Canadian Indie-Folk Masters to Play Cincinnati’s Taft Theater This Saturday
by Jonathan Goolsby
CINCINNATI – I write from a personal place – people either come along for the ride, or they don’t. So I have no problem breaking the fourth wall and telling you that my favorite band is coming to Cincinnati, and that in the interim between the show announcement and now, I’ve been walking around a moon-eyed fanboy, proselytizing anyone who will listen.
Great Lake Swimmers are coming to the Taft.
Great Lake Swimmers. They’re amazing. I’m not saying that my continued friendship is predicated on you going to the show, but it couldn’t hurt your chances.
It was Monday, March 13, 2006. I was still living in Lexington, Kentucky, and my favorite indie band at the time – The Mendoza Line – was coming to play a show at the old Dame. I’d been planning to go for months. Took off work the next day so that I could hang for the whole performance. I couldn’t find anyone willing to brave the weeknight, so I was venturing forth alone.
It was unseasonably cold. Sometime that evening it started snowing – hard. By show time, the majority of six inches (a veritable blizzard in Central Kentucky) were on the ground. No one was driving. No one was out. I was one of five in the audience. And I was depressed – I felt, I don’t know, personally responsible for the low turnout. No, I had nothing to do with it. But Mendoza Line was my band and my town was shrugging them off. It weighed heavy.
Never mind that Mendoza Line was, unbeknownst to me and much of the indie world, in the middle of a nasty divorce. No, really. Their frontcouple were married, and things were, as things are wont to do, falling apart. In that moment, I thought that it was just the empty room.
But another group playing that night buoyed me. Thin, scruffy-bearded frontman who sang with his eyes closed even as he brought lullaby acoustic songs to the point of prayer. At one point, I remembered to look around. No one was drinking, no one was talking. We were all fixated, arrested by their high, haunting notes. They were raw, emotionally urgent, done at an exquisitely deliberate pace. They seemed to be songs about falling apart, performed by a writer who simultaneously refused to do so.
The refrains faded away. I finally asked the barman.
Who were those guys?
Great Lake Swimmers. And they just bought the room.
It has been three years since Tony Dekker, et al, released Lost Channels. This year’s offering, New Wild Everywhere, dropped in April on Nettwerk. It marks a departure that most bands never have the opportunity to make: for their fifth full album, Great Lake Swimmers have finally recorded in an actual studio.
“I’m really proud of how it turned out,” Dekker said. “It was creatively a new thing. We really wanted to see what we could do in a so-called ‘proper’ studio.’”
The Swimmers’ previous LPs were all recorded in remote locations – their 2003 debut was taped in a grain silo (you can hear crickets in the background on many of the tracks). Bodies and Minds was recorded in a church, Ongiara in a concert hall . . . everywhere they went, Dekker noted, they had to rent portable generators.
“I still think we’ve [made] a pretty organic record. It just felt like a logical step from the work that we’d been doing. These albums sort of fit together for me like jigsaw pieces. Each one expands on the last one. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It just seemed, with the touring band really having honed our chops on the road, it was like, this really makes sense to do this now. It was just a way of doing something different for us.”
New Wild Everywhere is different. Over their career, and as the lineup has expanded, each record seems to flesh out, become more full. And (title held ceteris paribus) it seems less wild – it sounds polished, layered. This is GLS putting on their Sunday finery. It’s hard for me to reconcile – I’m a Saturday night kind of guy. Or “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I liked the raw.
But listen to the new record; it’s there, underpinning the smooth exterior. Dekker started out as a lit student – he knows lyrics.
“My original intent was to go into fiction writing and find my way in that world, but songs sort of took over,” he said. “I don’t have any one way of writing or getting into that mode. Sometimes I think that there are as many ways to write songs as there are songs. It’s nice when they all come out into one complete thought. Other times it takes getting to that fourth or fifth draft so that you’re able to land the kind of song you want.”
That’s a writerly concept. One of the most valuable things I learned from my college literary mentor, former Kentucky poet laureate James Baker Hall: the artist is beholden to the work being channeled through him. Each poem, or painting, or song, must be approached with reverence, if not as prayer. I like Dekker’s work because he has seemed, from the get-go, to understand that. On the 2003 debut, Great Lake Swimmers, my favorite song is “Faithful Night, Listening.” The scene:
And I shiver in the cool air
My guitar echoes against the back of sleeping buildings
My faithful night still listens
Play for the stars and the immobile cars
Stray cats and telephone lines
The old dumpster bins
They will all receive me
Will not turn me away
They will listen with kind ears
They will listen with kind ears.
There – right there is the vulnerability inherent to the writer, to the musician, to the artist. You work alone, you may not play to anyone in particular, but you play. Because you need to. Because you might not know how else you could ever make a connection with anyone.
I’m probably projecting a bit onto one Mr. Dekker, but that’s my takeaway. Again – you can come along for the ride, or not. But wait:
“I think songwriting should be something that one is compelled to do,” he asserted. “You almost have to do it. You have to love it and nurture it and do it whether anything’s gonna come of it or not.”
And this new record, for all its polish, has many of those same elements that first brought me to GLS super-appreciation in 2006 – melodic introspection, steel pedal, deep consciousness, a lot of 3/4 time.
“Yeah, the waltz time,” Dekker agreed. “It’s pretty hard for me to think outside that. It’s just such a poetic rhythm.”
“I feel like it is coming from a similar place – on the earlier recordings, there was a lot of raw emotion there, for sure. I think if you break some of these songs down to their basic elements, if I had recorded this group of songs just on guitar, with no band, in an abandoned grain silo” – he chuckled, wink, nudge – “I think these songs would fit in just fine with the earlier stuff. It’s just the way [that] it’s presented has evolved a bit over time.”
What about those folks who wonder if Great Lake Swimmers are floating toward adult contemporary? Dekker said he doesn’t feel mainstreamed.
“I don’t really overthink who the audience might be – it’s just songs that make sense to me and make sense to the band. It feels like with every record it’s another step in a new direction. ’Adult contemporary.’ Those are strong words,” he laughed. “I think as a musician, I’ve become a better guitar player and I’ve gotten more comfortable with being on stage and playing with a band. I think it’s evolved in that way – to a place where it doesn’t feel so unusual anymore for me, embracing the audience. When I’m playing the songs, it’s going back to that place – the original thought that the songs came from. It provides a better jumping off point.”
Where are those places?
Dekker grew up on a farm in Wainfleet, Ontario. Small. 6,000 people tops. With GLS’ success has come relocation to Toronto. It doesn’t get more metropolitan up there. Barn, CN Tower. Cows, concrete. How does he stay centered?
“I think one provides perspective on the other. In the music I find that there’s a lot of tension between those urban and natural worlds.”
“Tension within the songs. Not in a conscious way for me, but it’s almost trying to reconcile itself through the music. The moments I value most in the songwriting process are moments that come out of a very quiet and still place. I really like being out in the woods and being out in nature, being in that calmness. I find that to be the most inspiring place for me.”
I wonder about that. Does he find he needs solitude to write?
“I would say yes. I’ve tried to write while on the road or with people around, but it doesn’t usually work out as well as me being alone. I think it’s just a matter of focus and concentration. If I’m out in the woods, I can be completely alone, but still have all this great stimulus around me.”
Great Lake Swimmers. Five albums in, they’re still moving forward, still adding instrumentation, still changing. One arm out, one arm back, kick, kick, breathe. Repeat. Nearing land?
“Um, yeah, there’s no sign of any shore,” Dekker laughs. “Using the constellations as my guide, you know?”
I take heart in that. I’m always up for a dip.
Great Lake Swimmers, with Daniel Martin Moore
8 pm door / 9 pm show
$10 advance / $13 door
Long-listed for the 2012 Polaris Prize.
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