The New Pornographers’ Kathryn Calder Recalls Her Mother’s Terminal Illness in a Documentary

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A still from “A Matter of Time” (amatteroftimedoc.com)

by David Chiu

(Originally published in Medium)

“She would be walking, and then she would trip for no reason,” Kathryn Calder, the keyboardist and singer for the Canadian indie rock band the New Pornographers, said of her mother Lynn in the documentary A Matter of Time. “Her foot wasn’t lifting off the ground far enough. Her muscles were not working, but she didn’t realize it. And then it started getting kind of worse.”

Lynn Calder was later diagnosed in 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative condition in which the patient experiences the loss of his or her muscle function. As her mother’s health further deteriorated, Kathryn, who was touring at the time with the New Pornographers, moved back to her childhood home in Victoria, British Columbia to take care of her; Lynn Calder later died in 2009.

The period in Kathryn Calder’s life during her mother’s battle with ALS is the subject of A Matter of Time, which has now being released in the U.S. on DVD this Tuesday (it’s also available on iTunes) after being previously screened at film festivals in Canada last year. Using footage from a performance Calder gave at the Royal British Columbia Museum on July 4, 2012 as a framing device, the Kickstarter-funded film features interviews with Calder and members of the New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine, her previous band. A Matter of Time documents Calder dealing and coping with her mother’s devastating illness. It also talks ALS (also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), which over time could cause a person’s inability to move, speak, breathe, and eat; the film also shows the type of care involved for a patient by a primary caregiver like Calder.

According to the film’s production notes, the idea for the documentary originated from the Yellowbird Project — a philanthropic organization founded by Casey Cohen (who directed A Matter of Time) and Matthew Stotland — that works with indie bands to raise money for charities. Both Cohen and Stotland heard about Calder’s personal story after she designed a T-shirt for the organization to benefit the ALS Society of British Columbia. “It was a really heartwarming experience to watch it,” Calder says now of the film, “because it has my bandmates in it, and it has a lot of my friends and family, and they’re talking about the experience. It’s a really gentle film. It’s not heavy handed with the awfulness of the illness. It addresses it and talks about it, but it’s also about family and music and the human connection with all of that.”

While the focus of A Matter of Time deals with Calder’s personal journey during her mother’s illness, music serves an important connecting point throughout the film, for which Calder also provided its original score. In the documentary, Calder recalled as a child practicing piano in the family living room with her mother, who was a former piano teacher. Adopted when she was a baby, Lynn Calder found her birth mother at the age of 40; one of her new siblings was Carl Newman, Kathryn Calder’s uncle and future bandmate in the New Pornographers. A Matter of Time traces Calder’s musical career, from when she was a member of the alternative rock trio Immaculate Machine, formed by her high school friends; to her joining her uncle Carl’s band the New Pornographers. And in one of the documentary’s final scenes, Calder is filmed inside an empty church performing a piano rendition of the ballad “So Easily,” whose intimate and subdued tone along with the overall score befits the mood of the film.

When Calder returned to her old family home to serve as her ailing mother’s primary caregiver, she transformed the living room into a recording studio where she made her first solo album as a way to channel her grief. In between session takes, Calder tended to her mother as the latter was in bed in the other room; before her death, Lynn was able to listen to the music that her daughter recorded. In a 2010 interview with Spinner about that album, which was released as Are You My Mother?, Calder said: “I had to make this record at that particular moment in time. Part of it was because she was always really supportive, so I thought, ‘If I’m gonna make a solo record, I want her to hear it.’ I didn’t want to look back and go ‘I wish I made a record, I wished she could have heard this.’ I knew what was coming even though you never really know what’s coming.”

Currently touring with the New Pornographers, who released their latest album Whiteout Conditions, Calder says that she was struck by the reference to ALS in the recent superhero movie Logan as an example of the attention given to the disease. “I can’t remember which character [in the movie],” she says, “but they’re talking about a neurological [condition], ‘Is it Parkinson’s? Is it ALS?’ I thought that was really interesting because ALS came up in this huge Hollywood movie as something that was important enough and that people would recognize the illness. I thought that’s a new development, that it’s getting the kind of awareness where people might know what it is. I noticed it because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody mention ALS in a major Hollywood movie kind of context. And it shows the awareness is growing. Anybody who has a family member suffer with ALS or Parkinson’s would pick up on that right away.”

Calder says that she was initially nervous to see A Matter of Time during its early production stages. “I wanted to wait until they [the filmmakers] were happy with how it was looking,” she says, “and then I can come in before it’s done and talk about the things that maybe needed changing. So I was nervous. It took me months to get up the nerve to watch this. It wasn’t until they sent me a cut and said, ‘Okay, watch this one,’ and I composed some of the music for it. So I knew I had to watch it. I didn’t know what to expect.”

She equates the finished film to receiving a hug — a sense of warmth that was evident in the scenes from her 2012 concert at the Royal British Columbia Museum where members of the New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine guested with her. “Everybody’s incredibly supportive, says Calder, “and this film was this sort of gentle tribute. My mom didn’t want to have this disease in the first place, and so it was a nice way to keep her memory, something that she would have appreciated.”

The film’s purpose is to raise awareness about the disease, of which more than 6,000 Americans have annually been diagnosed with, said the ALS Association. “There’s a lot of about ALS and how it hard it is on families and [the] people who have it,” Calder says about A Matter of Time. “It talks a lot about ALS. So my experience watching it was they [the filmmakers] did a really wonderful job. I think it’s a good thing.”

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