By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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Last summer, there seemed to be a folk-rock revival beginning to form on the musical landscape, with bands left and right being lauded for their folky, melodic harmonies.
But while everyone was (rightfully) going gaga over Seattle's Fleet Foxes and other likeminded acts, nobody seemed to notice—or even remember—Canada's Great Lake Swimmers when it came time to contrast and compare. Maybe it's because the band was in between touring cycles, without an album to support. The band's last record, Ongiara, was released in 2007, before the folk-rock boom.
Now, on the road in support of a new album, frontman Tony Dekker and the rest of the Great Lake Swimmers hope the folk-rock resurgence hasn't passed them by.
Lucky for Dekker and Co., their just-released Lost Channels successfully blends roots music and folk rock into an album of lush, rustic, atmospheric instrumentation that immediately recalls both '70s bands like America as much as it does modern acts like Fleet Foxes. But more than that, Lost Channels finds the band members exploring their relationships with the natural world as the disc effortlessly touches on uplifting AM gold ("Palmistry"), more haunting fare ("Concrete Heart") and folky flourishes ("Chorus in the Underground")—transitions that would be jarring if the band didn't pull them off so impressively.
In getting to this point in his career, though, Dekker, the band's primary songwriter, hasn't taken the route his music might leave listeners expecting. As a young man, he chose to forgo traditional, structured music training—mostly because he felt it would only get in the way of what he was trying to accomplish.
"It was important for me to use the lyrics and music as tools to try and get [the feeling of the song] down," Dekker says. And that idea—using concepts, rather than learned skills, as the weapons in his arsenal—has shaped his writing process. Whereas some musicians write the music first and then add their lyrics and others come up with a vocal melody first and then write the music around it, for Dekker, there isn't one singular process he follows: "It's different every time," he says. "There are as many ways to write a song as there are songwriters."
Lucky for him, by the time Dekker started writing songs, he had plenty of inspiration. Raised in rural Canada, the young man only needed to look out his window at his surroundings for his muse: "Growing up in a small town and falling in love with the natural world around you definitely becomes part of the song," he says.
This approach to songwriting continues to serve him well. Even now, after relocating to the urban surroundings of Toronto, Dekker still finds ways to embrace the natural world—particularly in acoustics.
Essentially, Dekker says, he uses his sonic surroundings as an uncredited songwriting partner. Which is why, on Lost Channels, he and his rotating cast of backing players sought out various, out-of-the-ordinary venues for recording. By the end of the recording process, the band captured its sound in churches, cabins and even castles.
"I like recording in interesting locations for the acoustic sounds that are created in those spaces," Dekker says. The idea, he continues, is to use each space as a guide for where the song should go. It's the sole constant in his songwriting process: Dekker will take sketches of songs to the band, and from there, the group will flesh out the sketches into full songs, using the room's acoustics to guide the process.
"We try to take over that place and get a feel for what's going on acoustically and capture it," Dekker says. "Natural reverb can't be faked. More natural, bare-bones musicianship than studio tricks."
That process applies, too, to the band's touring mindset. So maybe it's not the worst thing in the world that Great Lake Swimmers hasn't yet achieved the successes of its contemporaries; smaller venues allow the band to bring that same level of acoustic control to its live show.
"If a larger space had suitable acoustics that would be great," Dekker says. "But I'm happy with smaller, intimate venues. It's the best way to see our band."