Canada’s Terra Lightfoot has a huge voice (a multi-octave mezzo-soprano), and, wielding a treasured Gibson SG she named “Veronica,” a big and gutsy guitar tone to match. The powerful double-barreled musical attack makes her latest album, New Mistakes [Sonic Unyon], simultaneously alluring and exciting. It’s packed with dynamics and moods, and it traverses styles from southern and classic rock to ambient to blues to echoes of Marc Bolan and T. Rex—all driven by Veronica’s chameleon-esque sonic talents.
What kicked off your love for the guitar?
When I was a kid, I took guitar lessons for six months after my mom bought me a guitar at a garage sale. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was just starting out, or because I was a girl, but the teacher said, “You don’t need to learn how to solo—just play rhythm.” So I spent the first six years learning how to play rhythm guitar. I never touched the fretboard above the 12th fret. It really rocked me when I finally realized I could solo. But I don’t fault that guy at all, because I spent so much time perfecting my rhythm chops and being able to back up other people—which became invaluable skills when I started writing my own tunes.
He certainly didn’t ruin your ability to write big licks. When I first heard “Paradise” and “Stars Over Dakota,” the guitar jumped right out of my laptop speakers.
I think this record was definitely about stepping into my role as a guitar player. I wanted it to be very much my voice. I want to feel like I’m talking with my guitar—enhancing the lyrics and the mood with every little embellishment I do.
Did you find it challenging to step out as a player and truly play for the song?
I think that’s really hard for a lot of guitar players, because we want to turn up to 10 all the time. It takes a lot of humility—and a lot of confidence—to be able to sit back and let the song breathe, and then inject parts where they should be. We should always let the song take its course as we accompany it. For example, you can’t plan for surprises that happen in the studio. There was the time I wanted to put an instrumental part into “Two Hearts,” but the chord progression simply didn’t fit. The band said, “Let’s tack it onto the end of the song.” So after the tune ‘ends’ the drummer did a drum fill, and we played the instrumental—which ended up being one of the coolest moments on the album. We all just went crazy. Then, right before I “Freebird”-ed out at the end of “Lonesome Eyes,” I flicked the pickup selector a few times, and you can hear the clicks on the recording. It was just a nervous tick before I started soloing, but we left it in. Things like that happen all the time, and I believe that if you know your own authentic sound, you’ll know what you need to do to make the song better.
What’s your approach to soloing?
I’m definitely drenched in southern blues-rock and classic rock. The opening of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” is one of my favorite riffs of all time. That’s my jam. I also love playing bass notes with melody notes on the top like Chet Atkins. For this album, I improvised a lot of my solos.
As you seem to be so fastidious with your songwriting, it’s interesting that you let the solos fly without working them out.
I know these songs. I live inside them. Once you’re connected with a tune on an emotional level, it’s a lot easier to solo over the top.
What gear did you use for New Mistakes?
I was very proud to have my own setup on the record. My main guitar is a 1972 Gibson SG Standard. I call it “Veronica,” and it’s as much a part of the album as I am. I’ve had it for 15 years, so it’s really special. We lined up tons of different guitars to audition for the album, and she beat all comers. Everybody falls in love with Veronica. I also had my 1962 Fender brownface Bassman. That amp produces so much bottom end, but with lots of clarity. All I added was a Fender Reverb unit and a vintage Rangemaster Treble Booster that belonged to the studio. That was serendipitous, because Marc Bolan used a Rangemaster on the T. Rex records in the ’70s, and he was one of my style references for the album.
We may have a shared musical crush there.
One of my favorite songs by him is “Buick Mackane.” He played guitar with such emotion that I can listen to him do the same thing over and over, and still be transfixed. “Stars Over Dakota” is a total Marc Bolan moment.
Is there an overriding theme you’re trying to put across with your music?
The most important thing to me is encouraging young women players. More girls are playing guitar than ever before, but we need even more visibility—to let girls know that women are out there making their own records, they’re playing all the guitars, and they’re playing guitar solos. You don’t have to just strum D, C, and G anymore. You can do whatever you want. And this goes for all kids in general—not just young girls. We need to foster a sense of acceptance for anybody who is learning to play guitar. Playing guitar is supposed to be fun. At the root of it, it’s music, it’s art, it’s beauty, and it should be a positive experience for everybody.