Canadian Bands You Should Know: Great Lake Swimmers

There is something quintessentially Canadian about Great Lake Swimmers. There's the name, of course, which conjures up images of those vast geographic landmarks that reflect the enormity of this land and inform the Canadian identity. There's the understated nature of the band from Wainfleet, Ontario, who have modestly but steadfastly inserted themselves into a position of respect on the Canadian indie music scene over the past decade. And then there's the music itself, which manages to mirror both the immense fierceness of the Canadian landscape and the unassuming nature of the Canadian soul.
Great Lake Swimmers first emerged onto the Canadian music scene in 2003 with an introspective self-titled album that had critics pondering its haunting power. Recorded in an abandoned grain silo in rural Ontario, the album's enigmatic aesthetic was elevated by the incorporation of quiet ambient sounds into the mix. With the chirp of crickets and the resonance of hollow echoes forming a backdrop to the stripped-down vintage appeal of piano, accordion, lap steel and acoustic guitar, Great Lake Swimmers added a stark atmospheric note to the Canadian musical terrain. Listening to this album, even today, you can't help but imagine the recording taking place at night, the silo lit only with candlelight. 

What really made audiences take notice of this folksy new band, however, was without question the hauntingly beautiful voice of front-man and songwriter Tony Dekker. At once full and rich, but with a fragile ache, Dekker's voice can make the angels weep. It's arguably the band's most identifiable feature and its most powerful instrument. His is a voice that can softly fill the vastest of spaces and linger in the quietest of corners. Overall band membership has evolved over time and has included such talents as Erik Arnesen, Bret Higgins, Greg Millson, Miranda Mulholland, Julie Fader, Colin Huebert, Mike Overton, Sandro Perri and Darcy Yates.

Continuing with what would become the band's modus operandi of recording in unusual locales, 2005's Bodies and Minds was recorded in a rural church in southern Ontario. In this recording as well, you can hear the open spaces behind the music. This openness melds with the sense of quiet mysticism that runs through the album, and speaks to the themes of nature and geography that weave themselves through much of Great Lake Swimmers' music. With Bodies and Minds, Great Lake Swimmers garnered not only critical acclaim and a loyal following amongst lovers of folk-pop, but also became a presence on CBC Radio, establishing themselves as fledgling darlings of the Mothercorp.
2007's Ongiara was primarily recorded in one of Canada's most beloved venues, London's historic Aeolian Hall. The list of guest musicians on the liner notes reads like a who's who of Canadian rock royalty – Sarah Harmer, Owen Pallett, Serena Ryder and Blue Rodeo's Bob Egan.  As on earlier recordings, the spirit of the wild is woven into the very fabric of the album, most notably on the banjo-centric lead track Your Rocky Spine, which reached number one on CBC Radio 3 charts during June 2007. In early 2012, the song's iconic banjo riff was infamously used during the dismissal of a promising contestant from American Idol, which caused the Twitterverse to explode with mixed reactions from GLS fans.   

Following the release of Ongiara, Great Lake Swimmers changed record labels, from the small independent (weewerk) to the larger and more influential Canadian label Nettwerk, a move that addressed the band's increasing critical acclaim and solidifying fan base. Lost Channels, the band’s fourth studio album, was released in 2009 and was immediately met with enthusiastic acclaim among taste-makers and music critics. The album was recorded in various locations in and around the Thousand Islands, including Singer Castle. Intrigued by the mood and imagery of the locale, Dekker included a track on Lost Channels called “Singer Castle Bells”, which consists entirely of the castle's hourly chimes. Overall, Lost Channels embraced a more robust sound than the hushed and fragile feel that was present in previous albums. 
New Wild Everywhere, the fifth studio album by Great Lake Swimmers, flaunted the band's long-standing convention by being recorded in an actual studio. It was released in 2012, in conjunction with an e-book of photography from the Thousand Islands region by photographer Ian Coristine, for which Great Lake Swimmers composed the instrumental soundtrack. Not entirely forsaking its tradition of recording in unconventional places, the band set up camp in the Toronto subway system, where they waited until 3:00 a.m. for the trains to stop running, in order to record the track “The Great Exhale”. New Wild Everywhere reflects the continual evolution of the band, with both a gutsier feel and a more sweeping sound. In live shows particularly, the addition of violinist Miranda Mulholland adds a layer of complexity to the band's makeup and draws some of the spotlight away from principal vocalist Tony Dekker. It's an evolution that feels like a bold step forward. 
Great Lake Swimmers have made a transition over the past decade from fiercely loved but little known indie darlings to critically acclaimed national treasure.  They have become an integral part of the Canadian musical landscape.

– Barbara Bruederlin

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