Words by Mr Dan Cairns
We owe Mr Robert Plant a debt of gratitude for many things - the incendiary music he made with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s; the fascinating and constantly changing solo career he has forged in the decades since the band's split; his dignity, modesty and poise, a corrective to the embarrassing antics of all too many of his now similarly grizzled rock contemporaries; and his decision - heroic, by rock standards - to restrict Led Zeppelin's comeback to just the one O2 concert, and not cash in, as, God knows he could have done, by signing up for a full reunion.
There is, though, a lesser-known reason to be grateful to Mr Plant. Meeting a young singer - whose band had just played a support slot at a show headlined by Mr Plant and Ms Alison Krauss - backstage in Toronto in 2008, the rock veteran shook the rock apprentice by the hand and told him what a great voice he had. That young musician was Mr Tony Dekker, founder and chief songwriter of the Canadian band, Great Lake Swimmers. So beautiful is Mr Dekker's music, and so powerfully does it communicate an imperishable love of his craft, that it is hard to imagine him ever entertaining doubts about the path he has chosen. Yet one of his comments about the encounter - that, as a result of Mr Plant's words, he "figured I was in the right line of work" - implies otherwise. So, as I say, another reason to thank Mr Plant.
Most songwriters agree that there's an aspect of being compelled to write. But I'm not destroying myself in the process
Fans of Mr Dekker's band - "There are little pockets of them in different places", as the singer wryly describes Great Lake Swimmers' cult status - have long cherished his approach to music making, which shuns what Ms Joni Mitchell once described as "the star maker machinery behind the popular song", and instead cleaves to an approach that is resolutely organic, low-key and self-contained. GLS's latest album, New Wild Everywhere, may be the first they made in a recording studio, but the ghostly atmospherics of their previous work remains. The combination of the band's whimsical, lilting, fiddle-flecked Americana, Mr Dekker's acute, contemplative, born-storyteller lyrics and his grainy, careworn vocals ensnares listeners, who invariably then wonder why the band aren't huge. Yet Mr Dekker's own attitude to music has always been about keeping it pure and staying close to nature: earlier albums were recorded, variously, in a grain silo, a community hall, an old church and out in the wild, and background noises on their debut album include crickets, falling rain and the whoosh of the wind.
The day we talk - shortly after he has recorded a session for MR PORTER, performing "The Great Exhale" from the current album, and "Changing Colours" from 2007's Ongiara - is as windblown and rain-lashed as those silo sessions must have been, and Mr Dekker, midway through a brief European tour with his band, is about to board a ferry and cross the Irish sea to Dublin. He seems utterly unfazed by the prospect of such an ordeal, but then he's buzzing about the London show he has just played - if you can buzz in a laconic way, that is. Touring is, Mr Dekker says, an important though sometimes brutal contrast to the act of songwriting. "Writing is such a solitary activity for me. I'm in my own space when I write, or out in the woods somewhere, and going on the road is the polar opposite of that." Does he think that writing is good for him, I ask (not perhaps as odd a question as it sounds, to judge by the number of deeply conflicted songwriters I've met over the years). "Oh, it's as much an affliction as a blessing, for sure," Mr Dekker replies. "The thing to hold true to is that it always has to be its own reward."
From left: Ms Miranda Mulholland and Messrs Brett Higgins, Greg Millson, Erik Arnesen and Dekker
He isn't, he says, a subscriber to the school of thought that sees songwriting as inevitably, or entirely, cathartic, as a conscious act of self-purging. "I've never really seen myself like that. I see the people in my songs as characters [extraordinarily vivid and sharply drawn characters, it has to be said]. Sure, writing can be a cathartic process, but almost as a by-product, if you see what I mean." Nor does he feel that he has much choice in the matter, in any case (which is what I meant about the love of his craft that comes across in his songs). "Most songwriters agree that there's an aspect of being compelled to write," he says. A pause, followed by a characteristic chuckle. "But, look, I'm not destroying myself in the process."
The ferry and the heaving ocean beckon; weather permitting, Mr Dekker and his band mates will shortly be delighting another pocket of fans in Dublin. Remember those bands you loved, fiercely and possessively, as a teenager? Whose lack of a breakthrough you bemoaned, even as you vowed to keep them to yourself? Great Lake Swimmers are exactly that band. I want them suddenly to sell squillions. I also want them to stay semi-hidden, a secret keepsake that only their greatest devotees are allowed to hear. You sense that neither scenario is going to change Mr Dekker's need to walk off into the woods somewhere and write a song - filled with characters, to music that will make you either dance or cry (and sometimes both), in a voice infused with wide-eyed innocence and hard-won wisdom. He'll find his way back from the woods, of course, and let us hear the results. For, as Mr Plant so intuitively understood, Mr Dekker chose the right path.
New Wild Everywhere is out now. For Great Lake Swimmers show dates see greatlakeswimmers.com
Artwork for Great Lake Swimmers' latest album New Wild Everywhere