talents taking part in a rendition of soul legend Bill Withers’ Lean On Me dedicated to essential retail staff in groceries and pharmacies who are working to keep the public healthy and fed in the midst of the crisis.
“The people who work these jobs, probably for minimum wage, getting up every day and working long hours ... it’s hard work and they’re putting themselves in the line of fire,” says Rankin, who was contacted by CTV’s Katy Kelly about adding her voice to the all-star song.
“They really deserve to be pointed out and thanked and acknowledged, and I’m glad somebody had the good sense to get this tribute in motion and bring on all this great talent. I know it was a lot of work to make it look and sound so good.”
At first, she was sent a copy of Matt Andersen’s rendition of the song, and Rankin sang along into her iPad, not aware of the full lineup that would go on to include performers like Charlie A’Court, Christina Martin, Reeny Smith, David Myles, Ian Janes and Cory Tetford.
“I didn’t have a microphone or anything, it’s just au naturel. I’m surprised how good the quality is in the finished version, because I was listening to Matt from my phone and then singing into my iPad, and it was all synched up at the other end.
“It’s pretty cool what you can do these days. And who doesn’t want to sing with Matt Andersen? Do you think I’ll have another opportunity? He opens his mouth and I’d get blown off the stage!”
Rankin says she had a personal reason to get involved, with family members who work in grocery stores and banks, “going full tilt and putting themselves at risk to make sure everyone’s taken care of.
“The same goes for the people who’ve continued to work in home care ... they’re really troupers.”