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Feature Article: Great Lake Swimmers' new energy

Feature Article: Great Lake Swimmers' new energy

For Tony Dekker, recording—like real estate—is all about location. The Great Lake Swimmers frontman has made a habit of working in unusual settings, beginning with his Toronto-based group’s 2003 self-titled debut, which was recorded in an abandoned grain silo. Since then, Dekker has opted for churches, legion halls and even an historic castle in the Thousand Islands to commit his atmospheric folk-rock songs to tape.

With its fifth album, New Wild Everywhere, the Great Lake Swimmers chose what was, for them, an exotic location: a real recording studio. “It was a new challenge for us,” laughs Dekker. “We’ve been so used to all the work that goes into putting together these location recordings. Andy Magoffin, our longtime engineer who produced the new album, was really excited to hear what we’d sound like in a so-called proper studio. It felt like the right time to make this kind of record.”

Recorded in Toronto’s Revolution Recording, New Wild Everywhere benefits from Magoffin’s and the band’s freedom to focus on music rather than location logistics. It’s also enhanced by the current lineup, comprised of guitarist-banjo player Erik Arnesen, upright bassist Bret Higgins and drummer Greg Millson, with newcomer Miranda Mulholland’s contributions on violin and backup vocals. Says Dekker: “We developed great chemistry touring the last album (the Polaris Music Prize-nominated Lost Channels) and that’s given us a really natural, organic sound.”

Songs like “Cornflower Blue” and “Fields of Progeny” (along with its French counterpart “Les champs de progéniture”) are slow waltzes steeped in the rural sounds of Dekker’s youth, growing up on a working farm in tiny Wainfleet, Ontario. But the spirited title track and the rousing “Easy Come Easy Go” are easily the band’s most uptempo songs to date.

  greatlakeswimmers-newwildeverywhereThat new energy is another byproduct of the confidence that comes from lengthy touring. Dekker, who started Great Lake Swimmers as a solo project, has long been hailed for his fragile songs and ethereal voice, now has a solidified band to stretch out with musically. The use of a string quartet, with arrangements by Higgins, has further enriched the group’s sound.

As with all of Dekker’s writing, many songs on New Wild Everywhere deal with spirituality and nature, especially the elements of wind and water. “I love the kind of harsh reality that underlies the natural world,” says Dekker. Growing up on a farm will do that. So, too, will studying the works of Walt Whitman, William Faulkner and Henry David Thoreau, as Dekker did while obtaining a literature degree from the University of Western Ontario.

One exception to his rural world focus is “Parkdale Blues,” a song set in Toronto’s west-end neighborhood that recalls Bruce Cockburn’s brand of urban reportage. Another is “The Great Exhale,” which was recorded in Toronto’s unused Lower Bay subway station. Clearly, Dekker couldn’t resist the chance to make at least one subterranean recording. “It was a very nocturnal session, because we had to record when the trains above weren’t running,” he explains. “And because it’s like a ghost station, that gave it some amazing ambience.”

Words & Music Spring 2012

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