Rita MacNeil as a queer icon? Pop collective aims to challenge perceptions


TORONTO — When asked to name an LGBTQ music icon who influenced him, guitarist Thom Gill vaults over the usual favourites Madonna, Cher, Britney Spears and Liza Minnelli.

For him, it’s Cape Breton jewel Rita MacNeil who handily tops the rest.

Most Canadians probably wouldn’t regard the late Nova Scotia singer’s working-class anthems as a rallying cry for the queer community, but Gill finds something unique in MacNeil. She was a feminist who embraced comradery, overcame a troubled past, and presided over the Men of the Deep, a choral of ex-miners, he asserts.

“It’s so queer to me,” Gill says of her career. “She’s definitely a diva.”

And that’s why he asked MacNeil’s family for permission to sing one of her songs on “Anthems & Icons,” an album of covers by the Queer Songbook Orchestra released earlier this month. The 12-member collective handpicked work from jazz master Duke Ellington, k.d. lang, Anne Murray and others, with the goal of framing the songs through a queer lens.

The album comes with a booklet containing stories that contextualize each song, outlining either a backstory about its creation or sharing a memory from an LGBTQ person who was inspired by the piece.

Ellington’s “Lush Life” recounts the band leader’s tight working relationship with his openly gay songwriter Billy Strayhorn, while lang’s “Constant Craving” latches onto a fan’s memory of doggedly calling his local radio station to request the song after coming to terms with his own sexual identity in the early 1990s.

The assortment of LGBTQ experiences celebrate generations of Canadians who didn’t always have an opportunity to speak openly about their queerness without fear of repercussions.

Artistic director Shaun Brodie, a classically trained trumpet player, came up with the idea several years ago when he found himself at a crossroads, unsure whether to pursue a music career or journalism. He merged the two passions into the Queer Songbook concept and began enlisting musician friends he met through working with artists that included the New Pornographers, Basia Bulat and Dan Mangan.

The idea blossomed into a colossal undertaking that keeps getting more ambitious.

Their multi-faceted live shows are layered with musical performances, individuals telling stories about growing up in — and out — of the closet, and reflections on how the power of song played an integral role in scoring the highs and lows of life.

Carole Pope, Lorraine Segato and July Talk vocalist Leah Fay have been among the guest stars in concert.

“For people in the queer community there’s a revelation in hearing other people’s stories which are kind of a variation on your own experience,” Brodie says of the impact.

“It’s familiar but it’s like you’re hearing things for the first time.”

Brodie, 39, grew up in Regina during the early 1990s, when he says positive LGBTQ representation was practically non-existent. He remembers gay slurs on the playground, the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and little else that offered much hope for the future.

Only CBC-TV’s sketch comedy series “The Kids in the Hall” presented him with “a lifeline” he could identify with. The five comic leads defied gender expectations, and comedian Scott Thompson’s portrayal of gay characters reassured him there was “a bigger world out there.”

“Things have changed and there’s a lot more reference points and positive things about queer life,” Brodie says of today’s climate.

But he’s says there’s still plenty of room for progress.

When the Queer Songbook Orchestra takes their show on the road later this year, Brodie will address what he feels he missed growing up outside of a major Canadian metropolis. The tour will skirt queer hubs Montreal and Toronto in favour of Regina and other smaller cities including Whitehorse, St. John’s, and Sydney, N.S.

“I think it’s important for a project like this to go into smaller places because… it can help to foster community,” he says.

“I don’t know how common it is to have an expressly queer project come through town, reach out to people in the community to work with and try to present it with warmth and intimacy. I don’t think it’s happening a lot.”

The organizers will also recruit local LGBTQ people to get involved in the show. Some might be invited to perform readings of personal anecdotes submitted to the Queer Songbook Orchestra website.

“We’re out there sort of foraging for the stories,” Brodie says. “I want this to continue evolving and growing.”

Even as the leader of the Queer Songbook Orchestra, the artistic director says he’s often surprised by the perspectives others bring to the project. He was forced to reconsider MacNeil’s canon when Gill brought the group his jazz arrangement of “We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight,” originally an upbeat composition.

Gill’s version emphasizes a gentleness and sorrow, and Brodie said its lushness suggests parallels between struggles of the queer community and MacNeil’s unwavering dedication to uniting the common people.

He hopes audiences consider all of those nuances as they digest what the Queer Songbook Orchestra brings to the conversation amid a social climate that seems more divided than ever.

“For all the ways the community is fractured,” he said, “I hope we’ve had a moment where we felt like we have something in common. That we’re in this together.”


Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press