The great exhale

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“There’s that moment right beforehand where it feels like the natural world is sort of on the cusp of something.”

That’s Tony Dekker on the other end of the line from Ontario talking about the spark of inspiration that ignited “New Wild Everywhere,” the upbeat, catchy title track of the Great Lake Swimmers’ latest album.

“I somehow wanted to capture that feeling you get when you’re outside right before a thunderstorm (and) you can feel some kind of change happening,” he explains.

Meanwhile, here in St. John’s, seagulls, pigeons and starlings are frantic in the sky as Tropical Storm Leslie approaches the island, so the energy he’s describing is very real.

“It sort of signals this idea of new beginnings and fresh starts. It also ended up being a thing that made sense to call the album and to sort of set a general tone for the record.”

An inconsistent consistency…

New Wild Everywhere marks the band’s fifth effort but, in breaking with tradition, only their first recorded in a proper studio (they’re known for taking to churches, castles and other less conventional spaces to record songs). Critics have called the album Dekker and company’s most accessible work yet, with melodious highlights in “Changes With The Wind,” “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” and first single “Easy Come Easy Go” — and, in keeping with tradition, it is lyrically astute and poetic.

There’s another inconsistency too: consistency. For NWE Dekker halted the revolving door of musical talent, opting to keep his Lost Channels touring band of Erik Arnesen, Miranda Mulholland, Bret Higgins and Greg Millson for the new record.

The songs emanate from an appreciation for the elements and draw on raw, honest observations of people, places and possibilities.

“Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” indicates a slight but meaningful turn for Dekker, who’s soft-spoken in both conversation and song, toward a convergence of politics and music. The song addresses the destroyed livelihoods of Louisiana fishermen and their families following the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dekker tells me he’s also involved in a campaign to protect British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest from logging industry interests.

The album art layout was done by St. John's music promoter and web designer Jud Haynes. "I went out to brunch with Tony when he was in St. John's for the first Lawnya Vawnya back in April 2011," he recalls. "He asked if I'd be interested in working on the new Great Lake Swimmers album art at that time, which I of course was very excited to be involved in. The recording wasn't completed yet, so I didn't hear from him again for months. He had an artist friend (Nick Wroblewski) in the USA that had been working on some (woodcut) pieces of art for the album. I was blown away when I saw what he came up with, and to be honest, making a gorgeous looking album out of those pieces of art was quite easy."

His recent passion stems from a trip he took to the southern U.S. after the BP oil spill: “I had been spending some time in Louisiana and (saw) first hand what was happening there,” he recalls. “Reading a lot of the headlines coming out of the place, which, on one hand, (were) being put out there in a media (campaign) by the actual oil company; and the other side was these families that were being affected by it. And there was the environmental cost as well. So there was this enormous coastline which was being destroyed, which was an important natural barrier for the floods that happen in that part of the world, and also the fishermen that had existed on this livelihood for generations.

“And then this powerful media president of the oil company is trying to assure everybody that everything is OK, and really it was a highly destructive situation for everyone involved,” he continues. “And it didn’t just go away — it’s an ongoing thing and the cleanup continues and no one really talks about it anymore. It’s one of these really awful things that could have potentially been avoided, or maybe discussed more or observed more. That just kind of sparked my realization. It moved me to respond somehow.

“I think it’s difficult to write a song like that and have it be a piece of artwork or song that can stand on it’s own and relay a feeling, but also be pointed and specific about an issue,” he explains. “I’ve always kind of shied away from that because I don’t really have a desire to be preachy … and, in a general sense too, I prefer to focus on some of the positive aspects of our environment … some of the beautiful parts of it, to really make people want to appreciate it.

“But in this case I just happened to be there at that time when it was happening, and really was pretty affected by some of these real headlines coming out of the area.”

Positive re-evaluation and synthesis of experience…

“I Think That You Might Be Wrong”, the album’s opening track, is also a product of that trip south. “There was what I can only assume was a graffiti artist who made these placards and posted (them) all around the city of New Orleans,” Dekker explains. “It’s one of those things where, if you keep an eye out for graffiti and have even just a passing interest in it — which I do, and find it a pretty interesting way to get to know a city. There’s some great stuff out there. But in New Orleans there was this artist who’d gone around and posted all these hand-painted placards around the city that had this saying on them: ‘I think that you might be wrong.’ And so that was sort of the jumping off point for the song. Every time I saw one of those signs, it makes you sort of second guess yourself, in a positive way I thought — kind of an invitation to re-evaluate. That really resonated with me and I was wanting to turn that into a song somehow.”

In “Parkdale Blues” Dekker paints a vivid image of his eclectic Toronto neighbourhood: “It’s an interesting place and there’s a really unusual mash-up of people, especially with the gentrification happening there,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a negative or positive review of the neighbourhood — it’s more of a synthesis of an experience of being there.”

“The history of Parkdale is interesting. It was at one time an affluent neighbourhood with big homes in the very early history of Toronto. And then over time (it) fell into decay and became a place that was the Wild West of Toronto in the 70s and 80s. And then now, as Toronto has just sprawled out and (as) the artists move in looking for cheap rent, you get this other thing that happens where you have other people who have been there for a long time in a lower income neighbourhood. And then once the artists move in and start up cafes and art galleries, it becomes a cultural thing. And then that gets capitalized on by people who want to build condos and put in high-class restaurants, which seems really unusual for a neighbourhood like that. It was weird to be there at that moment when that was happening.”

Old habits die hard…

Dekker has said in previous interviews that “The Great Exhale” is his favourite song from NWE to perform live. “It’s sort of a veil of simplicity almost. It’s just an easy song to sing and play, and it’s easy to get in to,” he says. “It was a song that came at the very end of the writing for the album, and it actually wasn’t even recorded with the rest of the songs. (It) was recorded in an abandoned Toronto subway station called Lower Bay Station, which was the station that they had originally built to be part of the Toronto transit line and then built another station on top of it which became the actual Bay Station.

The progeny of songwriting…

Whether the music comes to life in studios, castles, subway stations or on stage, Dekker’s evolution into one of Canada’s latest great songwriters is nowhere more evident than on the last two Great Lake Swimmers albums, and in “Fields of Progeny”, a song the band recorded both in French (“Les Champs de Progéniture”) and English for NWE.

“I really felt that I was coming to a realization as a writer of songs and as a maker of music: you have to identify with this very long chain of people who came before you and who will come after you,” Dekker explains. “It’s important to realize that, especially making the type of music we do, which I think draws upon a bit of a folk music tradition but looking at it through a different lens — maybe through a more indie lens or a neo-folk lens or something like that. You’re using these old tools that have been around forever, but you’re using those tools to tell a new story or to tell your own story.”

Great Lake Swimmers perform at the Cochrane Street United Church in St. John’s on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. with supporting act Mathias Kom of The Burning Hell. For ticket information visit Mightypop’s web site.