by Ned Morgan
Great Lake Swimmers’ songs evoke wild Canadian landscapes where the only human sound is singer-songwriter Tony Dekker’s voice floating like mist above the treetops. His forlorn, hazy alto is instantly recognizable and his melody lines suggest natural phenomena: wind through trees, waves on sand. The opening song on the latest GLS album New Wild Everywhere begins with the line “What time is it – would you tell me, wolf?” We’re in familiar Dekker songwriting territory: a place where humans live in closer communication with the natural world. Though based in Toronto, Dekker says he needs “open space to work and to get the songs out and to think about them. I pretty much have to isolate myself or ideally be in some kind of natural setting.”
More than a decade ago Dekker started GLS as a solo venture, though it has evolved into a five-piece band. His solo show in Barrie on February 21 does not imply any change to his band but serves, he says, as “a chance to play some of my quieter songs, and maybe try out some new songs, too. And play them in a way that I wouldn’t be able to with the band.”
His songs could be called folk-rock and draw from an American roots tradition but Dekker’s uncommon voice and gift for melody add new dimensions that shift and expand with each album. Up-tempo CBC-friendly singles “She Comes to Me in Dreams” from the last album and “Easy Come, Easy Go” from the current album reveal hummable rock underpinnings and continue to garner nationwide and international acclaim. The band toured Canada, the US and Europe incessantly last year.
I ask Dekker what he’s listening to these days, thinking he must be neck-deep in the Anthology of American Folk Music all the time, but surprisingly he mentions The Books, a US band given to sardonic cut-and-paste experimentation. “They’re very different from the music I make,” he says, “which is potentially why I’m enjoying their records so much.”
Dekker’s nature imagery translates into real-world activism as demonstrated by his involvement in various causes over the years including Riverkeepers, The National Parks Project, and Canadians for the Great Bear. New Wild Everywhere contains “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” which deals with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. And last year the enviro-educational organization Students on Ice invited Dekker to sail to Antarctica on a research vessel, where he performed and held songwriting workshops.
During our phone conversation, Dekker is gracious but not particularly chatty; when I ask him to tell me about the trip, he offers: “It was such an amazing and overwhelming trip and so much for the senses to take in on so many levels. That is something that will find its way into my writing.” I’ll happily wait for the songs.
A commonplace gripe is that the many minor-key GLS songs are “depressing” and it’s easy to see why some listeners might feel this way. Take recent song “The Great Exhale” with its refrain, “I’m drawing over the luminous veil”. This references the suicide barrier, dubbed the Luminous Veil, which was added to Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct in 2003. The song traces the inner world of a suicide. It’s a subject no one wants to talk about and few songwriters will touch. I come away with the impression that Tony Dekker is someone who thinks about the pain of others and brings that into his writing, searching out the poetry and melody and thereby transforming pain into something else. That something else is music, of course – some of the most thoughtful songcraft out there. And that isn’t depressing in the least.