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Five Questions With… Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers

The Toronto-based folk-rock faves turn 15 this year, and they've just released a new record, The Waves, The Wake. In this interview, their leader describes the sonic approach of the album, one recorded in an old church.

Five Questions With… Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers

By Jason Schneider

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Great Lake Swimmers, but the Toronto-based folk-rock unit led by singer-songwriter Tony Dekker continues to look toward the future with its latest release, The Waves, The Wake, out now on Nettwerk Records.


Abandoning the acoustic guitar, the new collection of songs sees the group branching out to include new sounds such as harp, lute, pipe organ, woodwinds, congas and marimbas, alongside the more familiar flecks and chimes of the banjo, piano, and 12-string electric guitar. The stunning acoustics of the historic, 145-year-old Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church in London, Ontario lend the atmospheric touch to the album, under the guidance of co-producer Chris Stringer.

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The record is augmented by some notable names, including arrangements by Drew Jurecka and electric guitar appearances both atmospheric and spirited by Kevin Kane of The Grapes Of Wrath. Longtime collaborators Erik Arnesen (banjo, guitar), Bret Higgins (bass), and Josh Van Tassel (percussion) also contribute their considerable musicianship.

Great Lake Swimmers have twice been nominated for Juno Awards, have been shortlisted for the Polaris Prize, and won a Canadian Indie Award for Favourite Folk/Roots Artist/Group. They have shared the stage as support for such musical luminaries as Robert Plant, Feist, and Calexico, and have appeared as headliners for many of Canada’s major folk festivals. Their relentless touring schedule and countless live shows have helped them develop devoted fan bases across around the world.

Tony Dekker took some time to speak with us as the band kicks off its North American tour in support of The Waves, The Wake, which culminates with a show at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on Nov. 23. For full dates, go to greatlakeswimmers.com.

 

How did you decide to record The Waves, The Wake at Bishop Cronyn Church in London, Ontario?

A few years back we played a show at one of our favourite venues, the Aeolian Hall in London, and they told us about a church they had begun managing in conjunction with the El Sistema music program, how acoustically beautiful it was, and would we like to see it? I was immediately taken with the sound of it and knew right away I wanted to try recording something there. It’s a unique sounding space with giant wooden beams and a vaulted ceiling, not to mention a fully functioning pipe organ, which also found its way onto the album. It was a nice confluence of working with good people, too.

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What songs on the new album are you particularly proud of?

I think the ones where we took more away than we added. “The Real Work” is a good example of that. There’s a very loose arrangement, but it’s also really scaled back. It seemed to work better as we carved more out of it.

The sound of the album is much broader than the stripped-down live shows you've been doing recently. Did you have a sonic vision in mind as you went into making this record?

When I sat down to discuss the project with Chris Stringer, who co-produced the album, it was important to me to approach things in a more minimal way than we have done in the recent past, but there’s definitely an eclectic mix of acoustic instruments like marimbas, harp, lute, congas, and woodwinds that are new to our sound. We’ve been rehearsing the new songs with a new five-piece band, and the idea is to approach the live show the same way we approached making the record, keeping things at a quiet intensity and allowing for the nuances of the songs shine through.

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What's been the biggest change in your life over the past year?

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Being a new parent is undoubtedly part of a larger change in perspective for me in the past year or so. I think the beginnings of that shift and a turn towards some clarity has coincided with the writing of this record to a certain extent. Focusing on a higher level of conscious thought and trying to exist thoughtfully in the present moment has become important to me.

What song by another artist do you wish you had written?

“Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Vince Guaraldi.

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Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Chet Hanks and Tom Hanks attend the world premiere of Apple TV+'s "Masters Of The Air" at Regency Village Theatre on Jan. 10, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

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