With a family tree like Cara Luft's, it's no wonder she's a songwriter. The Winnipeg-based illuminated optimist comes from a long line of talented folk musicians; her parents performed professionally as a duo in Calgary during her childhood, her grandpa was a big-band guitarist and teacher, not to mention her great-grandfather, who was a renowned vaudevillian tenor.
The former Wailin' Jennys member has branched out on her own to release the solo record The Light Fantastic. She brings her musical glimmer to Stayner's Wharf on Wednesday, November 7.
"The Wailin' Jennys was a rather limiting experience," says Luft, calling en route from Ottawa to Wakefield, Quebec. "The best thing about that group was it really honed my chops with harmony. In terms of bringing creative ideas, they were known to have a particular sound and I just didn't really feel like I fit with it."
The Wailin' Jennys formed in 2002. Luft, mezzo Nicky Mehta and soprano Ruth Moody released a self-titled EP, touring throughout North America and Europe, where Luft quickly earned the title "Jenny Van Halen" for her skillful guitar playing and humourous persona. Their 2005 release 40 Days earned them a Juno for Best Roots Album but prior to the win, Luft threw away her Jenny pseudonym. She felt the pull of spirituality, personal growth and creativity tugging at her. Shortly after cutting ties, Luft began carving out her own path. The result is her epic folk record The Light Fantastic.
"I've always been a very spiritual person," she says. "I grew up in a church setting. I find gospel music has always been so good at capturing people's blues. I feel I'm coming back to my roots. I was with the Wailin' Jennys for three years and there wasn't a lot of room for a person following a spiritual path."
While Luft was finding her way, she called 54-40's Neil Osborne to produce her 13-track anthology. She rounded up a cast of some of Canada's key players, including Spirit of the West's Hugh McMillan, The Bills' violinist and fiddler Richard Moody, drummer James Keelaghan and mix engineer Warne Livesay (Matthew Good, Midnight Oil). At this year's Western Canadian Music Awards, The Light Fantastic earned producer Osborne a nod in the outstanding producer category.
Currently McMillan and Luft are touring the country, performing everywhere from Courtney, British Columbia, to Millbrook, Ontario. The eighth track on her album, "Wilcox," pays homage to these sorts of matchbox-sized towns. A year ago, while she was driving from Winnipeg to Calgary, she pulled into Wilcox, a tiny prairie hockey town, for a quick rest. She rang up her mom in Calgary, explaining she was too exhausted to drive any further.
"My mom suggested I stay with this crazy nun she knows. So I called her up, I was supposed to stay just one night and it ended up being three weeks."
Luft's confessional ballad is a chronicle of a peculiarly warm November. She artfully weaves her way through the daily rituals of a so-called "Springtime in the Prairies," the cusp of the hockey season looming in the population's mind and finding herself, reborn somewhat, living with a religious figure.
"I'm not even Catholic," Luft says. "But this woman, this nun, was a deeply spiritual woman."
To an outsider, The Light Fantastic could be perceived as a sound-sermon for the unconverted. But these beautiful melodies aren't constructed with subliminal religious connotations in mind (though their titles may suggest otherwise): "Jerusalem," "Lord Roslyn's Daughter," "Down to the River" and "The Light" are gorgeous gospel manifestations of one musician's spiritual quest.
About the album title, Luft says, "We wanted something less obvious than calling it after the song "The Light.' We thought about that poem—I can't remember the writer's name—about "tripping the light fantastic,'" which alludes to a phrase typically attributed to John Milton's poem "L'Allegro," published in 1645. Milton writes, "Come, and trip it as ye go, on the light fantastick toe. And in they right hand lead with thee, The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty."
Cara Luft w/Hugh McMillan, Wednesday, November 7 at Stayner’s Wharf, 5075 George, 8:30pm, 492-1800.