Google “Leaf Rapids” and the first hit you get is for a town 1000 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg that sprang up after Sherritt Gordon Mines discovered copper and zinc in the area in 1969.
Planned by the government to avoid problems created by previous mining booms, Leaf Rapids was a semi-utopian community. During the height of the boom, the population hit 2300. But when the mine closed in 2002, the town entered a downward spiral and now has around 450 residents.
“My husband grew up there,” says Keri Latimer of the Winnipeg alt-folk duo Leaf Rapids that consists of her and her husband Devin (plus guest musicians — see sidebar). “It was thriving when he was there, and his dad was actually head of the mine. It had movie theatres, a bowling alley. Now, it’s a struggling community — pretty deserted and isolated, but beautiful. And every time we went there I thought ‘What a beautiful name for a town’.
“So I said ‘Let’s steal it for our band.’”
Ghost towns, or towns like Leaf Rapids that are in steep decline, are a staple of prairie gothic. So is the idea of the isolation that goes hand-in-hand with sparse population and harsh winters.
“I was just talking about that with a friend, it’s like we’re extroverted introverts,” says Latimer. “When I’m on, I love people. But left to my own devices, I’m a hermit. So I enjoy the winters being stuck inside and creating.
“I think a lot of Winnipeg people are like that,” she says. “When spring comes we’re full of joy and have all these new creations to share — be it art, film or music.”
Lucky Stars, which was released on April 14, certainly fits that bill. Although one thing working against the “prairie gothic” tag is the moderately romanticized view of rural life that Latimer adopts in songs such as “Welcome Stranger”, which features the lyric “Welcome to our town, you don’t need a key or security code.”
“I grew up in Lethbridge, so I never felt part of a huge urban centre,” says Latimer. “I remember the first time I went to Toronto, I was so nervous, and really emotional because I’d never seen street people before.
“In the city, there’s a certain way you feel you should act. It’s a guarded place, so [this album] is sort of my utopia — if I had a town.”
Not that the album is an ode to rural life. In “Virtual Machine” Latimer tackles the seductive allure of our growing online engagement with real and fantasy worlds. In “Healing Feeling”, she begins by asking if there’s a doctor in the house, then considers pharmacists, poets and preachers as other possible sources of relief in our troubled times.
“I was trying to get out of my comfort zone because we were working with Steve Dawson in Nashville [see sidebar],” Latimer says. “He does a lot of blues, so I was trying to be tongue-in-cheek.”
Still, she adds, there’s a serious side. “There’s such an epidemic of depression and anxiety now. I think a lot of that relates to never giving ourselves any time to reflect. Everybody’s looking for a cure, but there’s a lot of ways to do that.”
As any musician who’s toured Canada knows, when you’re on the road you have a lot of time to reflect. Active since 1996 in the alt-country band Nathan, Latimer and her husband have logged plenty of tour miles.
They also have a cabin at Lynn Lake, which is another remote northern mining town. And they’re parents to two pre-teens, and Latimer flags that as another potential “gothic” influence on her songwriting on Lucky Stars.
“You feel so responsible for these little creatures, and you want to protect them from this world which you know is not a fairy tale,” she says. “But you want them to believe it is in a way.”
The Nashville Connection
Leaf Rapids recorded Lucky Stars in Nashville. It was their first time recording in the city, and Steve Dawson (Henhouse Studio) produced the album.
“I knew we were going to be recording there before I started writing the songs, so it definitely affected that,” says Keri Latimer.
“We went in with the idea of letting him take the reins in the sonic part,” she recalls. “He didn’t go into the lyrics, he just interpreted them in his own way, and came up with some amazing arrangements.”
Bill Vorndick served as engineer. “He’s worked with the Stanley Brothers, Alison Krauss, Johnny Cash and all these people steeped in history,” says Latimer. “That was a little intimidating, but exciting too. He had a lot of stories.”
Leaf Rapids are touring with Slow Leaves — a Grant Davidson solo project. “We’re going to play a bit on his songs and he’s going to play on ours, and we’re sharing a drummer,” says Latimer.
The arrangement seems to be working.
“As we’ve been rehearsing we’ve found our voices blend nicely, so I’m really liking being able to sing with Grant,” she says.