If it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, as the cliché goes, then the image on the cover of the new Great Lake Swimmers album, Lost Channels, speaks volumes about where head Swimmer Tony Dekker is coming from as a lyricist. It’s a picture of a palm print, but at first glance it looks as if it might be something else: an etching of a mountain, perhaps, or maybe an aerial photograph of a river basin. The ambiguity is fitting, since Dekker often uses the landscape of the human body as a symbol for the environment in which it exists, and vice versa.
“A lot of it has to do with growing up in a really rural environment and in a small town,” he says, reached at home in Toronto. “I grew up in a farming community in Southern Ontario, on the northeast shore of Lake Erie—a place called Wainfleet, Ontario. I think that a lot of that early imagery is the imagery that has stuck with me, and when it comes to writing about something that I feel like I have a unique perspective on, those kinds of things keep coming up. As a writer, I’ve found that there’s some sort of value in finding this parallel between the natural world and our relationship to it.”
Dekker gives the same consideration to a decidedly more urban environment in “Concrete Heart”, a cello-burnished ode to T.O. on which he sings: “This is the place where I felt/Like the world’s tallest self-supporting tower/Or maybe number two.”
Dekker also finds himself drawn to different places to record his music. The first Great Lake Swimmers album, an eponymous effort from 2003, was recorded in an abandoned grain silo, and its songs are bathed in gorgeous natural reverb.
“At first it was all about the acoustics,” Dekker says. “I wanted to have a real sound in a place, the type of sound you can’t get from a little box or from a recording studio—which in the past I found to be kind of stifling, really. I wanted to get in a live space that sounded like there was people playing in a room, and that there was a really great natural and organic sound to things.”
For Lost Channels, which comes out on Tuesday (March 31), Dekker and company decamped to the Thousand Islands archipelago, which straddles the Canada–U.S. border on the St. Lawrence River. They rolled tape in evocative locales like St. Brendan’s, an old wooden church overlooking the river in Rockport, Ontario, and Singer Castle, an imposing stone structure on Dark Island. For Dekker, recording in such spots has become about more than the sound of the finished product. “Over the last bunch of records that we’ve done, I started to realize that recording in a space that is charged with a certain energy, it really draws a certain kind of performance out of you, and it becomes central to the whole creative process,” he says.
The Thousand Islands vibe must have been a positive one, because Lost Channels is a beautiful record, one that finds the Swimmers moving confidently toward folk-rock on “She Comes to Me in Dreams” and lighting out for string-band country on “The Chorus in the Underground”. As for where the project will take him next, Dekker doesn’t know.
“I haven’t really thought too much about how I want to approach the next recording yet,” he says, “but hopefully something will turn up.”
This is the part where the Swimmers’ local fans pipe up and let Dekker know that we have some lovely islands here on the West Coast.
Great Lake Swimmers play at St. James Hall on Sunday (March 29) and at UBC’s Norm Theatre on Monday (March 30).