Spend two minutes with Hamilton, ON-forged singer/songwriter and sizzling lead guitar player Terra Lightfoot and it’s easy to see why some of the best musicians in Canada are lining up to write with her.
She has a “let’s do this” smile that promises adventure and a lock-in conversation gaze that lets you know she’s listening.
Ten years into a career that sees her touring extensively, except during lockdowns, road warrior Lightfoot recently released her best album yet, the rocking, bluesy Healing Power, which has hints of Sheryl Crow and Adele, all powered by her fluid and funky guitar.
It’s no surprise that the night before we meet at a Front Street bar, a few weeks before an upcoming gig at the Horseshoe (Dec. 1), she was sharing a bill on the Cariboo Express fundraising concert with Barney and Dustin Bentall, Matt Mays, Geoff Kelly from Spirit of the West, fellow Hamiltonian Tom Wilson and his son Thompson, Blue Rodeo collaborator Anne Lindsay, and Jim Cuddy’s sons Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley, among others.
Lightfoot’s only beef with the gig was Polley kept making her laugh just as she was heading out on stage to sing a serious song.
“They’re all my friends at this point,” says Lightfoot of the many top Canadian artists who have mentored or worked with her on a career that kicked off when she was 25. “But these are big stars in the Canadian universe, and they’re meeting a kid from Hamilton and, suddenly, they’re helping you out.
“That’s pretty special I think, right?” asks Lightfoot convincingly, and it’s easy to agree.
“I’m being inspired by singing and playing with all my friends.”
Many of these acts brought Lightfoot on tour with them as she was starting out. Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland saw Lightfoot playing in a small club in Hamilton in 2015 and invited her to open for their band, Whitehorse.
“I was in the van with Whitehorse when I found out I was going to be on the Blue Rodeo Tour.”
She toured with Bruce Cockburn after that.
“It was also amazing to play with him. I remember, at the time, I was so afraid of playing solo, which is not the case anymore; he helped me with that. Bruce Cockburn has been an amazing friend.”
Legendary producer and another Hamilton original Dan Lanois (U2, Robbie Robertson) was an early Lightfoot supporter when she was just starting out and playing in the adorably named country band Dinner Belles. The Belles had a gig as part of Lanois’ Harvest Festival, just outside Hamilton, in 2012.
“He just kind of took me under his wing when I played his festival,” says Lightfoot.
She reluctantly showed up to be “talent” at a press conference for the fest, finding only Lanois and another seasoned musician there.
“Their amplifier broke so they asked to use mine and Dan came over and chatted with me after we all played. From then on, he mentored me, and this year, we finally started working together.”
Their working together includes working with another Hamilton legend, Tom Wilson. And the trio has been holding regular, intense songwriting sessions over the last year.
“Dan’s Hamilton connection is always still real,” says Lightfoot of the singer who, like her, has moved out of the city. She headed north to a place in the country.
“That’s what I am learning, too. I’m realizing that, even though I’m not living in Hamilton anymore, I’m still held by that community.
“Hamilton has always been a place where people support each other — they’ve had to. People are very tight-knit; there’s always a connection there, and Dan feels it too.”
Wilson fronted the legendary Steeltown band Junkhouse before launching a successful solo career as well as playing in bands Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
Wilson runs tight writing sessions that start at 9 am, much to Lightfoot’s surprise.
“Crazy right? But then you’d be done by 11. You have the whole day to do whatever.”
Wilson introduced Lightfoot to his Rodeo Kings bandmate, legendary guitarist Colin Linden. “The biggest thing Colin taught me was to expand my playing with study — so I’ve been learning more tunes. And to go out and play solos and not be afraid.”
“He’s so in the blues world. Dan jokes, ‘Why is everyone in Hamilton playing the blues? You can’t take the blues out of Hamilton.’”
But make no mistake, Lightfoot wasn’t waiting to be mentored. She decided early that a career in music was a must.
“I wanted to be a musician since I was a kid. It’s in my family: my grandmother played professionally and so did my great-aunt.”
Lightfoot’s grandmother played “honky-tonk piano and requests” on the bar car on the train between Montreal and Toronto for years in the late ’60s through early ’70s.
“She had four kids at the time and she’d bring three of them on the train and tell them to just be quiet in the corner: ‘I’m going to play for the people.’”
Her aunt on her father’s side played in country bands. “She ended up playing with a woman who I later wrote a song about — and I never knew.”
Lightfoot’s song Norma Gale celebrates the Canadian musician from Moncton, NB, who made it in Nashville in the ’70s and who played bass at the Horseshoe for years when it was a country bar.
“My aunt called me and said, ‘I knew Norma; I used to play in a band with her.’”
A few years ago, the aunt stopped playing and gifted her delighted niece her 1973 Telecaster, which Lightfoot sometimes uses on stage.
When facing the endless challenges for women in music, Lightfoot says, “I’m happy to kick the door down.”
“I always felt confident because I felt it was normal to be a woman in music. This is what my family has done so this is what I’ll do. I had a thick skin when it came to people making judgements and saying those things that are said to women in the music industry.”
That said, she still gets really pissed off when she shows up at a gig and finds a sound person “playing with my amp” with the obvious assumption that “the girl” needs help.
“There are silent biases everywhere. And then I start playing and they say sorry. Just don’t touch my amplifier, you wouldn’t touch anybody else’s amp!” she says with hints of the Hammer in her intent.
“It makes me so mad,” she adds.
She speaks of feeling unconscious competition with other women early in her career — as if they were all fighting for the same, limited spot.
“When you’re the only one, the notion is there is only one spot. That comes from a long line of women not playing electric guitar very loudly.
“All the long-held musical idols I could see growing up — The Pixies, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Dorothy Ashby — shared an unspoken rule that there seemed to be space for only one woman in every touring party, if there was a space at all. Many of the bands I loved didn’t even involve women, and this wasn’t always something that I even noticed.
“When I curated The Longest Road Show in 2019, I wanted to showcase all the amazing musicians I knew who had been the lone woman in their respective touring bands and put us all together. The result was astonishing and so different from any other band I’ve ever played in. I found that we listened to each other more, both on and off stage, and our way of playing together had this undeniable groove because we were so present with each other. Also, every one of those women was a masterful musician. I can’t wait to do it all again when the time comes!
“And the talk in the van was some of the worst I ever heard,” she laughs.
“That was an amazing realization for me: how much more I could do if I was lifting up.”
Lightfoot’s future husband worked on that tour but was told “You have to drive behind us, you can’t come in the van.”
“He was happy to,” she says and while she isn’t related to that other Lightfoot, her husband brings some pretty heavy musical pedigree to the family. He’s John Auer, half the creative team for ’90s indie rock legends The Posies. He currently performs as part of another legendary indie band: Big Star. The couple met when Lightfoot opened for The Posies in 2019.
Given her love of collaboration, working on musical projects with her husband seems natural.
She answers instantly and definitively.
“No, church and state. Now he’s in the crew.” Those roles will reverse when she joins Auer and Big Star when they tour Spain later this year.
Things appear good in the Lightfoot-Auer household: Healing Power is definitely an upbeat album, written while the couple waited out the pandemic in the countryside.
With pain purported to be the most powerful muse, I wonder if Lightfoot fears domestic bliss might empty her creative well.
“Part of me is wondering, ‘Oh my god, is this disgusting for people?’” she laughs, admitting there is lots of hope on the new album.
But she also thinks this album represents where she is now, the results of her own personal journey.
“Part of my purpose as a musician is to help people feel that they belong in this world and that they are not alone in how they feel. I searched for a long time to find places I could belong in, places I could be myself in. I’m just getting to that space now in some ways, in my 30s.
“That’s what music is about to me now: loving and understanding the people we all are. I’ve found so many places where I feel like I belong now, and I’ve seen so much beauty all over the world. What I’m trying to do with Healing Power is bring some of that beauty to the listener.”
Mission accomplished: it’s a gorgeous, powerful record announcing an impressive new stage in Lightfoot’s career.