Wading Through the Artistic Process: An Interview With Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Written by Jaimee-Lisa Cotter

Closing out Hillside 2015, Toronto-based artists Great Lake Swimmers sent attendees on their way with a soothing set list that left a quiet energy hanging on the campers and commuters spilling out of the main stage area. Lead vocalist and songwriter Tony Dekker grabbed some grass and sat down with The Cannon.ca to chat about the creative process, the rural versus urban inspiration game, and refreshing new takes on the rhythms of daily life.  

CAN: You’re from a small town… are the rest of the band members from a small town as well?

GLS: Miranda, our violin player, lived in Guelph. I’m from Wainefleet Ontario, and the rest of us are from small towns in Ontario, but we’ve been based in Toronto for a number of years now so I can’t really claim my small town status anymore.

CAN: You’ve played in Guelph a number of times now. How many times have your performed at Hillside?

GLS: You know I was just reminiscing about it, I think the first time we played was in 2005. I think this is like the ten year anniversary of the first time we played hillside. It’s a milestone.

CAN: Speaking of festivals and coming back to play Guelph, you guys have a lot of festivals on the docket this summer and then have a European tour coming up. Are you more excited for the festivals or the touring shows?

GLS: For me it’s actually kind of nice to be closer to home for the summer time. We just got off eight or nine weeks of touring during the spring, so it’s nice to be closer to home, you know what I mean, in Ontario and be playing a festival like Hillside: it’s super family friendly, I just had a baby—our first child, last fall, so it’s nice to be closer to home for that and it’s been a beautiful summer so far. Hillside is a real highlight, in terms of festivals, for us to play so it’s nice to be invited back.

CAN: In choosing which festivals you decide to play over the course of the summer, I know a lot of your music is impacted by environmental issues, do you take that into account when selecting where you’ll play?

GLS: It’s definitely important to us, and we try to do our part, but it’s also nice when the festival, especially a festival like Hillside, is such a green festival and makes that part of their mandate. You know it’s just an extra part of what’s already a great weekend of music, and in a great location.

CAN: A lot of your music talks about place and location as very specific to not only your musical influence, but even where your record as well. Would you say that rural or urban landscapes play a stronger role in influencing your music?  

GLS: I think that once you get some distance from something you gain a little bit of perspective. Like when I’m working on songwriting, working on songs, that’s what I feel in my bones, is that sort of affinity with the natural world. That’s where I draw my inspiration from, and so I think growing up in a rural environment has had a lot of influence on that. I think it still informs my song writing even now, and now even when we’re not on the road, when we’re not working on music, I try to spend as much time as I can in the woods, and in nature: Camping, hiking, paddling, all that stuff. That reenergizes me, and that always has been a through line of ten years of working on Great Lake Swimmers too.

CAN: Do you take your guitar with you when you travel, even if you’re headed into the woods? And is that how you decided to record several songs in the Tyandanaga caves?

GLS: I try to, yeah. Well I was actually on my way back from a gig and saw a sign for it, and I had been looking for a place like that to try and record in. So we’re coming back from Kingston or something like that, and stopped in and did the tour. I got to talking with them and just was like “Oh have you ever thought about having someone record music in here?” and I worked with them over the course of a period of time to try and go and record in there.

CAN: You guys have cited repetition, echo and other sounds found in nature as a really big part of your music… do you guys find you draw that more from the rural environments, or the sounds of the city? I recently saw your City Sonic piece about your move to Toronto: do you credit the city sounds just as much as nature when it comes to the writing process?

GLS: I think there are rhythms and cycles in both of those areas, and sometimes they overlap. In nature, you get the rhythms of the seasons and cycles in things, especially where we are here, in Ontario: you get a taste of all the seasons, and in terms of how plants and animals work together and all that stuff. But the city has a rhythm too, it has its own, different kinds of rhythm and movement too. For that particular piece, and that particular song it was very focused on taking those kind of ideas of rhythms in nature and almost applying them to the thought process and rhythms you find in the city.

CAN: As someone whose been on the scene for a long time, do you think it helps or hinders the up and coming bands to move to Toronto? It might be a good business move, but how is it for the creative process?

GLS: I would say both—Toronto is a great city, it’s got a very healthy and vibrant music scene and I certainly experienced that when I moved to Toronto about 15 years ago, around the year 2000. I crossed paths with a lot of like-minded people there.  There’s a certain kind of hustle to it that is not always super fun, but in terms of meeting people that are on the same page as you, that was a place that I kind of found to jump off from, creatively… mostly because of the live music venues and connecting with other artists in the city. In terms of the inspiration though, I lived near High Park for many many years, so it was nice to be close to the biggest green space in the city. But certainly going up north and going out in the woods was still an important part of being in the city. It was also necessary to escape it.

CAN: A lot of people in online forums and music communities are starting this conversation around the idea of a folk “revival” or “resurgence”. As someone who has been on the scene for 15-20 years at this point, do you think there’s any accuracy to that? Or has it always been alive and well, and people are just starting to tune in more?

GLS: I don’t know, that’s kind of hard to say… I mean I know in the early 2000’s there was this kind of little blip again, but maybe it has its own kind of cycle too. As far as I know there’s always going to be people making that kind of music, having that respect for the tradition, even if they’re taking it to a new place, or playing a mutated form of it, or pushing the envelope a little bit in terms of how traditional folk music can be represented. Maybe it’s a media thing, but to me there’s always been good players and good pickers that respect the tradition, so it seems to be alive and well today.

CAN: Well thanks so much for taking a moment to chat with us Tony. Best of luck with the European tour and the rest of the festival circuit, looking forward to your performance tomorrow night. And happy Hillside!

GLS: Thanks, so are we— and happy Hillside to you too!


Great Lake Swimmers most recent album, A Forest of Arms, debuted on 21 April 2015, and was the sixth studio project release featuring the full band. 

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