BY GARY MAY
When Tony Dekker was growing up in Wainfleet, not far from the shores of Lake Erie, little did he realize how important those frequent trips to the water’s edge would be to his future singing career.
Now that Dekker is lead singer and songwriter for the indie folk rock group Great Lake Swimmers,
however, those childhood experiences are frequently reflected in his work.
Dekker’s connection to the lakes continued throughout his university years at Western in London, when he would pay regular visits to the beaches at Ipperwash and Grand Bend on Lake Huron. Later, his career took him to Toronto, where he was rarely very far from the shores of Lake Ontario.
The Great Lakes and the waterfront became a geographical point of reference for Dekker, one that followed him through his evolution from solo performer to creator of the Great Lake Swimmers.
“Images of water and lakes were always important to me as a songwriter,” Dekker tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. Through four albums since 2003, he has “expanded on those themes and the spirituality that can be found in the water.”
'Water and rivers run through the whole recording'
That’s especially so in the group’s latest production, Lost Channels
, many of the tracks of which were recorded in and around Brockville and the Thousand Islands. “Water and rivers run through the whole recording,” he says.
Lost Channels refers to a passage in the St. Lawrence, near one of the recording locations, where a reconnaissance boat from a British warship went missing in 1760. The story of what happened to the ship remains shrouded in mystery to this day. While the ship is not specifically mentioned in the lyrics, they are filled with dramatic images of raging waters, howling winds and dark night skies.
On Friday, June 4, Dekker and the Great Lake Swimmers return to the heart of the Thousand Islands for a special concert in Brockville that will be hosted by Ottawa-based developer Simon Fuller, whose Tall Ships Landing highrise condo complex will soon rise on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in that city.
The free performance is scheduled for the historic Brockville Arts Centre. (Tickets can be obtained by emailing TallShips@Fuller.ca.)
The next night, the Great Lake Swimmers will perform at St. Margaret’s Hall on Wolfe Island. Then, after a tour outside the region, the group returns for a performance at Burlington’s lakeside Spencer Smith Park on June 19 for the Sound of Music Festival, and June 26 at the Clayton Opera House in Clayton, New York, near Gananoque.
Thousand Islands photographer to share the stage
Another key player in the Brockville performance will be photographer Ian Coristine, whose work chronicles the Thousand Islands region. Coristine will introduce his fifth book of photography, The Very Best of Ian Coristine’s Thousand Islands
, at the concert.
Dekker credits Coristine with really opening his eyes to the beauty and the spiritual nature of the Thousand Islands. Previously, it was just one of those places he’d pass on the highway, says Dekker. When he stopped to take in all the islands had to offer, he was hooked forever.
A brainstorming session between the two artists — audio and visual — resulted in the selection of recording locations for the tracks on Lost Channels
, that included Singer Castle on Dark Island, the Brockville Arts Centre and St. Brendan’s Church in nearby Rockport.
Dekker loves to record outside the studio because he says it “opens up sonic possibilities not possible in a studio, allows a sonic quality that can’t be duplicated in other recording locations.
“These locations draw a certain kind of performance from me,” he continues. “It allows me to reach further, to get at what I’m singing about. I try to use the space as my sort of background colour on a canvas.”
The Great Lake Swimmers performed at the April Juno awards in St. John’s, where they were nominees in the Roots & Traditional album category. That came on the heels of a win for Favourite Folk/Roots Group at the Indies Awards, plus being chosen for the short list for the Polaris Music awards that will be announced on June 17.
The group’s music has been described as part indie folk, part roots and alt-country pop. It is a music inspired by Canada’s majestic natural environment in a sense that might remind you of the late Stan Rogers who hailed from Binbrook, not far from Dekker’s native Wainfleet.
The ghost of Hank Williams
Dekker says he was influenced by the late Hank Williams, whose music frequently played on a radio station his parents were partial to while he was growing up. He was particularly impressed by Williams’ ability to break down a complex idea into simple lyrics. The impact on his own work? “Thematically, I’ve tried to be more concise as a songwriter,” he says.
Williams’ haunting voice enthralled generations. While Dekker has not achieved the same fame — yet — his voice has been credited with summoning “ghosts from times past … capable of conveying heartache and comfort, all in the space of a single phrase.” One gets the idea Williams might well approve.
Dekker’s music, which has been called haunting, spiritual and even “sparse, folk-tinged melancholy,” has gained the enthusiastic approval of Feist, Robert Plant, NBC Nightly News
anchor Brian Williams and cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Dekker says he has evolved over his career and now has surrounded himself with a group of people who, having been together for two years, are ready to push the frontiers. “We’ve recently incorporated more up-tempo stuff. We’re still very dreamy, folksy, but now we’re incorporating more folk rock.”
At other times, they’re almost bluegrass, as in The Chorus in the Underground
Dekker, on lead vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica, is joined by Erik Arnesen on banjo, electric guitar and harmonium, Greg Millson on drums, Bret Higgins on upright bass and Julie Fader on keyboards and vocals.