Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker looks outward
Sometimes you’ve just got to speak out. For Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekker, that time came in April 2010, when a British Petroleum–owned oil well ruptured and started spewing thick black crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Alarmed by the news, Dekker grabbed a guitar and within minutes was working on a song, “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife”, which he’s since recorded twice: once for the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper environmental organization’s website, and more recently for the Swimmers’ just-released New Wild Everywhere.
It’s too soon to say if the tune marks a bigger turn towards activism, but it’s certainly a change of direction for the low-key Torontonian.
“That’s the first song that even approaches being political that I’ve ever tried to write,” he explains, speaking to the Straight from a tour bus en route to a concert in Brest, France. “It’s a very delicate art, for sure, to pull that off in a way that doesn’t sound preachy, or that doesn’t sound trite. So this was more of an emotional response to the people who lost their livelihood on that coast, especially the fishermen.”
Now, to be clear, “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to get environmentalists storming the barricades at DFO headquarters. It’s more sympathetic than angry, with a clucking banjo melody that’s anything but anthemic. But it does find Dekker reaching out of his usual introversion toward a greater sense of connection with the world, and it’s not the only track on New Wild Everywhere with this open-hearted agenda.
“Parkdale Blues”, for instance, belies its title by delivering an affectionate portrait of the Toronto locale Dekker calls home. “It’s a really interesting neighbourhood,” he says. “I love it a lot, but there’s this kind of dark current through it, too. It used to be a really affluent neighbourhood, and then it kind of fell into disrepair, I guess. At a certain point of time, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, it was like the wild west end of Toronto, and it was a bit of a circus. And now it’s undergoing… I guess you could say gentrification, in a way, but it’s just a really interesting mix of people.”
For sheer energy and optimism, though, New Wild Everywhere’s title track might be the finest thing Dekker and the Swimmers have ever recorded. It’s all green shoots and sunshine, and it practically demands to be played loud, preferably on a fine spring morning.
Considering that the track runs for only three minutes and 47 seconds, it’s surprising to find out that it started out as approximately 24 stanzas of blank verse.
“That came out of a really long poem that I was writing,” Dekker reveals. “I’d kind of put it away for a while, and then when I thought maybe there might be a song in there somewhere, those words kind of leapt off the page. I didn’t realize how much gravity was there when I was initially writing it.”
“Gravity” might seem like an odd way of describing something so buoyant, but Dekker could be onto something. New Wild Everywhere rings with the sound of a band that’s found a new sense of purpose—and it’ll be interesting to see where the Swimmers go from here.
Great Lake Swimmers plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (May 11).