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Photo from Great Lake Swimmers' website.

Great Lake Swimmers bring nature to Bronson Centre

By Jared Davidson on December 2, 2015

Great Lake Swimmers have long been known for their woodsy, melodious sound. With beautiful, cresting harmonies and natural instrumentation, their music calls to mind the rolling hills and rocky landscapes of the Canadian wilderness. Their new album, A Forest of Arms, released earlier this year, continues that tradition. And while it is identifiably a Great Lake Swimmers album, it brings some new things to the band’s sound. For the most part, the album is upbeat and rhythmically focused, a bit of a departure for a band that has focused on a quieter, folkier sound in the past.

The band has been touring the album for the past few months, and they’re on their way to Ottawa to kick off their east coast tour. On Thursday, December 3rd, Great Lake Swimmers will take the Bronson Centre stage alongside Art Bergmann, a Canadian music legend performing an acoustic set to open the show. The band will be playing music from their new album, as well as many of their older favourites, such as “Your Rocky Spine.”

The natural sound cultivated by the band is no accident. Many Great Lake Swimmers songs have been recorded in the wilderness that stands out so clearly as a theme in their music. Some of the vocals and acoustic instruments on A Forest of Arms were recorded in Tyendinaga Cavern and Caves, a cave system near Belleville Ontario. The band’s leader and sole-songwriter Tony Dekker views this process as key to the sound of the band.

“It’s an important and exciting part of the recording process for us, and aside from adding an ambient layer to the music, it also draws out a certain kind of performance from the musicians involved,” he said. “It has become part of the album making process for us to also tap into the energy of a place.”

The natural influence on this album is perhaps even more pronounced than on previous offerings. Dekker noted that the writing of the album took inspiration from his recent work with the World Wildlife Fund. A few years ago, he took a trip with the WWF into the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of British Columbia, an experience that he said changed him as a songwriter and as a person.

“It definitely brought a lot of ideas that I had been thinking about to a fever pitch,” he said, “in terms of environmental concerns.”

There is a survey of the both the internal landscape of emotion and the external physical world that we come into contact with externally.

The trip inspired “The Great Bear”, the 10th song on the new album. That song in particular offsets the upbeat nature of the album, taking a mournful contemplative tone. It stands out on an album that is primarily high energy. According to Dekker, the album’s sound comes in large part from the order in which it was recorded.

“We started off the recording process with a focus on the rhythm section, that things were a little more lively off the top,” he said. “It’s still basically acoustic instruments, but bringing the drums in at the beginning gave everything a lift.”

And while the album’s sound is livelier, there is a certain emotional darkness to many of the songs that acts as an undercurrent to the rhythmic sounds. Dekker sees this as very much related to the album’s focus on the natural world.

“There are pretty heavy environmental themes on the album as well, and I think they overlap with emotional themes in some places,” he said. “There is a survey of the both the internal landscape of emotion and the external physical world that we come into contact with externally.”

The album is thus almost Wordsworthian in tone, an exploration of the internal world of the songwriter as that songwriter experiences the natural. It’s an exciting recording, and one which will no doubt translate to a very soulful show this Thursday.

Great Lake Swimmers play The Bronson Centre with Art Bergmann on Thursday, December 3rd, 2015. Tickets are available through Spectrasonic and at Vertigo Records. For more on Great Lake Swimmers, see their website, Facebook, or Twitter.