Talking To Tony Dekker Of Great Lake Swimmers
by Grace Bello
Tony Dekker, frontman for the Toronto-based indie folk band Great Lake Swimmers (that’s him on the far right), grew up on a farm in Wainfleet, Ontario. While he’s spent the past 12 years in Toronto and touring across North America and Europe, the songs he writes remain heavily influenced by the outdoors — and Great Lake Swimmers have a history of recording in unusual, out-of-the-way locations. But for their fifth album — the spare, beautiful New Wild Everywhere, out April 3 — for the first time the band recorded many of the songs in what Dekker calls “a proper studio.” I talked to him on the phone when, having just returned from a month-long educational expedition in Antarctica, he was back home in Toronto, preparing for SXSW and the launch of a massive North American tour.
Grace Bello: I know you had started out as a writer. So when did you know that your career would end up going more towards music?
Tony Dekker: I had actually been working for a film company for about three years before I released my first record. I had been working not a really fun job either. Just a clerical job for a film company. I actually got laid off from my job and just decided to see if I could make it work. Within a couple of months, I had been offered a European record deal from an indie label. They said, “Hey, have you ever thought about releasing this record in Europe? We want you to come over and tour.” And I thought, “Well, obviously, I really have to give this a try.”
Does that mean that, while you were working the clerical job, you were already writing songs and performing in smaller venues and stuff like that?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I played every small venue and cafe in the city of Toronto. I did that for many years before even releasing an album.
Your music is pretty closely connected with ’60s folk music. What did you grow up listening to?
When I was little kid, I grew up on a working farm. My parents always had the local radio station on. The local AM radio. It was basically just old-school country. All the stuff you can imagine. Old Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, which I love. That’s just what they had on.
You said that you write songs that have a connection to the environment. So how has growing up on a farm and visiting Thousand Islands [for the album Lost Channels] — how have those places influenced your music?
It’s definitely part of the songwriting for me. I think even from the very early albums, I feel like there’s an arc to the writing. There’s this underlying theme that runs throughout, trying to find some kind of spirituality in nature and the natural world. And also realizing there are tensions with living in a city and sort of coming to terms with those kinds of rhythms and cycles that don’t necessarily work in tandem all the time with the seasons and cycles of the natural world.
Does that mean you grew up reading Walt Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson?
Those are definitely a part of me. I studied literature when I was in school, so I definitely gravitated towards those books in particular. Definitely Emerson and Thoreau and Walt Whitman were very much cornerstones of my studies, for sure. I also really liked William Faulkner too. The kind of harsh reality that underlies the natural world, you know?
So you went to Antarctica as a mentoring artist with the Canadian nonprofit Students On Ice. What was Antarctica like?
It was such an incredible trip. The environment and the landscape was one thing, but to have the very respectful academic environment was also equally as awesome. I also felt like the students on the trip were really very bright and future leaders; if these are our future leaders, then I felt like we’re in pretty good hands. There were students from around the world. It also had this environmental slant on it. It was really a natural fit to be a part of the whole thing.
Did you get to sit in on their lesson plans?
Yeah, I did to a certain extent. I was always doing my own workshops and music while some of that was happening. Being a mentor and being a teacher and running these workshops, I didn’t always have a chance to [sit in]. It felt really good to be working alongside people in other disciplines. They had scientists that were specialists in their fields like emissions experts, videographers… It was nice that they included the arts in their program. It was really cool.
I wonder, does that mean that you plan to get into specific conservationist efforts because of that?
I think so. There was a certain synergy there already. We’ve done some work with the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, which is part of the larger Waterkeeper Alliance. It’s basically a North American program that keeps tabs on all the lakes and rivers and water systems.
You were also part of the National Parks Project; what was that experience like?
That was a really cool thing. They picked three musicians and one filmmaker to cover each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. I was part of the group that went to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. That was such an eye-opening experience. The depth and the scope of that project was also incredible. The organizers were able to pull together and eventually release an album of songs that were recorded in all the parks and made this really great website. It really opened my mind even further; with [Great Lake Swimmers], we record in different environments, but to actually be immersed in an environment and to be writing songs — and to be co-writing songs — was a new thing for me.
So you were saying that you record in unusual places. I read that you’ve recorded in an abandoned grain silo and a church and, for one song on your new album, [an abandoned] subway station. Why did you want to record in those places specifically?
I feel there’s a different energy when we are in a space. With this new record, we had a chance to do three days of recording in a disused subway station on the Toronto Transit Line called Lower Bay Station. These natural acoustics — you can hear your voice reverberating in these places — add something special to the performance. In the past, recording in a church, taking great lengths to set up recording studios in a space rather than going into a studio where it’s already set up, it kind of adds another layer of meaning to a project. A layer of reverence for what you’re doing. I found location recording has always done that for me. You can also kind of tap into the historical and almost, I want to say, mythological aspects of a place. Especially when it came to the Thousand Islands region [where we recorded the album Lost Channels]. That whole region is such a special area. To do a survey of some interesting locations in that region was really a fascinating thing to do.
Are there any places where you would want to record? I don’t know — the Alps or some abandoned castle?
Yeah, I don’t know. We did record in Singer Castle for the last album, Lost Channels. It’s a castle built on one of the islands in Thousands Islands. If I go into a space, I’ll always be checking for acoustics. We are always on the lookout for cool places to record in.
For your new album, a lot of it was recorded in a studio, so how did that impact your recording process or your creative process?
Well, it was kind of nice to have a closed environment and really to be focused on the songwriting rather than worrying about whether it was going to happen. It almost seems like in location recordings, there’s a 50–50 chance that someone’s going to forget a cable or the conditions aren’t going to be right to record. You’re always battling the elements, to a certain extent. With this, it was nice. It almost seems like a luxury. This is our fifth record and our first time in a proper studio, I guess. It went better than I thought it would, you know? I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was really happy with how it turned out. It was a really positive experience.
What’s your songwriting process like? You said earlier that you don’t often co-write, so what’s the process like for you?
Well, songwriting generally for me is a pretty solitary thing. I’m the type of person who really needs to be alone and be as far away from other humans as possible. Definitely, getting out into nature and being inspired by that and really taking all of that in is a huge part of it for me — synthesizing or trying to get something out of the experiences that you go through, you know? Songwriting is definitely usually a very solitary thing.
Grace Bello is a freelance writer and writing teacher based in New York. Photo by Asli Alin.