Whether as a solo performer or fronting the terrific Canadian indie-folk/roots band, The Great Lake Swimmers, Tony Dekker writes thoughtful and moving music. In every song, there’s a story to be heard, an adventure to imagine, or an experience to which we can all relate. The music is personal and personable, and they are reasons why Dekker and his fellow bandmates have established a strong and loyal following not just in Canada but also abroad. Despite his success, there’s not an ounce of pretension or conceit. Like the music he writes, he is calm, attentive, intelligent, and humble. However, before he goes on stage or returns for his encore, he is nervous, almost jittery, but you would never know this when he stands in front of the crowd.
During his performance at the iconic Wakefield, Quebec institution, The Black Sheep Inn, Dekker tells stories to the crowd and fondly reflects on his first performance at The Inn ten years ago. He thanks the crowd for its patience after he encounters some technical difficulties to start the show, and he rewards them by taking requests at the end. No pretension, no conceit. Just a man and his guitar playing to an appreciative audience.
I spoke with Tony Dekker before his performance at The Black Sheep Inn three weeks ago. We talk about his solo album, his journey that started more than 10 years ago, and what awaits him and the band in the coming years.
Why write a solo album?
I was doing some demos and writing some new songs, and once I started getting the ideas down it became pretty obvious that I didn’t need the whole band on them, and that they were sounding good on their own. I wanted to make the distinction between the band songs and my solo work. I originally thought of doing a tour of playing songs mainly from the first Great Lake Swimmers album, which was mostly guitar and voice, and which I toured solo with when it first came out. That was 10 years ago. I was initially going to do a tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first album, which was essentially a solo album. But once I started working on these songs, it became pretty clear that I could tour with new material. I wanted to do something different, although it’s not a drastic departure in the songwriting or essential sound from the band aspect of Great Lake Swimmers. I feel like the band has become its own entity and I wanted to do something really stripped down again, as in, mostly guitar and vocals with some accents of other instruments. I also wanted the challenge of playing all of the instruments on the record myself.
How long did it take you to put the whole album together?
I was writing a lot in the spring, but really the focus of it – finishing it and recording it – was done in a span of a couple of months.
Yeah, that’s another reason why I wanted to do this in that I wanted to do something a bit more spontaneous, well, not spontaneous, but more raw. I didn’t want to overthink it. I wanted it to get recorded and ready for a release in the fall.
From where did the name of the album, Prayer for the Woods, come?
I’ve been trying to hike sections of the Bruce Trail, which extends from the Niagara region to Tobermory in Ontario. I was north of Toronto and I was on a side trail in the Glen Haffy Conservation Area, and there was a big wooden carved sign at the trailhead with this beautiful, anonymous poem written on it, “Prayer of the Woods”. It was really nice to see a piece of poetry out in the middle of the woods, and so I was inspired to put it to music and make it into a song. It seemed to fit thematically with the other songs I was working on as well. It has a conservationist angle to it, which I liked. It seemed like a good thematic statement.
This album, like previous, does seem to tie the themes of nature and relationships together.
For sure. These are themes that are throughout the Great Lake Swimmers records. These things should co-mingle and overlap – people and their surroundings.
What was the band reaction of you going solo?
Well, they were fine with this. We’ve already started working on a new album and everyone is busy on other projects, so it worked out just fine.
So when can we expect a new album?
If all goes well, hopefully next year. Once I’m finished with this tour, I plan to go back to working on a full band album. We’ll probably start again just before Christmas and into the new year and then we’ll go from there.
So can fans of The Great Lake Swimmers expect to see the band on the tour again next year?
Oh yeah, most likely we’ll tour with the full band.
On your album, you end with a Gordon Lightfoot song, “Carefree Highway”. What was the inspiration and why?
For one, I just really like the song, and I wanted to present it in a different way than the original. It’s a great song, and I wanted it to break it down. For me, I thought it would be an interesting take, at least for me, to strip the song down into its components – you know, just guitar and vocal. I also really like singing it, and I thought it would be a nice tribute to a great Canadian songwriter.
Is it also a reflection of your own journey? As you mentioned, it’s been 10 years since you released the first Great Lake Swimmers album?
Yeah, a little bit. Overall, there’s this other theme of the record. I feel like it would be a really good driving record. You know, something you can put on when you’re driving late at night and listen to.
When you look back on the past 10 years, especially your tour in support of the first album and this one, are there any similarities or differences? Did this tour bring back any memories?
There was definitely a symmetry. I just got back from the west coast, and I was just remembering the first tour that I did, opening for the Two-Minute Miracles and going across Canada in 2003. I stopped at a lot of the same places. Some of the places have changed, but some haven’t. There was definitely a familiarity with some of the places, like here at The Black Sheep.
It just blows my mind that people have followed us for so long.
What’s the biggest difference between touring solo and with the band?
The biggest difference was that it was nice to feel unencumbered and to not have to take care of a full band. I can change the set list, add songs or take away songs. I can do that with the band to some extent, but not in the middle of a show so much. We’re very well rehearsed, and we’re a very good functioning band but not so in that I can just throw something out there and everyone will pick it up.
It was also nice to take detours. On this tour, I’ve been able to stop and actually look at things. I can stop at national parks, for example, and not feel like we’re on the clock. So in a lot of ways, it’s been re-energizing for me to play solo.
With a lot of artists – whether they’re from Canada or anywhere else abroad – flocking to the US, what’s your experience and take in being an independent artist from and based in Canada?
I find that, in general, there is a unique sense of camaraderie among independent musicians in Canada. I’ve really felt that over the last decade of touring across the continent. It is completely possible to be an artist and to exist, live, and work in Canada, whereas maybe in the early days of the Canadian music industry that might have been a lot more difficult. I think the dynamic has changed, with Canada becoming better equipped to support its own artists.
There are a whole set of other challenges with being an independent artist in Canada, not to mention the incredible distances between major cities, but overall, on a personal level, I’m content with how things have gone with my band.
Have you or the band ever considered changing your sound and signing with a major record label to achieve greater success, kind of like Mumford and Sons?
That thought has never crossed my mind. I’m not interested in making music that is compromised on any level, and wouldn’t want to make music with that end result in mind, you know, with that kind of mainstream target. There are bands that do that and there are entities out there to help them do that, but it’s not the way this band has evolved. No disrespect to that type of music, but it’s not the type of music that I’m interested in writing. I strive to write the best songs I can and present ideas and do so without compromise. Our music has a roots-oriented sound with a DIY aspect to it. Everyone in the band definitely has a respect for roots music, and everyone brings their own version of it to the table.
I’ve always felt more comfortable in the folk world. There are so many different tangents and elements and permutations of it, and there is a lot to explore there.
How far have you toured?
We’ve toured around the world, and have been lucky to be able to tour regularly in Europe, the UK, and the US, which has been great because we’ve been able to build an audience there from our early records and tours. I did a tour in Australia a number of years ago. We were also invited to do a tour in China a couple of years ago. We’ve played at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Junos, have been nominated twice for the Junos, and shortlisted for the Polaris, so we’ve been fortunate to do a lot through this band.
Ten years ago when you decided to produce the record, did you imagine that you would have achieved the success that you have?
Actually, no. I really didn’t think the first record would go beyond a small circle of friends and family. I printed a couple hundred of them, and I thought that would be it. So it’s gone way beyond my expectations, for sure. When I think about it, everything past that time has been extra.
So was the first album just something you wanted to do and see what would happen?
Yeah, I had songs that I was working on, and I wanted to share them my friends and family. A lot of people really responded to and accepted the first record and the records that followed as well. That turned a compulsion into a career – it was just something I felt compelled to do. It’s been an interesting journey so far.
What do you mean by an interesting journey? Lots of highs and lows? Other things?
Yeah, a lot of life things for sure. There’s a reason why not everyone is a musician – but then again, it seems like a lot of people are these days, because it’s really easy to make a record and it seems like every band is on the road, in addition to that. But to have any type of longevity, you definitely need a certain kind of stamina and drive.
So what’s been the key to your longevity?
I think our fans aren’t passive. They’ve stuck with us throughout the years, and they’ll buy the next record when it comes out. The people that are into our music stick with it, and we grow with them, too. It’s kind of interesting in that often we see the same faces in the audience. The first time could have been a couple’s first date. And then the next time they’re engaged. And then we’ll come around a year later or two years later, and they got married and they tell us they played some of our songs at their wedding. The next time we see them, it’s their first time out since they’ve had their baby. And then the next time, they bring their babies to the show, like if it’s an outdoor festival or whatever. It feels like that’s the kind of fan base that we have.
I also think the music appeals to many ages and generations. There are older folks who bring their kids to our show. You know, it’s kind of a cross-generational experience. I’m not sure why, but we’ve been lucky to have a small audience of many different kinds of people. It just blows my mind that people have followed us for so long.
Have you ever thought about including more electric guitar in your future work?
I love playing the electric guitar, but I find that to be really easy. It’s easy to turn up things really loud and play hard. I find it more of a challenge to be subtle and play quieter music. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing it on my own or with friends, but I always thought it would be way too easy. I’ve played in art-rock bands and scrappy, little art-punk bands when I was a teenager, but I find there’s a lot more nuance and subtlety in acoustic music which why I am drawn to it.
I love playing the electric guitar, but I find that to be really easy. It’s easy to turn up things really loud and play hard. I find it more of a challenge to be subtle and play quieter music.
I always wondered this about you – when did you “discover” your voice?
I don’t know. I think it was always been there. I started writing songs and playing guitar at the same time. I learned a couple of chords and immediately starting writing songs when I was 15 or 16. Yeah, I don’t know. It was always there. It was just a matter of expressing it.
You’re on the road a lot, crisscrossing this vast country of ours and abroad. So how do you pass the time?
I listen to a lot of music and sometimes audiobooks. Sometimes I’m able to write when I’m not driving, and sometimes while I’m driving, which isn’t all that safe.
Are you writing with a pad and paper or texting on your cell?
Both actually. (laughing) I prefer the pen and paper, but it’s not always handy. The phone is usually within arms’ length, so it’s easy to take notes.
How do you keep touring different and interesting every time?
It’s different by nature, by default. Every room, every show is going to be different. And I think the songs are designed to be like that too. I don’t think there are any songs in the catalogue that I find boring, or that I’m over. So, it hasn’t become or gotten old for me. The songs are built to last.
Are there favourite places you like to play?
Definitely The Black Sheep Inn. I was just thinking about this earlier today. They were the first ones to give me a show in the early days without knowing much, if anything, about my music or me. They just gave me a chance to play. The shows are always quite good here, and it’s a really nice feeling. I like Wakefield a lot with the huge Gatineau River out front, and the community is really nice.
There are a lot of others to name. On this particular tour, I had a great couple of shows in the Kootenays. One was at couple’s house, and they open their home to touring musicians up in Kimberley, B.C. They call it the Driftwood House, people drift in and do shows basically in their living room. It’s really great.
And then there’s this little lodge on the west side of the mountains called Little Slocan Lodge, which was a real delight to play. It’s at the top of a little logging service road. It was really cool to be situated up there with nature and surrounded by the beautiful landscape.
How important is it for you and the band to connect with your fans?
It’s important, but sometimes it’s difficult and not always possible, especially with the band that has a really tight schedule. We’ve also graduated to venues that are a little bit bigger, so that makes it harder. But that’s one of the great things about doing this solo tour is that it’s nice to feel a little bit more connected and to play smaller, more intimate shows.
Ever think about doing a collaboration with other Canadian independent artists?
It’s not something I’ve thought about, but it’s not out of the question. I wouldn’t be the one who would start it up, though. The band keeps me quite busy, and I’m happy with where we’re at.
What’s on your rider?
Usually a couple of local beers and a bottle of nice red wine.
That’s pretty simple, so nothing like J-Lo?
Yep, I’m pretty easy, but you’re making me feel like I should come up with something elaborate. (laughing)
With whom would you like to collaborate – dead or alive?
Oh, that’s a tough one. No one I could think of right now. I’m happy with where I’m at right now.
Who would you want to play you in a movie?
Geez, I really don’t want to know. Can I play myself?
OK. I’ll play me.
What have you been listening to while on the road?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Gillian Welch. I’ve also been listening to Roger Miller, which has been great. We have a really good 3-disc set by him, which is amazing. I’ve also come recently across this artist from the Winnipeg area, and her name is Jenny Berkel. I’ve been really digging her record. Guy Clark has also been in our rotation.
Vinyl, CD, MP3, other?
Vinyl is my mode of choice.
What are you reading right now?
I just picked up the new Joseph Boyden book, The Orenda. I haven’t cracked the spine yet, but it’s the next book I’ll read. I’ve also got his book of short stories called, Born with a Tooth, which I’m almost finished reading.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
I was working at a film company at the time when I released the first album, so I might still be doing something like that.
What’s your favourite movie?
I’m a really big Wes Anderson fan, from “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, “The Darjeeling Limited”, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “Life Aquatic”. I love how he uses music in his movies.
Do you have a favourite actor or actress?
My favourite actor is Martin Donovan, specifically his work in the Hal Hartley films, especially the early ones.
What would your last meal be?
A few dozen gulf coast oysters on the half shell.
Which venue would you like to play in one day?
Massey Hall in Toronto.
Do you have a bucket list?
Not really. I’m pretty content with things. There are things I want to do, but I don’t think it’s necessary to cross them off of a list. I also try not to differentiate what I want to do personally with what I want to do musically because I feel like they are both the same adventure.
What’s the next 10 years going to look like?
I don’t know. In some ways, I feel like I’m just getting started. I feel like I have a lot more work to do and lots of music in me, that I have more songs to write and share. More of the same, I hope.
And you can stream Prayer of the Woods on Exclaim!
Nov. 9 – Prague, CZ – Pilot House*
Nov. 10 – Berlin, GER – Urban Spree Galerie*
Nov. 12 – Gothenburg, SWE – Pustervik*
Nov. 13 – Stockholm, SWE – Debaser*
Nov. 14 – Stavanger, NOR – Folken*
Nov. 16 – Ottersum, NL – Roepaen*
Nov. 18 – Newcastle, UK – The Cluny*
Nov. 19 – Manchester, UK – Roadhouse*
Nov. 20 – Leeds, UK – Belgrave Music Hall*
Nov. 21 – Dublin, IRE – Whelan’s*
Nov. 22 – Coventry, UK – The Tin at The Coal Vaults*
Nov. 25 – London, UK – Lexington*
Nov. 26 – Bristol, UK – St. Bonaventure’s*
Nov. 27 – Aachen, GER – Musicbunker*
Nov. 28 – Diksmuide, BEL – 4AD
Nov. 30 – Utrecht, NL – Le Mini Who? (12:00 show)
Nov. 30 – Brussels, BEL – Klein Mercelis Theater
Dec. 1 – Schorndorf, GER – Club Manufaktur*
Dec. 2 – St. Gallen, SUI – Palace*
Dec. 3 – Zurich, SUI – Exil Club*
* denotes with Califone
Follow The Revue On...
Share This Article On...