Published Mar 25, 2012On the evening of February 15, the international viewership of American Idol was exposed to a song called "Your Rocky Spine" by Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers. The scene featured a likable contestant being asked to leave the show (or perhaps even the country ― it was very dramatic) and the melancholy banjo riff of the tune (from 2007's Ongiara) in the background gave the sequence the appropriate amount of hopeful gravitas.
The quiet, inventive folk band's music isn't something you'd normally associate with the bombast of such a show, which has dipped in ratings this year and is divisive among music fans who enjoy bands like Great Lake Swimmers. Twitter responses that night ranged from @mdsmith29's "good for them to have that sort of exposure. But too bad it had to be on that program" to @aflagpolemusic's "i'm deeply concerned that may be one of the 7 signs of the apocalypse." The band's founder and songwriting brain trust Tony Dekker also received varied messages from friends who mixed congrats with incredulity and, while he recognizes that being featured on American Idol is significant, he takes it in stride.
"I mean, it is what it is," he says diplomatically of the show. "It's clearly filling some sort of cultural void, otherwise it wouldn't exist. And maybe that cultural void or gap is closing and that's why it's maybe on its way out. Or maybe it's not; I'm pretty far removed from that whole world, so I'm not sure that I could speak with any authority on that."
While Dekker's perspective here is understandable, it's fair to say that his world of unconventional artistic risks and grassroots connection is colliding with one full of normalcy, more direct songwriting, and mainstream affirmation. After spending the last decade asking engineer Andy Magoffin to set up shop in grain silos, churches, concert halls, and even Singer Castle on the Thousand Islands near the Ontario/New York border, the band entered Toronto's Revolution Recording studio to make their fifth album, New Wild Everywhere.
"They've been collecting all kinds of great, vintage gear and they're fully analog capable, which is cool," Dekker explains. "I was talking to Andy, whom we'd asked to step into more of a producer's role after working with him for years on all of our earlier records. I wanted to put the reigns in his hand and he was really excited to see what we could do in, I guess, a proper studio. He arranged it for us and, I mean, it turned out better than I thought it would even."
Aside from "The Great Exhale," which was field recorded in Toronto's Lower Bay subway station (old habits die hard), New Wild Everywhere marks the first time the Great Lake Swimmers have made a studio album, which was a relief for Magoffin, but also a different kind of challenge for Dekker, who has such an affinity for authentic room sounds in his music, he seemed to be pointedly avoiding the sterility or falseness of pro facilities.
"It was about capturing the energy of a place too," Dekker says of his approach in the past. "Instead of adding the reverb after the fact by using an effect, I really like the idea of getting the ambiance and natural acoustics of a place. It was also documenting a place, as well as making a record. Especially in the Thousands Islands we, over the course of doing the recording [for 2009's Lost Channels], tapped into a little bit of the mythology of the place and it was an interesting experience to set yourself in the middle of that context. So, I wouldn't say we were purposefully avoiding the studio; it was just our interests and concern as a project was to try to see that concept through as far as we could."
Though Dekker's new songs remain artfully enigmatic and haunting, there are also a few uncharacteristic instances for Great Lake Swimmers, like the lush pop of "Easy Come, Easy Go" or the biting protest of "Ballad of a Fisherman's Wife." Such seemingly accessible, direct songs seem to have taken even their confounded creator by surprise.
"That one in particular was just a fun one to play," Dekker says of "Easy Come." "We put it away for a year, and came back to it again when we went to do this new album. It pretty much remained unchanged; I tried to tinker with it a little bit and it was like, 'No, this is just a fun song to play. It feels good.' I've never really allowed myself a song like that."
In a similar vein, "Ballad of a Fisherman's Wife," originally recorded to benefit the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper charity, was adapted to address the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which resonated with Dekker. "What really struck me was the livelihoods of people living along the coast, which were crushed by this. It's really difficult to do songs like that, and it was a challenge to write something that wasn't preachy but still got the point across in simple language, from the perspective of someone that just had their livelihood taken away from them."
As Great Lake Swimmers continue to evolve, Dekker remains keen to experiment, which, after working for years under the radar and exploring his craft from difficult angles, might mean taking the beaten path and embracing the mainstream more. With fans like rock legend Robert Plant, cyclist Lance Armstrong, NBC News anchor Brian Williams (who, during an interview on the show, surprised Dekker with an astute, personal reading of "Everything is Moving so Fast"), and now American Idol vouching for the band, it's an inviting realm full of new surprises for Dekker.
"When you put your music out into the world, you never know where it's going to end up, how it's going to affect somebody, or how someone is going to read it. So it's nice when people that you respect can say they get something back from it."