The roar of a chain saw is audible in the background when Rachelle van Zanten answers her cellphone, but it's not horror-movie mayhem that's causing the racket; the rootsy blues-rocker is working in the bush in Houston, B.C., pruning spruce trees for forest-fire mitigation. From the time she could walk, van Zanten was hiking, running, and riding horseback in the Francois Lake area of northern B.C., and now she spends all her nonmusical time fighting forest fires or working with tree-planting companies, staying as close to nature as possible.
“It's a big part of who I am,” she declares, “and a big part of my music.”
Van Zanten's abiding love of the natural world—and her deep desire to protect it—can be heard on her new album, Where Your Garden Grows. Take a song like “My Country”, which was inspired by the environmental efforts of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.
“They have done incredible things to protect the Skeena watershed from being obliterated by Royal Dutch Shell, with their coal-bed methane-gas wells,” she says, “so I was very inspired to protect my lake and the rivers around it and join their fight to keep the water clean up here.”
Before recording Where Your Garden Grows van Zanten set off on a musical pilgrimage throughout the U.K. and Europe, hanging out with British rockers—including members of Robert Plant's band and Mick Jagger's brother Chris, whom she describes as “a great country artist”—and visiting Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in Box Wiltshire, England. Gabriel's sound engineer introduced the 33-year-old singer, songwriter, guitarist, and keyboardist to famed knob-twiddler Tchad Blake, whose credits include Paul Simon, Tom Waits, and Pearl Jam. After being won over by her material, Blake agreed to mix van Zanten's latest disc at his Mongrel Studio near Bath, England.
The folksy stylings of van Zanten's 2006 solo debut, Back to Francois, have been usurped on her latest CD by a more rocking approach, with her slide-guitar work featured prominently throughout, particularly on the primal opener, “Showerhead”, and the Zeppelinesque instrumental “Black Horse”. She's a big fan of American slide specialists such as Derek Trucks and Ben Harper, but her main bottleneck influence is Pender Island's Lester Quitzau.
“I've been playing slide for eight years or more,” she points out, “so it's a big part of my writing. It's my second voice, for sure.”
Rachelle van Zanten plays the Railway Club tonight (October 8).