William "Grit" Laskin in his shop
CANADIAN FOLK MUSIC AWARDS SHOWCASES with JOCELYN PETTIT, THE SMALL GLORIES, OLD MAN LUEDECKE, ROSIE & THE RIVETERS and others at Hugh’s Room (2261 Dundas West), Friday (December 2), 8 pm, and Saturday (December 3), 11 am. $29-$32.50. CFMA GALA with BRUCE COCKBURN, COLIN LINDEN, SULTANS OF STRINGS and others at Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles West), Saturday (December 3), 7:30 pm. $45. Weekend pass $89. folkawards.ca.
William “Grit” Laskin moved to Toronto from Hamilton in 1971 when he was 17 and quickly fell in with Jean Larrivée, who taught him how to make guitars.
Since then, the award-winning luthier has practically redefined what it means to do inlay art in Canada, pushing the envelope with complex narrative designs featuring portraits, landscapes and creative use of perspective. His work is celebrated in a beautiful new book, Grand Complications (Figure.1), with photographs of 50 of Laskin’s guitars and the stories behind them. It picks up where his last book, A Guitarmaker’s Canvas, left off.
Laskin is also known for structural innovations to the guitar, notably the armrest and rib-rest that make playing more comfortable, and for co-originating the side port sound hole, which gives a fuller sound.
His “extracurricular” folk-related activities, meanwhile, are almost too numerous to list: president of the Canadian Folk Music Awards, happening Friday and Saturday (December 2 and 3) for the 12th year, co-founder of Borealis Records, founder of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans and member of folk group the Friends of Fiddler’s Green.
In May 2017, Laskin’s work will be featured in The Group Of Seven Guitar Project at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, along with guitars made by Larrivée, Linda Manzer and four other makers, each piece inspired by a member of the Group of Seven. (Laskin’s guitar is an homage to F.H. Varley.) We chatted with him at his studio on Noble Street.
Why was it important to start the Canadian Folk Music Awards?
It grew out of frustration with the Junos and its roots and trad categories. [There were] two categories, and you had bananas and oranges competing against each other. It made no sense that a trad band from Quebec should be in competition with Bruce Cockburn or anybody who’s a contemporary singer/songwriter.
Let’s talk about the “f” word.
It bugs me that the Toronto media – I mean MuchMusic, the main dailies, the CBC – won’t use the word “folk.” They got rid of their folk categories and started using “roots.” Blues is okay, jazz is okay, classical is okay, but for some reason people thought folk was granola-eating earth-shoe people. Even in the early 60s those people drove everyone nuts, and we couldn’t stand their music. I’m proud of the “f” word. For us it’s not a four-letter word.
How have the CFMAs changed over the years?
Our goal has been to celebrate the nominees, because that’s what it’s all about. So we started doing nominees showcase concerts the night before the gala, and a few years ago we started spreading it to two nights to showcase more people. This year for the first time in Toronto, we’re doing a brunch showcase at Hugh’s Room, so 11 acts will get exposure before the gala.
How did you meet Jean Larrivée and some of the Group of Seven guitar makers’?
Jean Larrivée was at Mariposa in the craft section showing his wares for the first time when a scruffy, hairy kid came up to him and said, “Can I come and work with you?” and he actually said, “When I start up in the fall, come by. We’ll try it for a few months.” In the end it was he and I for most of two years. Then I left, started my own shop, had orders and never looked back.
For a couple of months, Sergei [de Jonge] was there with me. And then in the last six months I was there when David Wren came in at night. So there was a bit of overlap and we’re still really good friends, all of us.
When did your inlay art morph into the narratives we now see on the necks of your guitars?
Over the decades I loosened the limitations on the concepts and what I could do. I took more challenges from people and figured out ways to do them. Now I say there’s nothing I can’t do. Having done it all this time, it’s a habit of thinking. Name any subject and my brain is already beginning to figure out how I can do it in a linear way, either horizontal or vertical.
All of your guitars are “grand complications,” but did one take even longer than most to complete?
The one I built for the McMichael. There’s inlay on the back, writing on the top, inlay all the way up the neck. I stopped tracking [how long the inlay took] after about 200 hours.
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