The Legacy Song Project

Sarah McInnis is a singer/songwriter, accredited music therapist, and end-of-life doula living in Port Williams, Nova Scotia. She is passionate about helping people to navigate end-of-life processes and grief through music, and started The Legacy Song Project earlier this year. This initiative is designed for individuals nearing the end of their life, and for those who have lost loved ones. After a detailed conversation, Sarah writes and records a personalized song, to honour, reflect on, and preserve the memory of a loved one.

The Grapevine (GV): What was the impetus behind your creation of The Legacy Song Project?
Sarah McInnis (SM): I have been a songwriter since I was about 14 or 15 years old. It has always been such a huge part of who I am, and when I started sharing my original music, I saw the potential to reach people on a very real and profound emotional level. When I began studying music therapy at Acadia, I always had it in the back of my mind to one day merge my love of songwriting with folks in palliative care settings. After my grandmother, who was my inspiration for studying music therapy in the first place, died in 2018 and I began my first steps on the path of grief, I came to understand how well our society has learned to conceal the dying and the grieving. Given that losing loved ones and our own death is something that we will all experience, it disturbed me how little space there was to speak about these things as an integrated part of our daily living. My desire to write songs in the context of dying and bereavement only grew, but I didn’t know how to go about it. It wasn’t until collaborating on an End-of-Life Planning workshop with Terra Spencer, a funeral director and songwriter whom I greatly admire, that I was made aware of Ian McCartor. Ian is a Californian songwriter and former palliative care nurse who has been writing legacy songs for the past several years, and has since become a sort of mentor to me in the process. After a brief call with him, I knew I had found a way to make it happen here in Canada.

GV: What does the song creation process look like for you, and how do you involve family members?
SM: The creation of a legacy song begins with a 1-hour recorded interview with a client, whether it is with the person who is at the end of their life, or with the family and/or friends of someone who has already died. This interview can be conducted in person, or online via ZOOM, which so far has allowed me to reach clients in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia. The interview really is the most important part of the whole process because it is how I come to understand the person I am writing about, and what made them who they were. Using some prepared questions, the client and I simply have a conversation, and I try to gain as much information about them as I can during our time together. It involves a level of openness and honesty on behalf of the client, and a willingness to share personal beliefs, challenges, and stories that make them who they are. The questions vary slightly, depending on if I am writing for an end-of-life client or someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, but the purpose is the same—to capture their stories in their own voices.

Following the interview, I use the content from the conversation to write and record a personalized song within a two week period, though the process can be sped up if a client’s death is imminent. Each song typically takes between 15 and 20 hours to complete, from the time of interview to putting the song into the clients’ hands. I liken it to a musical jigsaw puzzle. I listen back to the interview, saving significant quotes to later be inserted into the song, observing the key themes of the person’s life, and deciding on what anecdotes should be included. Then I find a quiet time to be still with the stories, and begin to write. It can be quite a meditative process, and I believe that coming to it with a certain amount of reverence is important, to honour the life I am writing about. When I have the song written, I spend a few hours practicing it, preparing to record. I have a small “at-home studio” where the magic happens: blankets nailed to walls to block out nearby traffic, a flattened music stand as a makeshift table for my laptop, and a dog bed nearby, where my canine co-writer can keep an eye on me. After recording the guitar and vocal tracks, I will often add harmonies and other instrumentation that might have personal significance to the client. In this process I also make sure to have space within the song to insert clips of the client’s voice, all the while aiming to keep it under 5 minutes.

When the song is complete, the client and family receive framed lyrics with a USB containing the complete interview, the song (music only version), as well as a version with vocal clips from the interview, and a chord chart so that friends and family can learn it if they wish. For online clients who live outside of Kings County, NS, the song, interview, and lyrics are sent electronically. When possible, I like to be present when the client hears the song for the first time, to answer any questions they might have, and to provide emotional support as they hear their legacy, or the legacy of their loved one, captured in song for the first time. With the clients permission the song is shared in live and recorded settings to raise awareness about The Legacy Song Project and the importance of supporting end-of-life and grief support initiatives. Throughout this process, identities are kept confidential unless the client themselves wish to share the experience with others. From here the song can be used as a conversation starter or personal anthem for a person at the end of life, and as unique way to honour their memory after they pass by having it to play at funeral services, ceremonies of remembrance, or simply as a way to keep their memory and stories alive.

GV:What has your involvement in this project meant for you personally?
SM:This project is the bringing together of parts of me that I wasn’t ever sure would fit together, but it allows me to be exactly who I am and want to be in this world – a songwriter who believes deeply in the healing potential of music, to support folks who are dealing with loss, whether it be of themselves, or a loved one. To sit with a person who is dying, or with someone who is grieving the loss of someone they held so dear, to have them show up so brave and willing to share with a complete stranger has been one of the greatest privileges of my life so far. I feel deeply humbled and honoured to be able to make The Legacy Song Project a part of my life’s work.

To learn more, hear examples from this initiative, and read client testimonials, please visit bluecedarmusictherapy.ca/the-legacy-song-project/.