Great Lake Swimmers

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Great Lake Swimmers

Spiritual? Possibly. Otherworldly? Perhaps. If anything, the latest collection of songs from Great Lake Swimmers is simply beyond. It’s beyond folk, beyond Americana. There’s something deep that’s stirred when listening, even though the textures are minimal on Ongiara – the band’s third studio release.

For this latest effort, frontman Tony Dekker enlisted the help of several fellow Canadians including vocalist Sarah Harmer and the Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett. The result is an album of lush instrumentation, Dekker’s softly haunting vocal and striking imagery that relies heaviy on the environment around it.

In this SSv interview, Dekker tells us all about releasing control to his friends, achieving balance with his worldview and what it means to “serve the song.”

SSv: Why is it that nature is so prevalent in the imagery of the songs you write? Because when you read a line like, “And I thought that I saw you in the tallest of trees/ Swayed back and forth in the mid-autumn breeze/ When the leaves reddened and left too/ I knew then that it wasn’t you,” there’s such depth given to the world around us.

Dekker: I grew up in a pretty small, rural town that was a farming community of sorts in southern Ontario. I think that kind of awareness came out a lot in writing in the new record as well as the other two. I think that kind of stuff is in my bones. And also with the new record, we’d been touring a lot leading up to the writing and recording of it. I think being in a lot of different types of environments, especially getting to travel around through natural environments informed that a bit more.

SSv: Okay, but every band could say the same thing about touring the country and they’re not writing lines like that.

Dekker: That’s true. I wouldn’t say that directly informs a song like that. That in particular was more about, well, you can draw certain conclusions about what exactly it is the narrator of the song is looking for. Why is he choosing to look at this thing like that? But I’m not sure why it keeps coming back to that. I think it was an important thing for me at a young age to be in harmony or have a respect for the natural world.

I feel more comfortable with something that can exist abstractly. Then there's more of a puzzle or there's more universality to it. People can participate in a song and bring their ideas and place their essence of who they are onto a song.

I feel more comfortable with something that can exist abstractly. Then there's more of a puzzle or there's more universality to it. People can participate in a song and bring their ideas and place their essence of who they are onto a song.

Those environments also appeal and inform my internal environment, too. I think in a lot of ways, writing is about finding a balance between that internal environment while filtering in these external environments in their different forms, through your senses and trying to filter and describe that experience. That’s exciting.

SSv: What is fully meant by internal environment?

Dekker: I’m not so sure where it comes from. Sometimes I think I’m sending messages in a bottle and throwing them out into the ocean when I write notes. I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m not an overly conscious, narrative type of writer. I just try to get a feel for ideas or the way that things are and they create a feel for me and tell a story through images abstractly. I guess some are also narrative, which I am trying to get better at being more concisely narrative. It’s all about having that balance though.

SSv: Which way do you tend to err?

Dekker: I feel more comfortable with something that can exist abstractly. Then there’s more of a puzzle or there’s more universality to it. People can participate in a song and bring their ideas and place their essence of who they are onto a song and within a song. It brings a bit of themselves to it and a lot of times, it can change what that song means to them. So I think when it comes to telling a specific story, which I am trying to balance as I said, it can be alienating for some people.

SSv: How did some of the collaborations happen on Ongiara because you have some great guests playing or singing with you?

Dekker: It was an easy situation because they were either friends or friends of friends. I felt alright with asking them because they were mostly friends. But that was a first. Up to this point, I’ve been pretty solitary so when it came to the recording process, I think I’ve given up more control on this new record. I’ve invited them to build some tracks. However, I did have some specific thoughts on the songs and instrumentation. Then I guess I got really lucky that I got all my first choices. [Laughs] Most of those people I know from around Toronto or from past friendships. It worked out pretty good and it was a nice experiment.

SSv: As an artist, is it hard to give up that control that you mentioned?

Dekker: I think what’s most important is the song itself for me. I think I’m there to serve the song first. I can’t play a violin. I can barely play guitar. [Laughs] So if I hear a string section in it, I can’t try to do that or simulate that myself. It’s natural to call someone or call some friends to help out. Same with the backing vocals. This was a nice opportunity to bring different people in and that worked out really well.

SSv: Is that vital to the music to serve the song?

Dekker: Yes, it’s vital to me. The song has to be the first thing and everything else associated with the music has to come second, I think. Hopefully you put great effort into trying to make a song sound the way that it should.

SSv: So is that the biggest difference on this album is this issue of control?

Dekker: I would say that instrumentation-wise, that’s for sure. That’s a big change. There are a lot of instruments I played myself, but this was a pretty natural progression as well for me to give away more control.

SSv: Was it necessary for you to have that control on the first two records?

Dekker: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that a whole lot. The first two were more solo efforts and this one now with a band that I’ve been playing with for years now, that felt a little more intuitive on the new record. It’s a good point on the map as to where we’re going. I think it just shows where we are up to a point and hopefully we can continue to follow that line that we’re on.

SSv: It’s been a few months since the release of Ongiara, so what’s happening with it now?

Dekker: Well, we’re still touring a lot through North America and will through September and October. I think it’s the kind of music, as well, that’s not flashy music. It’s slow-burning kind of music. So it seems that people are steadily finding out about it. I think that’s part of why we tour so much. We don’t have a flashy outfit or a big support system behind us. We’re really pushing hard on our own. A lot of times it just seems it’s about getting the word out about it. It’s been a steady kind of build for us over the last couple of years.

SSv: Can that get frustrating? Do you wish there was some dam that could burst that would flood people with your music?

Dekker: Not really. I don’t think in those terms I guess. That wouldn’t really affect the way I see music or it wouldn’t affect my work ethic or anything. It wouldn’t affect my desire to be a working musician or writer. I don’t find it frustrating.

SSv: Was that a learned reaction or were you always that way?

Dekker: I think it’s always been that way. I certainly never thought I’d be able to focus on music as something I do all the time. It’s definitely been something slowly taking over my life. It can be a tough balance sometimes differentiating between being a performer and being a songwriter. Those are two totally different and separate worlds.

SSv: Are you writing right now? You’re off now right?

Dekker: Yeah, I do have some down time and I have some time at home to get caught up and do some writing before we head back out on the road again. I try to always write, but I have a bit more difficulty on the road. But I’m always trying to be conscious and aware and participate in that. I let things sit for a long time before I finish them. Sometimes they finish themselves, but most of the time I have to let them gestate for a period of time before I let them go. And when you let them go, you can’t worry about them anymore. I think the real great effort in writing leads up to that point.

SSv: What’s the most important thing for you in songwrting?

Dekker: It’s all about making yourself available. When that idea comes, you have to be ready wherever you are saying, “I have to set aside time to see this through.” I’m a real night person, so I’ll stay up really late or all night to see an idea through. So I think part of it is trying to be receptive for when inspiration kind of strikes. I think that’s totally part of it.

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