Great Lake Swimmers Dive In

Great Lake Swimmers Dive In
Like Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash before him, Tony Dekker was once a solitary man. His band, Great Lake Swimmers, personified loneliness with their weightless arrangements, canyons of space between acoustic guitar chords, and Dekker’s lost choirboy vocals that sounded almost smothering in their empathy. Desolate, yes, but desperate? No. As lonely as he sounded, Dekker’s vocals were always confident and firm; even if his lyrical voice didn’t believe he would ever see the sun again, his delivery suggested otherwise.

Besides, Dekker has found that solitude hasn’t been an option, not since the Great Lake Swimmers’ demure debut CD-R started a snowball effect in 2003 that’s led to endless touring and now an international deal with Nettwerk, where his third album, Ongiara, found a home.

The record’s centerpiece track is called "I Am Part of a Large Family.” To celebrate, the former introvert invited fellow travellers into his insular world, the kind of guests that might have intimidated him four years ago: vocalists Serena Ryder and Sarah Harmer, string arranger Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) and guitarist Bob Egan (Blue Rodeo). Dekker is also heard on the latest Do Make Say Think album, and last fall found himself fronting Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and covering Joni Mitchell for a CBC tribute to The Last Waltz.

And in the strangest meeting of minds in the Canadian roots scene, Dekker was paired with loudmouth Hootenanny queen Carolyn Mark for an episode of CBC Radio’s Fuse. "I think she described it best, when she said it was like putting a scorpion and a mouse in a tank together and seeing what happens,” Dekker chuckles. "By the end of it I was like, ‘Yes, Ms. Mark. Yes, Ms. Mark.’ It was actually a lot of fun. I had admired her music from a distance for a long time, and when the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance.”

The man who sang about "changing skins” on 2005’s Bodies and Minds now boldly announces: "I became awake from a very dark place/ a patchwork of fear.” Dekker speaks matter-of-factly about the gradual evolution into an extrovert, in a tiny, wood-panelled Polish bar in Toronto’s west end. His soft speaking voice competes with a deafening jukebox, which has decided to drown him out with the unlikely sounds of Wide Mouth Mason’s discofied non-hit "Change.” "You go through a hardship or a hard time in your life, and you write these sad songs,” Dekker explains in second person. "Then time passes, and that hard time is over, but you’re still left with these sad songs. It’s no reason not to move on. I wouldn’t say that this record is completely moving on from that, because I don’t think that the implicit melancholy or sadness in them is necessarily acute. "Things have evened out for me,” he continues. "Plus, I spent a lot of time on the road, and time changes things. I would say I’m in a better place. I’m moving forward musically and just trying to write the best songs I can.”

His current inspiration comes from his peers, from early recordings of North American folk music, and from classics that he grew up with and learned to cover recently: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Dead Kennedys… wait a minute, what was that last one?

"It was a natural pick,” insists the unlikeliest punk rocker, heard on the CBC this winter covering "Kill the Poor” for a show about censorship. "I obviously don’t make the kind of music that the Dead Kennedys do,” he laughs, "but that style of music was important to me in my formative years, as was the idea that everyone should start a band, be a part of music and that music is in all of us. We all have a right to express that and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Dead Kennedys are a great example of that because of their politics and because they weren’t just delivering the message: they were the message. To fully believe in what you’re doing that much, to unflinchingly devote your life to it, I found inspiring.” Dekker doesn’t get political on Ongiara, but he does edge closer to becoming explicitly spiritual. Though he prefers not to extrapolate, songs like "Where in the World Are You,” "There is a Light” and "Your Rocky Spine” delve into the divine, as manifested in natural wonder, and as a respite from life during wartime. "The best songs that are seen as political, aren’t in fact overtly political, or could be interpreted in lots of different ways,” says Dekker. "It’s very difficult to do that well, to be political and say something specific about a very specific thing and a specific time, without being heavy handed and trite. The best political songs are love songs, I think.”