The secret songs of Sam Larkin


THE SECRET SONGS OF SAM LARKIN with Don Kerr, Howard Gladstone, Marianne Gerrard, Meg Tennant, Kyp Harness, Mimi Oz, Glen Gary, Gloria Blizzard, Sarah Greene and many others, at the Tranzac (292 Brunswick), Monday(February 16), 7 pm. Free.  

Influential Toronto singer/songwriter Sam Larkin passed away in October 2013 after a lengthy battle with liver disease. There was an outpouring of love and admiration after his death, including a benefit show in late 2013, and now the last of Larkin’s heartfelt folk tracks will finally see the light of day. 

At a release show for The Secret Songs Of Sam Larkin on Monday (February 16) at the Tranzac, myriad local singer/songwriters are set to perform tunes from the album, and some overseas friends contribute by video. The album has been six years in the making for Toronto-based composer and producer Bob Wiseman, and it’s a project he holds dear. 

Larkin was a mentor to Wiseman, who treated the record as an opportunity to give back to the man who gave him, as well as so many other songwriters, so much love and guidance.

“When I realized he was dying in 2009, I said, ‘Let’s make another record,’” says Wiseman over the phone from his Toronto home. “He said he didn’t have any funds, and I said that that didn’t matter. We started meeting on Sunday mornings, and he had this big batch of songs. It was powerful and meaningful to meet with him and get to say goodbye. I wanted to make a record and show him what I could actually do as a producer.”

Wiseman set up a successful Kickstarter to cover some of the costs. The album features Larkin’s stunningly honest and bare-bones folk. Wiseman is proud of its production, and relished the opportunity not only to give the songs their due, but also to show his long-time friend what he was capable of.

“Over the years he would flatter me all the time,” says Wiseman. “While I was pleased about that, I now know the difference between then and now with regards to [my] production [abilities] it’s like lighting a candle versus using electricity. 

“Still, it breaks my heart that he didn’t get to hear this.” 

It turns out that lots of local musicians have Larkin stories to tell. Few were as respected in Toronto’s singer/songwriter community.

“Sam and I knew each other from the remarkable Fat Albert’s Coffeehouse,” saysHoney Novick, who’s performing at the launch. “When Sam was there, he set a higher standard for all of us to follow. His songwriting was just that good.”

“Sam wrote a bunch of songs that got to the nub of what great song-writing is about: universality and timelessness,” says Kyp Harness, also playing at the tribute. “His stuff was interesting in that it seemed to have as much European folk influence as it did North American folk and country/western. He was tied into the channel of where great songs come from.

“He cared about songs. In some ways it was his religion. So nothing could be more fitting than to give his final songs a good send-off into the universe.”

The Secret Songs Of Sam Larkin is a beautiful snapshot of an influential yet underappreciated songwriter at his most honest. Nuclear Waste is one of Wiseman’s favourite album tracks. He has an affinity for the sparse, folky nature of the song and was intrigued by its political content. But Larkin, who cultivated almost legendary levels of secrecy in his life, insisted the song wasn’t ready to be released.

“Nuclear Waste always stood out for me because Sam didn’t often write political songs,” Wiseman says. “When someone who is a great writer applies themselves to protest music, it can be an incredible thing.”

At first Larkin did not fully remember the song, but after a few weeks, he re-emerged with an interest in recording it on his own terms.

“He changed it,” Wiseman recalls. “Originally in the chorus he blamed a very famous rich person for the industrial waste in the world. Doing it again, he felt like he couldn’t just name someone’s name. It wasn’t ethical to him. So he did something clever, where he names different people in different choruses.”

And though Wiseman did most of the heavy lifting to ensure the album got released, many people wanted to help, as evidenced by the outpouring of talent taking part in the launch. 

“There were so many people who helped me get this record out,” says Wiseman. “Everyone who donated to the Kickstarter, for one. 

“But it was also my unfinished debt to this man to give it a proper release party, to put this ship out into the ocean and let it sail.” | @nowtoronto



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