Great Lakes Swimmers Sought Out Natural Reverb in the Wild

Great Lake Swimmers, the folk ensemble Tony Dekker began almost 15 years ago, found a niche in a calming, pastoral sound that perfectly framed songs inspired by the natural world.

But when Dekker and his bandmates began working on Great Lake Swimmers' sixth album, they developed songs with a stronger focus on rhythm and percussion, giving the music a new sense of urgency. And rather than abandoning the thematic scope of his songwriting, Dekker has reframed his subject matter in the context of a bigger, more open and dynamic sound.

"We'd kind of become known as a band that focuses on the quieter or dreamy side of folk music, and there is that aspect to us, for sure, but with the new songs, there's more of liveliness to that as well," Dekker says.

A Forest of Arms, released in April, is Great Lake Swimmers' fourth for the Vancouver-based Nettwerk Records. The band's first in three years, the album began with Dekker addressing the rhythmic capabilities and potential of the band first.

"Musically, I was working very closely with the bass player and the drummer, so the rhythm section was very important in the creation of the record. That's a new thing for us. We explored the possibilities of the percussion and rhythm first and I feel that really shines through," he says. "Great Lake Swimmers over the years has been a revolving cast of musicians, but this one I wanted to focus with a little more attention on the rhythm section. It's a new challenge for me for sure."

The band is Dekker on vocals and guitar, Erik Arnesen on banjo and guitar, Miranda Mulholland on violin and backing vocals, Bret Higgins on upright bass, and the newest Great Lake Swimmer, Joshua Van Tassel, on drums. The songwriting for A Forest of Arms began when Dekker toured the northwest coast of British Columbia, just below the Alaskan Panhandle, in September 2013.

"I took a trip there with World Wildlife Federation, and a lot of the writings from that trip became the cornerstone for the new album," he says.

"The Great Bear," which contains a lyric that gives the album its title, in particular focuses on that experience, advocating for the preservation of a pristine wilderness threatened by the potential construction of an oil pipeline. The song and the album speak to the myriad connections and dependencies that occur both in nature and people and, of course, in how the two relate to each other.

"I liked it as a title, because there's that obvious natural reference to the woods and the forest, but there's this parallel of recognizing the community that this music comes from and our own growing families within the band and the support systems we need to make these creative pursuits happen, the family and peers who bring this music to life," he says.

And all those connections in Dekker's songwriting aren't just theoretical. As he's done on prior Great Lake Swimmers records, Dekker sought to add unique recording opportunities to the album's creation, this time going underground to get vocals on tape from inside the Tyendinaga Cavern and Caves in Ontario.

"From the earliest Great Lake Swimmers album to now, it's been a process, for sure, and that's been an important part of the songwriting, thematically tying things into a study of the natural world," he says. "Having grown up in a pretty rural community in the Great Lakes area of Canada, that's been there from the beginning with my songwriting."