Sometimes changing things up isn’t necessary, but that didn’t stop Great Lake Swimmers founder Tony Dekker from doing just that on this year’s The Waves, the Wake.
To listen to the seventh album by the beautifully downbeat Ontario ambient-folk unit is to conclude that the status quo was no longer interesting for the singer-guitarist. Over its 15-year run, Great Lake Swimmers has built a reputation as the kind of band you reach for when the storm clouds are gathering in November and you’re hunkered down in a log cabin near Tofino, 100 Mile House, or the wilds of Cascadia.
In some ways, that still works for The Waves, the Wake, except that Dekker has chosen to swap out acoustic guitars for instruments somewhat outside his comfort zone, including marimba, harmonium, cello, violin, and harp. The results are, as usual, stunning in a way that makes you long for the West Coast rains (or, if you prefer, Ontario snowfalls).
That the sonic recalibrating of Great Lake Swimmers worked out as seamlessly as it did pleases Dekker, mostly because there was a period when he wondered what the hell he was doing.
“When I was writing for the record, I was really feeling a shift in perspective,” the laid-back Ontarian says, on the line from Toronto. “I think part of that had to do with new parenthood and all that comes with that. I was really searching for something new, but what exactly I was searching for I didn’t really know, and I’m still not sure. I do know that I went through this period where I really had to get over this hurdle of having a new perspective on my writing. And while it took me a while to get over that hurdle, once I broke through I feel like I really tapped into something to where the floodgates opened.”
As Dekker hints, he eventually ended up with an embarrassment of riches on The Waves, the Wake, drawing heavily on Toronto musicians outside of his normal circle of collaborators.
“Doing something different on this record definitely took some work, for sure,” he says. “There was a lot of reflection, and a lot of deep thinking. I think that ended up being reflected in the music. With the last couple of albums, we’ve had this more or less regular backing band, even though our members change with every album, if you go back over our seven albums now. With this one, the Toronto music community—and extending beyond that as well—sort of became the backing band as we zeroed in on the instruments we wanted to use. That opened up a lot of avenues as we got into some really interesting collaborations with different people who were super specialized and skilled at their instruments.”
Recorded in an old church, the record heads for previously uncharted territory right off the top, with “The Talking Wind” marked with wavering flute and soft-focus clarinet, “In a Certain Light” built around back-porch banjo, and “Falling Apart” spotlighting the regal harp-playing of Mary Lattimore. Great Lake Swimmers serves up pop at its most ethereal and ghostly on the marimba-powered “Holding Nothing Back”, dives headfirst into rattling ghost-town country with “Root Systems”, and even plays things straight-ahead with the sunny MOR pop number “Alone but Not Alone”.
Linking The Waves, the Wake to Great Lake Swimmers’ back catalogue is Dekker’s continuing interest in exploring themes of solitude, the power of nature, and how we all feel just a bit better when we find ourselves off the grid—with the bonus of no cell service. It’s no accident that the album kicks off with “I’ve been talking with the wind a lot,” from “The Talking Wind”.
Asked if he wrote The Waves, the Wake somewhere beautiful—like Tofino, 100 Mile House, or the base of Mount Baker—Dekker suggests that sometimes getting inside your own head is as important as getting away from it all.
“For this one, it was more about creating mental space than physical space,” he offers. “I can’t say that the record is really tied to a particular place. My journey with this record was more of an internal one than an external one. If that makes sense.”
The lyrics—filled with references not only to the wind, but also to waves—hint there were some difficult-to-navigate times, which makes sense given that Dekker wrote the album while he was riding the wonderful, insane roller coaster of having a kid.
“I noticed that waves kept coming up in a lot of the songs, and that there were little bridges in the songs that provided a sort of synchronicity,” he says. “I also feel that wave is a pretty loaded word, as is the wake, and then putting those two words together works on a couple of different levels. Waves, the way I see it, is about pushing towards the future, and wake is the trail behind which you have to navigate. It’s all about trying to find a place in the centre of that, to find a balance between those two things.”
Dekker has done a masterful job of finding that balance on The Waves, the Wake, which has enough connections to the past to satisfy long-time fans of Great Lake Swimmers even while the singer looks to the future and moves forward as an artist.
“Making this record made me realize how much time I used to have,” he relates. “When you don’t have it, you’re like, ‘Remember the days when everything was a little freer?’ But I couldn’t be happier about the way that everything turned out. It’s been a great challenge.”
Great Lake Swimmers plays the Imperial on September 21.