NATHAN LAWR AND THE MINOTAURS with ANDY SWAN and KATE MAKI at Supermarket (268 Augusta), tonight (Thursday, October 18), 9 pm. $5. 416-840-0501. Rating: NNNNN
The trip out of town to free up blocked creativity is a well-trodden route for many Toronto musicians. Many seclude themselves in rustic lakeside cottages or small towns to escape vices, get inspired and focus on writing. But the move is usually temporary, making a nice backstory for interviewers asking why there's an elk on the album cover.
For roots rocker Nathan Lawr, there's no turning back.
Eighteen months ago, the drummer-turned-frontman pulled up stakes in the local music scene, where he'd enjoyed indie all-star status in the FemBots, Constantines and Royal City, among others, only to replant himself in the thriving metropolis of Sudbury.
"I'd been [in Toronto] for seven years and just sort of had enough of it," says Lawr from the 705 area code. "The city wears you down. I feel like I have more time in my life to do stuff now."
It wasn't like Lawr threw a dart at a map to choose the Nickel City. His partner and bandmate, Kate Maki, is a native.
But the soft-spoken Lawr says his northern gambit has paid off, both from an artistic standpoint and a sanity-saving one.
"It was a bit of a leap of faith, but it's worked out so far," he says. "The environment has had an influence on my writing, because you can hear yourself think. There's just less exterior interference, like that incessant white noise always in the background. It covers up your mind."
A flowing and focused Lawr can be heard on his smoothly crafted third studio effort, A Sea Of Tiny Lights (Saved by Radio). It sounds more ambitious than his scaled-down Secret Carpentry disc. He and his semi-solidified backups, the Minotaurs, glide through dusty twangers and brass-filled rock-estra tracks, the kind that made his 2005 live Music Gallery recording an unlikely success.
The lyrical tone has also shifted. Lawr, who says he "wanted to focus on specific things, tell more stories and talk more about personal relationships," draws from unexpected sources on Sea.
When he sings, "They're keeping him alive," on the shuffling brass bounce of Footsteps, he's referring to James Loney, the Christian peace activist held captive in Iraq. Or when Lawr moans, "There's a devil coming down the hall," over brooding distorted guitars on There's A Devil, he's touching on Columbine as interpreted by Gus Van Sant in Elephant, a film Lawr says gave him a new perspective on the tragedy.
"I think the movie touched me so much because it helped me get into the lives of those kids, to see how awkward they were, how weird their lives were, and it's hard not to identify with it a bit.
"It's hard not think that once I had those awkward feelings in high school, so why didn't I do that? I identified with those kids and that school and how fucked up the situation was."
It's challenging to picture Lawr as a trench-coat-wearing outcast type, especially when you consider that he went on to become a hotshot drummer whose star-studded southern Ontario CD credits include playing with King Cobb Steelie, Jim Guthrie and Sea Snakes. With a rock Rolodex like Lawr's, you wonder how he decides who gets a studio summons and who gets passed over?
"They know the gig is extremely poorly paid," laughs Lawr, "so no one gets too upset, unless they're not telling me. Maybe when my ship comes in, everyone will get paid, but right now...."