The Story of Gord Downie's Final Songs: When the Artist Becomes the Art

"I know this was a good distraction for him. It gave him an opportunity to do what he loved to do," says Josh Finlayson
The Story of Gord Downie's Final Songs: When the Artist Becomes the Art
Photo: Gordon Hawkins
Josh Finlayson's earliest exposure to Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip came via his Kingston-based friends buzzing about the young outfit, and through catching them himself at Toronto's Hotel Isabella in the late 1980s. Years later, he would meet the frontman as a co-founder of Skydiggers, supporting the Hip at shows in Ottawa and Montreal behind their 1989 debut, Up to Here. The performances would lay the foundation for a personal and professional relationship of nearly three decades, throughout which Finlayson became one of Downie's closest collaborators outside of his beloved band.

"He would often refer to me as 'his oldest Toronto friend,' so I carry that with me," Finlayson tells Exclaim!, recalling how they grew even closer upon Downie making a move to the provincial capital. "He grew up [west of Kingston] in Amherstview, so I think he always felt like sort of a small town guy. I grew up in Toronto, but both his folks were from here, and my mom grew up not far away from the area his mom grew up in. Not that they knew each other, but there were a lot of those connections: family, music, humour. And sports. We were both big hockey fans."

Finlayson and his six strings have remained a near constant in Downie's solo output, culminating with this year's Away Is Mine, a posthumous record that marks the final 10 songs the Hip frontman recorded before his 2017 passing following a battle with terminal brain cancer. It arrives nearly 20 years after the pair first came together for Downie's 2001 solo debut, Coke Machine Glow, an album that Finlayson feels not only helped the late songwriter plant deeper roots in Toronto, but also opened new avenues of artistic expression outside their respective groups.

"That was a little more than 10 years into his career with the Hip, and he had been living in Toronto, and I think he wanted to expand his roots…meeting people and working with people and recording here," Finlayson recalls of the sessions, pointing to contributions from Julie Doiron, the Sadies' Travis Good, By Divine Right's José Contreras, Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn and his Skydiggers bandmate Andy Maize, among others.

Reflecting on that time period, Finlayson speaks warmly of his late friend in sharing how he has always thought of Downie as "a natural collaborator" who encouraged fellow players to be themselves when it came time to create and share ideas.

"Coke Machine Glow was such a left turn from what people knew [Gord] as through the Tragically Hip, but that was intentional," Finlayson explains. "He didn't want to do something like a Hip record, so it was totally a left turn. But I think it cultivated a different audience for him altogether, who maybe weren't Hip fans but were drawn to this because of the way it sounded."

With that in mind, it is fitting that Away Is Mine holds collaboration and distinct sonic palettes as its defining characteristics in bookending Downie's solo catalogue. Here, the 10-song set is presented in both "electric" and "acoustic" versions; the former affixing Downie and Finlayson's guitar-and-vocal sketches with drum loops, synthesizers, fiddle, mandolin and vocal effects, while the latter does away with the studio magic to leave a much more unvarnished view of the pair's artistic process. Finlayson and Downie were joined in-studio by Travis Good, Gord's son Lou Downie, longtime Hip associate Dave "Billy Ray" Koster and engineer Nyles Spencer. The album's soft, pastel-coloured cover comes courtesy of Gord's daughters, Willo and Clare Downie.

"[Gord's] brother Patrick had this great phrase for this record: 'When the artist becomes the art,'" Finlayson notes. "I think that's such an apt expression for Gord, and his life as an artist, and his life once his diagnosis was given to him and what he chose to do with it."

After Coke Machine Glow, Finlayson would appear on 2003's Battle of the Nudes and 2010's The Grand Bounce as a member of Downie's backing band, the Country of Miracles. But Away Is Mine was borne from the live stage, following Finlayson's turn in Downie's Secret Path backing band in late 2016, for what would be the songwriter's final live performances.

In accompanying liner notes, the guitarist explains how, in early 2017 following those shows, Downie had begun work on what was "loosely a book," and told Finlayson that it led to "too much time with himself." Recognizing that his friend's work ethic remained fierce in spite of the circumstances surrounding his health, the guitarist proposed some simple writing and recording instead, and the two soon began trading music and lyrics back and forth.

"It was a good way to spend time with Gord," Finlayson says of their preliminary process. "He loved to work, loved to be busy. He had a terminal illness that was obviously very present in his life all the time. That's a tough thing to coexist with, and I know this was a good distraction for him. It gave him an opportunity to do what he loved to do."

Following the Secret Path performances, Finlayson had kept one of his guitars in an open C tuning, which he had first encountered through players including Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and Taj Mahal. He proposed using the tuning as a template for the songwriting, and the pair took "about a week to 10 days" to write the 10 songs.

Of his open C compositions, Finlayson says with a laugh, "You know if you're a guitar player, if you're playing open tunings, after about three of four songs in one, you go, 'Well, what else am I going to do here?' So that was a challenge for me, but it was a great challenge. In my mind, I'll hear some of these tunes and I'll hear my interpretation of [Cockburn] — not that I can play like him, but it's my take on what he might do or how he might do it. It was quick, too. Very intuitive, very instinctive, and that was certainly an arena that Gord loved to work in."

It was Downie's decision to take the material from acoustic sketches to full-fledged album, recording Away Is Mine over three days at the Hip's Bathouse Recording Studio outside of Kingston in July of 2017, with Spencer behind the boards. The frontman's illness was not a focus of the sessions, and while Finlayson acknowledges Downie's frustration in forgetting a lyric or an arrangement, he feels the faith and familiarity he had with this group was a crucial element of the sessions' success.

"I knew Gord's memory had been compromised from the two operations he had. In preparing for the Hip tour and the Secret Path shows, his short-term memory could be better one day than the next," he explains. "That was on the table with this, too."

"We knew we'd go up [to the Bathouse], and in the back of your mind, you don't totally know what's going to happen. But I think because we had done so much together, so much recording and touring… A lot of it is trust, too. Not just with me, but also with Nyles and Billy Ray, Travis, Patrick. He felt good, I think. And I think he felt very much like he had a purpose."

Admitting that it does sound a bit unromantic to share that Downie's magnetic stage persona "was not necessarily the guy you would know as a person," Finlayson also points to a preparedness the late icon exhibited across his career that was rooted in the act of being present — whether onstage or in-studio.

"Gord was a real ruminator; he would think about things a lot and prepare. Being present was a big part of what I felt he had as a real gift," he shares. "It's not every day, every recording, or every show that you can achieve that. But that's what he was looking for. We talked a lot about that. Anyone from writers, to filmmakers, to athletes; How do you prepare?

"He was channeling something, in my mind, as a performer. As spontaneous and as fluid as he was, a lot of that he prepared so meticulously for. It was quite incredible what he did in the time from his two operations and treatments. You see the private situation, but then you see the public part of it too. For me to witness all of this, it's still really quite remarkable to try and take that all in."

For Finlayson, Away Is Mine ultimately commemorates a friendship and relationship held dear. "The interest and fascination that it's Gord is not lost on me; there's a lot of gratitude," he concludes. "I just feel like it's such a great way for me to honour Gord and to be able to talk about him. It's an opportunity to express the love that I have for him, his family, his bandmates and his creativity. Chances are good that I'll be talking about Gord the rest of my life."