After releasing five albums as the leader and lifeblood of the band Great Lake Swimmers, last fall the gentle singer-songwriter Tony Dekker released the first album under his own name. He spoke to The Globe by phone about the graceful solo record (Prayer of the Woods), as well as his involvement in environmental issues.
Your new album is similar in style to the first Great Lake Swimmers album, from 2003. Were you trying to get back to that stripped down format?
I think so. But really it started with the songs, as they were coming together. It felt like they didn’t need much more than guitar and voice, with a few flourishes and accents. I wanted to challenge myself to make more of a singer-songwriter record.
There’s a line in the first song, On My Way Back, about going up North and being an “exile in the oaks.” Are you a Toronto guy, or do you see yourself leaving the city some day?
I consider myself a Toronto guy. But there is a sense of finding solace. It’s a continuation of the things I’ve been exploring the whole length of Great Lake Swimmers – finding solace in the natural world, and using that as a source of regeneration.
The album takes its title from a poem of the same name, which you came across on a sign on the Bruce Trail. Obviously that’s fitting, putting a poem like that on a sign on a hiking trail. With that in mind, what’s the best setting to hear this album?
I feel it could be a driving song. Not one of the ones that’s going to keep you up on a marathon drive, but for a journey – a deeper connotation of driving. I also feel it works in an enclosed setting, with a fire going. A personal experience.
Or we could hear it at Heliconian Hall. Why did you pick that venue for the Toronto shows?
It’s a smaller, more intimate space. It’s beautiful acoustically. And it’s a historic Toronto building, dating back to the late 1880s. We don’t have a lot of buildings like that left in Toronto. It’s also in the historic neighbourhood of Yorkville, which was a touchstone for the folk movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. So, it’s important to the city, which makes it important to me.
Neil Young is touring in benefit of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and to raise awareness on the oil sands development in northern Alberta. In the minds of his detractors, a musician isn’t qualified to talk on such a complicated issue. Given your involvement in the same cause, what would you say about that?
I applaud Neil Young for standing up and using his talent and using his gift and using his position as a popular musician to draw attention to that cause. One of the things that struck me about what he’s trying to say is the idea of raising up the voices of the First Nations. That, to me, was his fundamental point.
You have similar concerns, involving the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, right?
What he’s talking about is very close to where I’m at. I visited the Great Bear Rainforest on a trip with the World Wildlife Fund. It’s uniquely preserved, but it’s under threat of being developed and having oil tankers sail through its very delicate and narrow fjords, out to some of the roughest waters in the world.
It’s an uneasy balance, industrialization versus the environment.
I’m not saying I disrespect the industry. It’s an industry on which we all rely. But I would call for massive changes and alternate solutions. We should be concentrating on other ways to solve this question of industry. In a very deep sense, it means changing the industry.