Five questions with: Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers

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Great Lake Swimmers w/ Native Harrow

The Mill — Sunday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m.

“I’m a fan of music before I’m a musician, and my love of it isn’t confined to any specific genre,” Tony Dekker said in an email. — Gaëlle Legrand/Great Lake Swimmers

The Mill is fortunate to feature Great Lakes Swimmers, touring to support their 2018 release, The Waves, The Wake, and celebrating their 15th year as a band (a milestone hit in 2018). They perform on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 7:00; tickets are $15. Opening for the group is Native Harrow. I had the pleasure of communicating with Tony Dekker, the leader of Great Lakes Swimmers, over email earlier this year:

Much of your work — from the name “Great Lake Swimmers” through the titles of albums and tracks — helps to locate your work in the context of nature. In what ways has maintaining that context (your personal orientation toward the natural world) remained both a foundation for and an inspiration toward continuing to create new music?

To be honest, it’s not really something that has been consciously maintained but more of a constant source. It’s been a thread through the music because it’s something that I feel in my bones. And I hope I have some insight to share through a deep meditation on it. I feel that there is a still lot to explore in approaching a kind of spirituality in the natural world.

The first track on The Waves, The Wake, “The Talking Wind,” is one that you decided to engineer around the natural sound of woodwinds as major component of what frames the song. In what other ways have you been able to specifically integrate natural elements into the structure of your music beyond lyrics?

There’s a lot of that happening on the new album. In the song “Side Effects” for example, there’s a purposeful slowing down of the tempo in the choruses, so that you feel a sort of drag in the song that you can’t quite put your finger on at first. We also added a lot of studio effects, reverbs and delays to the vocals, quite literally echoing what’s happening in the lyrics. I was conscious of using descending melody lines and echoes in the instrumentation depending on what was happening in the songs as we were making the album.

Your music seems notably adept at resisting stylistic fads to become something more timeless — you’ve made a career in music that’s shown development, rather than stagnation, but you simultaneously do so in a way that seems sustainable rather than pandering. What would you credit as helping you to maintain that sort of high ethical ideal in an industry that seems to agitate against it?

I’m a fan of music before I’m a musician, and my love of it isn’t confined to any specific genre. You come to a point where you realize good music is good music, whether it’s a brass band playing on the street or a long lost folk album from the ’70s. That being said, as a songwriter, my focus is on stories, and I think telling a good story gives a song a purpose that transcends the moment. I try to build songs that last. Maybe there’s an attempt to get at some sort of truth as a way of doing that.

The Great Lake Swimmers play The Mill on Feb. 10. — Harold Zijp/Great Lake Swimmers

There’s a lot of new instrumentation in your current album — including the woodwinds. What have you found to be inspiring about the mechanics of learning to perform the album in live contexts?

Our approach to the live show has been the same as the way we set out to make the album. Coming at it in a minimalist way, allowing the songs to breathe, focusing on the nuances, and creating an atmosphere are all really important for this group of songs. We can’t afford to bring a woodwind ensemble on the road with us unfortunately, but we’ve taken some care to arrange the songs for the live show in a way that is respectful and makes sense.

What new directions do you feel that your new album has opened up to you as a musical group that you’re excited to explore in the next 15 years together?

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It feels to me like we’re starting to turn a corner with taking the music, as in the basic bones of the songs, in new directions. Putting down the acoustic guitar has really opened up a new world for me as a writer, and opening up the group to new collaborations has been a really good challenge. The collective support of musicians around this project is constantly evolving, with new people coming in and out with each new album, and I can say I’m truly excited about what comes next. I hope to reach further and get freer with what songwriting and folk music can be.

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