By: Matt G. Williams
When I call up Terra Lightfoot near the end of January, she is, as usual, on the road. Soundcheck at The Exchange in Regina—where the band was joined by a truly monstrous horse of a great dane named Eustace—is over, and they’re checking into the hotel. “It’s so lovely,” Lightfoot jokes. “It’s balmy weather, I’m at Regina beach.” She says a few days ago they played The 40 in Brandon, Manitoba, which is connected to a Chicken Chef, which is connected to the Travelodge they were staying at, conveniently allowing them to make their way through each building to the next and avoiding the apocalyptic cold snap the Prairies are going through. “Our setlists were written on Chicken Chef menus,” she adds. But then the next day, their van wouldn’t start, and they had to call up CAA. C’est la vie. The peaks and valleys of life on tour.
It’s fitting to find Lightfoot on the road for this interview, as the guitar we’re talking about, a 1976 Gibson SG named Lou, was brought into her family of six-strings—her ‘guitarsenal,’ as she puts it—this past September in Chicago. She was touring with Matt Andersen through the states, and at the end of a gruelling drive from somewhere, she can’t remember where, they made it to Chicago dead tired, at which point Andersen had to go to the Chicago Music Exchange. “So we got in an Uber, and the Uber was so small,” Lightfoot says. “For two big people like me and Matt Andersen, it was the funniest Uber ride. It took approximately 36 minutes across Chicago, and it was the tiniest car. My head was actually bent over. I’m too tall for it.”
As soon as they walked in, she saw Lou, bright, beautiful, and shining, on the front rack. She figured it must be new, given the condition, but the tag read 1976. She’d been looking for a copy of her other SG, Veronica—”basically like, a second girlfriend,” she says—for a long time. (A lot of people assume, Lightfoot says, that her love of SGs might be connected to AC/DC’s Angus Young, which is untrue. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who played a white, three pick-up SG before Young even put out a record, is the SG pioneer, she says). She sat there the whole time playing it, with no intention of buying it, as she didn’t have any money in her bank account. So when Andersen laid his guitar on the counter and asked her what she was going to buy, she took a walk around the block, and eventually called up her manager, who did her a solid. She paid him back as soon as she set foot on Canadian soil again. And a budding new romance began.
“It’s strange to find one in such good condition,” Lightfoot says. “The neck on Veronica has been kind of a selling point for me. It’s really thick. And Lou’s almost the opposite—very thin. And the way she sounds—it’s almost like a Betty and Veronica situation. Lou, at the same time as being very dark and brooding, is also very light and airy sounding. There’s a certain darkness to her. I haven’t changed any of the pickups or anything. It just sounds like me, already. It was like picking up a piece of myself that I didn’t know I had left behind.”
While she normally wouldn’t play a guitar, in a live setting, that hasn’t been professionally set up yet, Lightfoot couldn’t resist taking Lou for a ride that night at their show at the City Winery, as the older Veronica (a 1972 SG), quietly sitting in her stand, looked on. She didn’t know even know Lou’s name yet. After the show, she was contemplating whether to christen her after her grandma Lorna, who played piano and taught her much of what she knows. And then a fan walked up to her and asked if she had a name for the guitar yet. When she replied that she didn’t, the fan offered, “I think she looks like a Lou.” “And I was thinking Lorna, Lou,” Lightfoot says. “It totally makes sense.”
“I really think it is a romance,” she continues. “I think it’s real. I think when you play music with real emotion that you actually give a fuck about, the tools you use to do it, they become part of you.”
Lou is Lightfoot’s second acquisition in as many years. The other is an acoustic named Ashley (Lightfoot’s middle name is Ashley), custom made of Bubinga, spruce, purple heart, and, “all these cool woods” that Lightfoot helped pick, by a luthier in Waterloo, ON. A year or so after the purchase, the wood and glue on Ashley have started to form a more worked-in bond as the guitar settles. Finding Lou, though, was one of those unexpected, sorta magical moments.
“The logical things that needed to be in place for me to acquire that guitar were not,” Lightfoot says about the rarity of finding new tools that fit so well. “Yet, I feel like it was almost given to me. I had this, actually, with my Ashley Leanne guitar, which is another beautiful one. I’m really bonding with all of them. I’ve gotten two new guitars in the past two years, which in my guitar playing [is odd]. I don’t buy gear. I keep what I have, I love what I have, I have the best stuff. And so these new acquisitions, to become one with them, has been a really beautiful process for me. With Lou, I’ve had her in my studio writing new songs and she’s my go-to.”
Those new songs, just like Lou, have a dark edge. As Lightfoot works on the follow up to New Mistakes, she’s found her songwriting taking intense turns, and her new tools—Ashley and the brooding Lou—have been helping dictate the direction of things. She’s not sure why yet, but a lot of the songs she’s been writing are, “about small places we’ve been to. Tiny parts of the world like Forget, Saskatchewan.”
“We had a guy in a gas station we stopped at, he was so sweet, asking us what we did,” Lightfoot says. “We told him all the places we were going, and he said, without any cues at all, ‘You know, the world’s just a little bit smaller out here.’ Isn’t that intense? It stunned me.”
Lou hasn’t visited all these small places yet. She’s waiting at home, getting ready for The Longest Roadshow, Lightfoot’s brand new revue-style travelling concert that’s making its way through Ontario next week. Lindi Ortega and Begonia will be rounding out the headlining slots along with Lightfoot for each date, with Lightfoot also backing them up as part of a house band, which also features Anna Ruddick, Michelle Josef, and Kelsey McNulty. The openers for every show will change, along with some appearances by all-star guests like Kathleen Edwards, Melissa McClelland, and Hannah Georgas. And the shows benefit Women In Music Canada, MusiCounts, YWCA Hamilton, and Girls Rock Camp.
“I can’t believe all these people said yes to me,” Lightfoot says. “That’s pretty incredible. We want to do this every year, because I think it’s going to be really renewing for me, as someone who spends a lot of time on the road, to get to have these few shows that are really special, spotlighting different areas of music that I don’t get to go into. I’m playing guitar for Lindi Ortega. That’s so exciting to me. I never get to play country music. And then getting to back up all these other singers—I love these people and I love their songs, and it means a lot to me to be able to back them up on stage with an amazing band I got to pick.”
Lightfoot says people have already been asking her out west when she might be extending the Longest Roadshow, which she’s hoping to do down the line. So stay tuned if it doesn’t stop in your town this year—it’s likely not too long until you get to see Lou in real life.
(Disclosure: In 2017, the author of this piece wrote a bio for Terra Lightfoot’s New Mistakes.)