The Great Lake Swimmers’ geography lesson

By Laura Bardsley

Clear and distinct are not often used to describe music anymore. However, in the 1920s, when there was actually only time for one song per side on the record, bands were forced to be concise. Tony Dekker from Great Lake Swimmers worked toward this sound on the group’s fourth release, Lost Channels.

“I was sort of inspired by listening to groups like the original Carter Family,” Dekker says. “Groups that recorded between the ’20s and ’30s, you know, literally only had three minutes to get their point across.”

Not only are Great Lake Swimmers fans of concise, ’20s-sounding tunes, but they also enjoy a good trip up the old St. Lawrence River. Notorious for their recording location choices, Lost Channels was recorded at Thousand Islands, up the St. Lawrence, halfway between Toronto and Montreal. Within the region of Thousand Islands, they recorded in Singer Castle, Brockville Arts Centre and St. Brendan’s Church. Dekker explains part of what makes the band’s distinctive sound is unique locations.

“Tying the history of a place is pretty important,” he stresses. “The places we’ve chosen we’ve been able to weave the mythology into what we’re doing. . . making the connection with the place and environmental thing, it’s important to drawing the performance out from you.”

Not only is it imperative to include and reflect your environment in your music, but also to include your past in the mix.

“I love when people put references to where they’re from in their music, referencing the geography of where you’re from,” Dekker notes.

He grew up on the Great Lakes, and the band, now centred in Toronto, is still situated near a Great Lake.

Dekker’s voice is often compared to Neil Young’s, but he asserts that he refrains from using labels as much as possible and doesn’t pay much attention to comparisons.

“I didn’t get into Neil Young until I heard the comparisons,” he admits. “It’s a huge compliment to be put in the same bracket as Neil Young, but at the same time, I’m a young Canadian guy singing with a tenor, so…”

With the historical places the Great Lake Swimmers have recorded, it almost seems to relate to the sometimes eerie qualities of the songs. However, no ghosts showed up for a free show.

“You could feel a presence of history, surrounded by energy and presence,” Dekker says. “Sometimes when you walk into a place, you can feel that there’s not so much as a presence, but a feel to a place.”

Although the locations help, they only add to the talent of the band. Metaphors also help.

“I almost see the place we record as a member of the band, you know, or as like a backdrop or a canvas, that we’re painting all these songs on it, if you want to carry the metaphor,” he says.

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