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Cara Luft comes home to the Calgary Folk Fest with the Small Glories

Photo by Stefanie Atkinson.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I set up my phone interview with Cara Luft who is one half of the Canadian folk music duo The Small Glories. I wasn’t sure what to expect because, well, I had never done this before.  But I’m happy to say the that interview went off flawlessly. Cara’s fun, easy going, friendly personality put me at ease immediately. Our interview quickly changed from an interview between two strangers into a conversation between two friends filled with kind words, laughter and snort filled chuckles.

Kaslo, B.C. is where she was when I called her on this Monday afternoon. Kaslo, B.C. is a small village located on the west shore of Kootenay Lake roughly an hour’s drive north of Nelson. Kaslo is where Cara has a tiny house on wheels that she likes to visit and work on in her downtime. If you would like to see her very cute, tiny house, check out the YouTube video titled Home: Cara’s new tiny house on wheels.

After exchanging hellos and all the usual pleasantries, I got down to asking the “hard-hitting” questions I prepared earlier.

Josh: If you weren’t giving this interview right now, what would you be doing instead?

Cara:  E-mails! I find that when we’re on tour, there’s this massive list of things to do that always appears when we’re done tour, I just haven’t had the time to tackle. So I’ve been slowly getting through a backlog of emails, following up on this and that. A lot of time spent on self-care, working on the house, and business stuff.”

Josh:  Have you guys (The Small Glories) been spending a lot of time on tour lately?

Cara:  We have been. This year we were in Australia for about six weeks from Christmas until the early part of February, and then we had some shows down in the United States, in Canada, and then we were just in Europe for five weeks.

Josh:  Did I hear correctly that you actually grew up here in Calgary?

Cara:  I did, yes. I was born and raised in Calgary.

Josh:  (laughing) Wow! So you’re the one?

Cara:  (laughing) Well actually I’m a third generation Calgarian, if you can believe it.  My Dad and his brother were born and raised in Calgary, and my grandparents were born and raised in Calgary as well.  So yes we are like the one family that truly is from Calgary. “

Josh:  Which area or neighborhood of Calgary did you grow up in?

Cara:  I grew up in the southwest, in Oakridge, then later in high school I moved to the Capitol Hill area in Northwest Calgary. I moved to B.C. when I was about 21 years old, and I lived there for about four years before I moved to Winnipeg. But my family is all still in Calgary.

Josh:  So you went from Calgary to B.C. to Winnipeg? That’s going the wrong way, isn’t it?

Cara:  I know! (laughing) That’s exactly what everybody said. Sometimes you have to leave where you’re from to find your own identity. I moved from Calgary to the small community of Naramata, just off of Okanagan Lake. While I was there, a lot of different things were happening back in Calgary. It turned out there really wasn’t going to be many options for me if I moved back to Calgary in terms of where to live, so I ended up staying in the Okanagan. Which is not necessarily a place that many people move to when they are in their early twenties. I was able to transfer my university credits to a small university in the Okanagan and got a wonderful education. The move, it turned out, really kick-started my music career.

Josh:  What is your position when it comes to pineapple on pizza?

Cara:  What’s my position? I think it’s a win.  Pineapple on pizza is a win. I’m for the pineapple.

Josh:  What would you say the big break was that got your folk music career started?

Cara:  While I was in the Okanagan I recorded two EPs, a cassette, if you can believe, for the first one and then a CD. That second recording got me a spot on the Lilith Fair Tour, which was a very cool thing. It also got me an opportunity in England, where I was invited to go and play in a guitar festival in Liverpool. So it was really interesting to see the doors that opened for me in the teeny tiny Okanagan, which is not known for its music industry at all. There’s a really nice kind of undercurrent of art support there.

Josh:  So how did you eventually end up in Winnipeg?

Cara:  I knew that if I really wanted to continue pursuing a music career, I would have to get back to a big city. I had narrowed it down to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg. It was kind of interesting. As I started talking to people, everybody told me to move to Winnipeg.  I had never been to Winnipeg, but everybody said it had an amazing music and art community. I found it odd that all these great opportunities were being offered to me in Winnipeg. Someone would say, “This is the name of my cousin. He has a spare room.” Or “This is my aunt and uncle. You can stay with them.”  All these names and phone numbers were just given to me, where that kind of response didn’t really happen in Edmonton or Vancouver. Even in Calgary, I didn’t really feel that people were wanting me to come back home.  

So I moved to Winnipeg.

Josh:  You’ve spoken a lot of your parents.  Who were some other musical inspirations when you were young?

Cara:  I listened to a lot of the music my parents listened to, so a lot of British Isles folk music and folk rock. I listened to Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention. Then I got into guitar players, a lot of whom were in those various groups, like Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham. Then we also listened to Canadian artists. Stan Rogers I listened to a lot. Bruce Cockburn. I can remember listening to a lot of rock music and pop music as well. I really loved Buddy Holly, and I can remember being in grade three and knowing all of these great Buddy Holly songs. I can remember my parents gave me a live Neil Diamond record, and I loved it! Then when I started playing guitar I got really into Led Zeppelin.

I was also heavily influenced just by many of the travelling folk musicians who played and stayed in our house – people who were by no means household names but were fabulous folk musicians and singers.  I think I thought it was normal – that everybody had that experience that there was always live music in your household.  As I got older and went to visit my friends, I figured out that no, this doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Josh:   What led you to pick up and start playing the banjo?

Cara:  I only started playing the banjo about seven or eight years ago. It’s a fairly recent thing. My parents … were both musicians. My mother played guitar, and my father played guitar and banjo. He’s a wonderful clawhammer banjo player. So I grew up listening to the banjo. I just wasn’t ever really interested in learning it. I was more of a guitar person.

People started giving me banjos. I think the first banjo was given to me by someone in Ontario, while I was on tour with the Wailin Jennys. I didn’t think much of it, but then more people gave me banjos, and soon, I had three or four banjos kicking around, and I thought, “Ok, this is a sign, I should probably learn to play the style that my dad play’s.”  So I decided in my late thirties to pick up the banjo, and I’m really glad I did.  It’s a very different instrument from the guitar. It shook me up a little bit and got me thinking differently about my songwriting, as it is another completely different skill set.

Josh:  Now for completely random question number two: What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?

Cara:  Oh, well, there is an ice cream shop in Bellingham, Washington, where I teach at a guitar music camp called the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. One of the directors at the camp has a son who owns an ice cream shop called Mallard Ice Cream, and on the last night they bring out this ice cream, which might be the best ice cream on the planet. They have some strange flavors, but I think my favorite was the frankincense ice cream. There was also a fresh basil flavour and cardamom. Those are the three I remember as being amazing.

Josh:  So to change gears a little bit, you are playing at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this year. Are you excited for the opportunity to come home and play the festival?

Cara:  Oh yes. I grew up attending the festival, and then at about 14 years old, I started volunteering at the festival. My parents were regular performers at the festival in the early days, so I would go and watch them play.  My mother had a trio she would play with, and my dad would play on his own too, but I have never actually played the festival. So, yes, I’m looking forward to playing my hometown festival.

Josh:  Ok well I don’t think we can have an interview with Cara Luft about music and your career with talking a little bit about the Wailin’ Jennys. I remember hearing about this brand new group called the Wailin’ Jennys and getting super excited because I thought it was going to be an all-female Waylon’ Jennings cover band, and I thought, “How cool is that?”

Cara:  That’s what a lot of people thought.  Ha ha.

Josh:  I don’t remember how I got the first album. It might have been one of those Colombia House deals where you bought ten CDs for a dollar or something. I can remember putting the CD in our stereo and thinking, “Well, that’s not what I expected.” Even though there wasn’t any Waylon Jennings anywhere on the album, I became an instant fan. What was it like being a part of the Jennys as they got started and really took off?

Cara:  It was very interesting how the Wailin’ Jennys started. It was supposed to be a one-off concert. There was a guy in Winnipeg who had a great little acoustic guitar shop called Sled Dog, and he had approached the three of us saying that he thought we would sound great together. Let’s do a concert at Sled Dog? We said okay.  That sounds cool. It’s always fun to try new things. I don’t know if any of us really expected it to last longer than just the one show. He ended up selling out the show immediately, so he added a second show that weekend, and it sold out immediately as well. We got together for this initial show doing lots of cover songs and one or two originals, but the signature thing was the three part harmonies.

The response was so phenomenal that we got offered a spot at the Winnipeg Folk Festival immediately. We automatically got a gig out of that first show, so we all kind of took notice and thought maybe there is something here? The following month, we were all already headed down to Jacksonville, Florida for the Folk Alliance Conference. We were all doing our own solo things, but we decided we would try to do some of what they called gorilla showcases. We did these showcases, and the rooms were packed with people interested in what we were doing, so that is when we made the decision to see where this thing was going to go.  

I think what I took out of that experience was, I was a pretty good harmony singer, but I became a much better harmony singer working with the other Jennys. It was a great opportunity that way to hone my chops and have new experiences. It wasn’t the kind of music I was really keen to be making a lot of the time, so that was a big part of my eventual decision to leave the group and pursue something different. However, it opened up a lot of doors for all of us, and I know I look back on that time as a real formative experience.

Josh:  Another random question,  who are the top five artists in your personal playlist today?

Cara:  Oooh, OK.  Let’s look and see. In the car, I’ve been listening to a lot of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Deep Dark Woods, the Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack, oh and because we were just in Australia, I’ve been listening to Midnight Oil. Ooh and I can’t forget the Birds!

Josh:  Midnight Oil? Wow, that’s a flashback to my 1980s Much Music childhood.

Cara:  I know.  Totally eh? It was interesting being there, in Australia, and getting a sense of what these guys are writing about, because Midnight Oil is quite a political band.  Oh and I’ve been listening to the Tragically Hip a lot as well as I think probably every Canadian has been this year.

Josh:  You mentioned that you learned a lot and became much better at singing harmony during your time with the Wailin’ Jennys, and I think that is very evident when I listen to your record with The Small Glories. Your harmonies with JD Edwards on the album Wondrous Traveler are fantastic. To be honest, your voice is quite different from his. I wouldn’t necessarily think the two of you would go good together, but you do. There is a special kind of magic that happens when you are harmonizing together. How did The Small Glories come to be?

Cara:  Well, it’s another project that people didn’t think would work, which has pleasantly surprised everybody. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, when things like that happen, you have to pursue it. JD and I are both excellent melody and harmony singers, and it was kind of an innate thing for both of us. We were actually put together for an anniversary show in Winnipeg for a venue called The West End Cultural Center. The artistic director had a brilliant idea to invite as many Winnipeg artists as possible to come out for this one night concert, but then he paired us all off, and he paired everyone with people he knew had never sung together before. It was a very interesting mish mash musically. He also challenged us to not sing our own songs but to sing songs by other Manitoba artists. So first you had to sing with somebody you had never sung with before, and then you had to learn songs that you didn’t really know. He did give us a few months’ notice to prepare.  The moment JD and I began rehearsing, I could tell that our vocal blend was good and that we naturally kind of followed each other without really talking about it. It was a rather natural chemistry and a natural fit, and I think our set that night was one of the ones that really stood out and surprised everybody.

About a year and a half went by before I hired JD to come on tour with me. The response from everybody was that of all the combinations they had heard, this one seemed to be the most natural fit. These were people I trusted, as they were people who had been watching me for the last twenty years or so. We essentially used all of my upcoming dates to let people know we wanted to do this duo project. I had been given ten days of free studio time at a new studio in B.C., so we used that to record Wondrous Traveler, and we used all of our industry contact’s to get us out working.

It’s really turned into its own thing, and it has its own sound now, which is really exciting. I think also JD and I, we push each other to be better singers, musicians, and songwriters. I think we instinctually push each other to be better in all aspects of performing.  It’s this kind of neat, unexpected, project that really has legs, and people are readily digging what we’re doing. We feel very privileged and very honored.

Josh:  What’s on the horizon for the Small Glories?

Cara:  We just recorded a four song teaser EP.  Four cover songs. We recorded it in Australia, so we’ve got that, and we just recorded a new full-length album that we’re hoping will come out in November. Everybody will be able to hear a bunch of the new music at the festivals this summer.

Josh:  Cara, if you were able to be a comic book character or a comic strip character, who would you be and why.?

Cara:  I don’t know. …  When I was growing up, I read a lot of Archie comics, so I guess I would be a mixture between Betty and Jughead.

Josh:  Betty and Jughead.  That is definitely an interesting combination. My go to answer is always Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes,  but that’s another story for another time.

I think that’s all the crazy questions I have for you.  Is there anything else you’d liked to add?

Cara:  I think that’s it. We’ve covered a lot of ground here today. JD and I are both really looking forward to playing the Calgary Folk Music Festival this year. I believe it’s the first time for both of us, as I don’t think JD has played it before either. We’re really, really excited and grateful that you took the time and wanted to do this.

 

 

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