Five Questions With… Pressgang Mutiny’s Stefan Read
This Toronto quartet has delivered shantified material since 2013 and has just released a second album, Across The Western Ocean. Here one of the members describes that record, its favourite songs, the thrill of seeing sea shanties go viral, and engaging with fans of the genre online.
By Jason Schneider
The sea shanty craze of early 2021 caught everyone by surprise, but not the members of Pressgang Mutiny. The Toronto quartet has actually been keeping the tradition alive since 2013, performing both traditional material and putting a sea shanty spin on a range of contemporary songs.
In fact, the group had its sophomore album Across The Western Ocean in the can long before the first sea shanty hit TikTok, meaning the timing couldn’t be more ideal for it to now be officially released in Canada.
Across the Western Ocean balances the tight harmonies and ruggedness that has made Pressgang Mutiny a festival favourite across North America and Europe. The album’s 13 tracks offer a fresh and relevant take on sea music, combining traditional shanty work songs with contemporary pieces by Jonathan Byrd, Martin Green, and Anais Mitchell.
What makes Pressgang Mutiny unique is that two members, Stefan Read and Tim Pyron, developed their love of sea shanties by actually working as tall ship sailors. Their experience balances the extensive musical backgrounds of Richard Kott and James McKie, the latter a widely respected multi-instrumentalist who’s played with everyone from David Francey to The Lemon Bucket Orchestra.
Together, they are dedicated to showcasing a vital tradition of work songs that represents the world's first truly multicultural music to new and familiar audiences alike, all while celebrating the joy of group singing. Across The Western Ocean is available through pressgangmutiny.com, Bandcamp and all digital platforms.
What makes Across the Western Ocean stand apart from your past work?
This album reflects the very real evolution of our singing over the last three years. Our quartet has had the benefit of performing together regularly and there's a tightness and coherence to the harmonies and arrangements that is a step-change from our other releases. We also had the pleasure of working with Aaron Comeau and Mike Romaniak on the recording, mixing, and mastering, and that brought a sensitivity and understanding to the sound that allows each voice to shine individually and as a collective. This is the material we've loved singing the most over the past few years, recorded at a pace, in a setting, and with a team that just made it sound right. We're very proud of this record.
It's obviously a great time to release the album given the current interest in sea shanties. What do you make of how that craze started?
It has been an absolute thrill ride for us. We've always known the sense of joy and connection that comes from belting out a great, catchy chorus together and helping others find that is a passion for us. Seeing it happen over TikTok was a surprise, but the fact that so many people have connected with the opportunity to sing together with others is no surprise at all. Our biggest takeaway is that there are so many ways to connect with lovers of music and singing that don't involve the traditional paths of recording albums and doing concerts, and we're really excited to be finding our way on those platforms now too. Full credit to Nathan Evans—who started the shanty craze on TikTok—and The Longest Johns—who have become the poster band for it—for figuring that out well before we did!
Which songs on the new album do you feel particularly show off your strengths as a group?
The album as a whole demonstrates our range as well as our dedication to doing shanties “right,” but our way. There are some classics like Blow the Man Down that anyone with a passing familiarity with shanties will know and enjoy. There are also some fresh takes on well-known songs like Old Maui, which incorporates a change from the traditional minor key to the major key as a nod to some singers we and others know and love from Liverpool. That song in particular highlights the power of our harmonies. And then there are some surprises from outside the sea shanty canon, such as Anais Mitchell and Martin Green's Roll Away or Jonathan Byrd's Poor Johnny. Those songs are a bit more narrative but with the arrangements we've given them they blend seamlessly into the rest of the album.
How have you adapted to engaging with your audience since the pandemic began?
Believe it or not, we've actually gotten better at connecting with our audience over this time. The content from TikTok, which we post on our other social channels, has been a great way to engage and spark conversation. We have also been gaining new followers with some targeted outreach to audiences who might be a bit tangential to sea shanties. One of our biggest successes, for example, has been reaching out to fans of a video game called Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, which features sea shanties! We've also engaged with an online community of shanty enthusiasts, and they've been great about supporting us and giving us guidance—including helping with our website design. The key for us has just been a steady stream of new and interesting content coupled with genuinely engaging in dialogue with the core sea shanty fans.
What's your mindset looking ahead to the prospect of hopefully performing live in the near future?
We can't wait. There's nothing like singing together and with our expanded audience we're really excited about the next chapter. We have a couple of projects that we're chomping at the bit to get going on, including a regular, open mic-style sea shanty sing here in Toronto. So stay tuned and follow us on Facebook and Spotify, so you don't miss a thing!