GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS CD release at the Church of the Redeemer (162 Bloor West), Saturday (April 14), 6 and 9 pm. $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Something about being in a century-old space can make you feel haunted by history. Hearing descant soprano voices echoing off the vaulted ceiling of Metropolitan United Church has done it for me. Even walking in the St. Lawrence Market can trigger fuzzy images of 19th-century merchants.
That creepy-weird shiver of the sublime is an experience countless artists try to achieve in their work; after listening to even a few quavering notes of Tony Dekker's reverent voice echoing through his fragile country folk songs, it's easy to understand why he's been drawn to spaces that come with their own history since his Great Lake Swimmers released their self-titled debut (recorded in an old grain silo) in 03.
"Old buildings have something to them, that eerie quality," he says softly. "Especially when they've been through so many changes. I'm not necessarily trying to insert myself into that history or capture their story the real idea is just to get into a space where there's a feeling , because I think it changes your performance, how you sing and play.
"It also puts more emphasis on the creative process, so making the album becomes an event in itself."
He laughs self-consciously. "Obviously, the end result is all that gets shared with people for the most part, but seeking out these spaces has become an important thing for me."
Dekker claims that the acoustically endowed places in which Great Lake Swimmers have recorded their albums the tunes on 05's Bodies And Minds (weewerk) were put to tape in a lakeside church in rural Ontario, and an old concert hall was the setting for their stunning new Ongiara (Nettwerk) disc have crossed his radar through "luck and economy," even when his original plans fell through.
Ongiara, for example, is named in honour of the Toronto Island-bound ferry the Swimmers were set to ride when they initially decided to record the whole disc with Dale Morningstar.
When red tape and bureaucratic bullshit intervened and Dekker discovered he couldn't secure the locations he wanted, he and his band holed up in London, Ontario's Aeolian Hall, originally built in 1884 and home to a town hall, fire station, public library and a handful of other institutions before it settled into its current incarnation as a primo music venue.
"Buildings like the Aeolian Hall were designed at a time when there was no amplification," Dekker explains. "So sound had to carry all the way to the back whether someone was orating or playing music. It's a beautiful old space, and it has a presence you can't quite put your finger on as soon as you walk in."
That presence carries through Ongiara, which has a spiritual brightness not always found on previous GLS albums. The disc kicks off with cascading banjo and Dekker's airy tenor literally singing the praises of physical geography (you can read it as a love song or a national anthem), before an upright bass fills in a strong, steady backbone, mimicking the song's title (Your Rocky Spine).
Ballads like the gentle Backstage With The Modern Dancers are starry-eyed and uplifting, not self-flagellating, and tracks like Put There By The Land, fleshed out by Owen Pallett's thoughtful string arrangements, sound like full-band hallelujahs.
The less brooding tone is due in part to Dekker's cheerier state of mind, but Ongiara benefits from being a more collective effort than any previous Great Lake Swimmers release. While Dekker remains the sole songwriter, methodically mapping outeach track with just voice and solo acoustic guitar, he began developing these tunes on the road with bandmates Erik Arneson and Colin Huebert, then invited Pallett, Serena Ryder, Sarah Harmer and other ace musicians to expand them beyond their basic skeletons.
"I feel like Ongiara's come together in a musician kind of way, like there's a certain cohesion there with this one there wasn't with the first records," Dekker offers. "I do try to leave it up to the song to tell me what it needs. Not letting the arrangement overpower the song itself is as important as the instrumentation. If it sounds right with just guitar and voice, it should just be guitar and voice, or just bass and a string arrangement. You should be as aware of the silences as you are of the instruments."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Tony talks about his newfound interest in bringing collaborators into his songs, and explains how Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) came on board to provide string arrangements.
Tony talks about his influences and inspirations, from Leonard Cohen to the Dead Kennedys to the Smithsonian Folkways collection
Songs from the Great Lake Swimmers' new album Ongiara
I am part of a large family
Your rocky spine