“Canadiana” as a variation on “Americana?” Call it indie-folk or call it roots, Great Lake Swimmers plays that kind of music — but they don’t have many peers in their native Toronto.
Over the past decade, the band has released six records, including 2015’s A Forest of Arms. They’ve maintained a worldly conscience, actively aiding the World Wildlife Fund and the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Speaking ahead of the band’s June 19 show at WorkPlay, lead vocalist Tony Dekker discussed the band’s philanthropic efforts as well as how one might categorize his music from the Great White North. He discussed the new record and his fellow countryman, Gordon Lightfoot.
Weld: Can it still be called Americana when you’re from Canada?
Tony Dekker: Some people have begun to throw around this term – “Canadiana.” I don’t know if that has quite the same ring to it. [Laughs] I guess it loosely falls into that same category. “No Depression” [a roots music magazine that ran from 1995 to 2008] may be a better catch-all. It’s hard to put a label on it.
People also say “indie folk rock,” that kind of thing. “Indie folk.” I guess I’m sort of okay with that as a reference point.
Weld: You use the term “No Depression.” Were you influenced by bands like Uncle Tupelo and Drive-By Truckers and Whiskeytown?
Dekker: Not so much, directly. I was more influenced, I think, by the folkier side of things. There’s definitely a huge respect for the pearl snap button kind of things. That finds its way into our music, as well. But I would say that we’re on the lighter side of the spectrum than the more rocking side, which I would consider those guys to be on.
Weld: Do you ever feel like you’re on an island? Or has there been a lack of that music making its way across the border? It doesn’t seem like a lot of things that have been characterized as “Americana” have come from Canada.
Dekker: I certainly feel more of a kinship with more of the U.S. acts that are doing a similar type of thing. Toronto itself has a really healthy music scene, and there are Canadian bands coming out of the scene that do have that respect and feel influenced by early American folk music.
There’s a healthy scene in Toronto for roots music. I feel we’ve felt more of a kinship with those bands south of the border, though, to answer your question in a nutshell. A very large nutshell.
Weld: You’re the elder statesmen in that scene now. Who are some of those younger acts we would not have heard of in the States?
Dekker: We’re actually touring with a band from Toronto called The Weather Station. She’s touring as a solo performer. She’ll be playing in Birmingham. Doug Paisley is a good example. He’s a Toronto guy, and he’s a singer-songwriter that I feel falls into that category.
The singer-songwriter genre is something I feel a part of, too. There’s a focus on writing songs, and I feel like that’s a part of what Great Lake Swimmers does, too. We get looped into that genre, too, because I am the primary songwriter in the band.
Weld: What distinguishes A Forest of Arms from the rest of the catalog?
Dekker: I haven’t gotten tired of the songs yet. We started recording them almost a year ago. Actually, almost a year ago to the day. I think it was summertime last year when we started pre-production for the songs.
I don’t know — I feel like there’s an energy for these songs in our live show and kind of an excitement within the band. When we sat down to record them, there was a little bit more focus on the rhythm section so we played around a lot with things like tempo and rhythm and percussive elements. I think that kind of shines through on it.
I think there’s a little bit more of an environmental bent in the lyrics and songwriting in this one. And there’s moments of relief in some of the more heady lyrical ideas on the album. It’s possible that I was trying to grapple a little more with themes of environmentalism and conservation and that kind of thing.
In a way, that’s a theme through Great Lake Swimmers — these themes of the natural world and feeling a very close tie to that through the music and through the writing. It’s coming to a point, in a way, on this record.
I think the musicianship has gotten better overall. We’ve got a great live band now. The live band is the band that created the album, as well, so we’re really taking this music on the road that we’ve all created together and we’ve become a much tighter unit. There’s a great chemistry within us. All of that is taking it up a notch for the band in general.
Weld: You spoke of themes of conservationism and environmentalism. Have you found a way for your music to benefit those things that are important to you?
Dekker: In some way, yeah. We’ve worked pretty closely with the World Wildlife Fund in the past couple of years. And the Waterkeeper Alliance, which I understand has a chapter near Birmingham. I think it’s the Black Warrior River?
Weld: That’s correct!
Dekker: Yeah, I think there’s a riverkeeper associated with that, too, which is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. We’ve done some work with them in the past — written some music for them, being vocal about some of their initiatives. Particularly the World Wildlife Fund in the last couple of years. I think that all kind of ties in to the aesthetic of the band, doing some work with these environmental organizations, celebrating nature in our music and recording in natural places, which is also part of what we do. It all dovetails into this thematic push.
Weld: You covered Gordon Lightfoot on your solo record. Why did you choose that song?
Dekker: I wanted to pay homage, in some ways, to the Canadian songwriters and Canadian bands. That one was particularly important because he is a singer-songwriter from Ontario, one of our most celebrated in that part of Canada. It’s an homage. I really liked the song. I performed it in a different way that Lightfoot — it was a big radio song. I also like that when you strip away all of that, when you break a song down to its basic parts — vocals and guitar — there’s still a song there. To me, that’s the mark of a good song — if you can break it down to its basic parts and it still holds up as a good song. That’s the mark of a good song. And that was kind of my way of showing that while paying tribute to a great Ontario singer-songwriter.
Weld: Can we expect any of your solo material in Birmingham or any of those covers that you did on that record?
Dekker: We have been doing a few, actually. I didn’t get a chance to tour the solo record in the U.S. I toured it extensively in Canada and overseas, but I wasn’t able to make it down to the U.S. on the solo tour. So we’ve been incorporating a few solo songs into our sets on certain nights. So it’s possible that some of them will surface in Birmingham.
Great Lake Swimmer come to the WorkPlay Theatre on Friday, June 19. The Weather Station opens. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit workplay.com.