Home Feature Why Rae Spoon’s album about their cancer journey sounds so celebratory

Why Rae Spoon’s album about their cancer journey sounds so celebratory

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“I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” Rae Spoon said, speaking to me on the phone on Aug. 11, the release day for their new album, Not Dead Yet.

“When I’m on stage, I’m just happy the whole time.”

I’m not gonna lie.

That’s about the last thing I expected to hear from Rae right at this moment.

After all, Rae is releasing their first album after an absolutely harrowing battle with cervical cancer, marked by grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, a surgery that Rae struggled to heal from – thanks to all the damage from the radiation – and an abscess that kept them in hospital for months.

And then, of course, there was the indignity of being a non-binary person trapped in a medical system that views cervical cancer as a “women’s health issue” – and, for that matter, still regards women as little more than incubators.

So I guess maybe I was expecting to find Rae in a more melancholy space, given the enormous and permanent changes cancer has brought to their life – the fatigue, the colostomy, the immune suppression that’s rendered indoor performances a thing of the past,

But I should’ve given Rae more credit. This is an artist who has built a career by creating space, not just for their own differences, but for other peoples’ differences too.

If ever there was an artist with the internal discourse and supportive community around them to handle something like this, it’s Rae.

“Ability is fluid,” they told me, astutely. “It changes. And I just try to work around it.”

And they have. By organizing tours of outdoor performances at which people wear masks if they’re going to be close together.

When I commented that their gorgeous, pure, pristine voice sounds unharmed by the ravages of the cancer treatment, Rae said, “I try really hard not to think of even being able to play music or sing as my identity, because I still think ability is identity. So it’s something that I work on.”

If this all sounds like an artist putting on a brave face, I urge you to turn to Rae’s art for confirmation of their state of mind.

Not Dead Yet is the kind of record ABBA might’ve made if ABBA had made a record about confronting one’s own mortality.

Its profound snapshots of fear, anxiety, trauma and revelation are dressed up in infectious beats and synth sounds and delivered with just the right amount of Autotune.

The pithy lyrics touch on many themes that cancer patients will likely relate to: the loved ones who can no longer accept you; the condescending medical professionals who make treatment harder than it needs to be; the discovery of your true friends and family members; the problematic framing of cancer as a “battle” – as if its victims have any control over the outcome; the being able to accept death when alone but being unable to bear the thought of leaving loved ones behind.

Many artists take years to process such traumas before they can transmute them into art.

But Rae reminded me they’ve had practice at that.

“I did that musical documentary about my childhood in Alberta,” they said.

“I have practice with revisiting trauma, and I find, actually, it’s very beneficial for me mentally to work though.”

What’s more, they added, they’d enjoyed listening to podcasts and reading stories about other people’s health journeys, so they wanted to contribute their own art to the public conversation.

Rae is finishing up touring now until the weather gets warm enough to play outdoors again.

There is a book project on the horizon, and their health remains “a full-time job.”

But Rae remains sanguine.

“When I was sick, I appreciated all the things that I got to do,” they said. “I’m not going to complain about singing and going around the world for 20 years, you know? I also really appreciate being able to connect with people and build community.”

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