Far from shore

Originally, Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers was to be a solo project. Over the course of the past six years, however, Tony Dekker’s brainchild has morphed from country-boy-in-the-city-with-an-acoustic-guitar to a semi-collective with an alternating body of participants to a proper band incorporating a fairly solid lineup of friends and collaborators.

Watery, wide-eyed wonder: Great Lake Swimmers make melancholy folk, with a bit of Carter Family influence.

“It’s always been a pretty fluid lineup, but lately there’s been a solid group of people that we’ve been working with,” says Dekker. “I feel like there’s a definite pool of musicians that I can call upon now … a regular group of people, and I’m discovering more and more how important that chemistry is.”

Raised in a small Ontario farming community on the northeastern shore of Lake Erie, Dekker proudly embraces his rural sensibilities and incorporates them into his music. Without resorting to sappiness or melodrama, Great Lake Swimmers consistently conjures up a curious mixture of comforting melancholia and wide-eyed wonder. Dekker’s thoughtful pace and uncluttered arrangements allow the songs to billow with the crisp clarity of a solitary night under a star-filled sky. Crooning in a melodic falsetto, he creates a sense of unfettered contemplation and echoing solitude—passing notions and ideas take on a grander significance.

Capturing these intangible aspects in a performance, let alone recreating them in a recording, is neither easy nor accidental. It’s no surprise then that Great Lake Swimmers doesn’t record in conventional studios. Dekker often seeks out alternate locations.

“It started out being for technical reasons,” he says. “Finding places with nice acoustics is really important to me.”

Over the years, the band has recorded in silos, churches, community centers and castles. “Now, though, it’s become about how performing in those special places draws a certain kind of performance out of the musicians playing there,” Dekker says. “Over time, it’s become an integral part of the creative process when we record. Tapping into that energy has become as important as the technical side of it.”

When it came time to record the new album, Lost Channels, Dekker and company had help selecting their recording locations after being contacted by a local historian from Ontario’s Thousand Islands region. “He had heard us when we were the musical guests on a Canadian radio show called The Vinyl Café,” explains Dekker. “He invited us to the region to get inspired, saying that it would suit our music, and then we brainstormed on which places would be interesting to record.”

Most of the recording took place at historical sites on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, both on the Ontario and New York shores. The river may have provided a loose cohesion between the songs collected on Lost Channels. “I didn’t really approach [the album] with a theme in mind,” says Dekker. “That’s not really how I write. Looking back afterwards, I started to realize that there were certain themes about the passage of time with a sort of river imagery and also themes of tension between urban and rural areas that pop up throughout the album. It wasn’t necessarily written with those themes in mind, but after it was done, it was easy to make those connections.”

As Great Lake Swimmers’ sound has matured to encompass greater depth and breadth, so has Dekker honed the scope of his songwriting to convey more meaning with less self-indulgence. Another goal? To be more concise, he says.

“I was inspired by the Carter Family on those early recordings where they literally had three minutes to get their point across. I found that really interesting. Getting a full thought into a three-minute song and trying to use that as a guideline or a challenge to myself to write within those boundaries,” Dekker says. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s something I strive towards.”

When speaking of the actual content of the songs, Dekker says the lyrics aren’t necessarily a reflection of himself. “I don’t see myself as a confessional songwriter, and I don’t see it as a personal thing,” he says. “I see the songs more as ways of presenting ideas.”

That’s a somewhat surprising fact given the earnestness and sense of awe his vocals often convey. “You could view them as character pieces, but it’s completely open to interpretation,” Dekker says. “That’s how I like the songs to be seen—as complete thoughts and ideas that are open to interpretation.” 

[Dave Cole can be reached at Richard.david.cole@gmail.com.]

who: Great Lake Swimmers with Kate Maki and Wayne Robbins
what: Post-folk
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, April 11 (9 p.m. $8/$10. www.greatlakeswimmers.com or www.katemaki.com)

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