Success does not always bring satisfaction, as Cara Luft knows well. During the Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter's three-year tenure with the Wailin' Jennys, she went from local-hero status to the cusp of international acclaim. But by the time the band she had helped start was recording its full-length debut, 40 Days, Luft knew that something was terribly wrong–and coming home from the studio in tears was an obvious tip-off.
"It was one of those situations where you would just sing or play a song to death," she explains, checking in from a Kelowna tour stop. "You would do 25 takes, easy, of a vocal part or a guitar part. It was like you were butchering the song just so it would sound perfect."
All that effort paid off, in a way: 40 Days received rapturous reviews, solidified the Jennys' Canadian reputation, and launched the group in Britain and the United States. But Luft felt increasingly constrained by her bandmates' emphasis on image and marketing. What was missing from her new life, she reasoned, were all the things that made her want to be a musician: freedom, self-expression, and fun.
"It was one of those really difficult situations," she admits. "You know, you can see something that you're part of and that you helped build from day one, and it's kind of taking off. But at the same time, you're left wondering, 'Where do I fit into this? Where does my creative input fit in?' So I left–and as soon as I did, songs started pouring out."
Eleven of those songs, along with a pair of beautiful Brit-folk covers, appear on Luft's recently released The Light Fantastic. Not surprisingly, it's not as polished an effort as 40 Days, but the singer's soul shines through, thanks in part to production assistance from an unlikely source: 54-40 frontman Neil Osborne.
"He really hammered home the whole 'three takes or no takes' idea," Luft reveals. "He was like, 'If you can't play a song or sing it within three takes, then don't bother: move on.' If you don't, he said, you lose that spark."
And spark is something The Light Fantastic has in abundance–perhaps because it was written as quickly as it was recorded. At least half of Luft's originals were penned on the road, especially in small-town Saskatchewan, where the singer retreated following her break with her former collaborators.
"I just wanted to savour the slowness of things," she says. "I'd do a community concert, but then I'd stick around for a few days. I brought my bike on tour, so I'd ride around and go have coffee at the local hangout, and hear stories about the area. I found that a real good way to get back into touring, because I got connected to the audience–really connected, because I was in their community for more than just a few hours."
Although life has sped up since then–on her current B.C. tour, the singer is doing a dozen shows in 17 days–Luft's connection with her audience is increasingly a two-way thing.
"People love to give me hugs!" she says of her post-show meet-and-greets. "But we need at least eight hugs a day, so I'm getting that–almost."