Great Lake Swimmers
‘Coming up for air’
Tony Dekker (lead vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica), Erik Arnesen (banjo, electric guitar and harmonium), Greg Millson (drums), Bret Higgins (upright bass) and Miranda Mulholland (violin and backing vocals).
Melodic indie-folk-rock five-piece based in Toronto. Discography includes ‘Great Lake Swimmers’ (2003), ‘Bodies And Minds’ (2005), ‘Ongiara’ (2007), ‘Lost Channels’ (2009), 'New Wild Everywhere' (2013) and 'A Forest Of Arms' (2015). Performances with BAMM include ‘Still’.
Originating from Wainfleet, Ontario and later relocating to Toronto, the rise of Great Lake Swimmers has been nothing less than meteoric. The revelation of their own success struck songwriter/frontman Tony Dekker while onstage in 2008. “We opened for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Toronto, and after the show Robert Plant shook my hand and told me I had a great voice,” he recalled to Slowcoustic. “After that I figured that I was in the right line of work.” A very modest summation of an encounter which would have most musicians yelling from the rooftops …
Perhaps Tony is lucky he doesn’t let such acclaim go to his head, as favourable write-ups from critics have become something of a mainstay, with Great Lake Swimmers notching up very favourable comparisons to bands/artists as awesome as Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Iron & Wine, Neil Young, Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) and Sufjan Stevens. Tony is very ambiguous about his creative lineage. “I listen to a lot of old country and folk records, like the Louvin Brothers, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Hank Williams,” he says. “I listen to these records as a music appreciator, so I wouldn’t say that they necessarily influence my songwriting.”
So what does? “As a songwriter I feel I'm synthesizing and distilling the experiences that pass through me,” Tony has said to ShoutMouth, “and I think that people involved in some kind of artistic pursuit are generally drawn towards extremes, and I think as far as that goes I’m generally drawn towards the more quiet and sad sides of things. I’m not sure why, but it feels like I can deliver sad songs better. Also, physical and mental environments have made their way into the writing lately and I’m finding that an interesting place to stop and explore as well.”
It isn’t just Robert Plant who’s a fan: other celebrity endorsements come from figures as diverse as Feist, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Feist and Plant hand-picked Great Lake Swimmers to support them, as did Bela Fleck & The Sparrow Quartet, Hayden, Goldfrapp, and Bill Callahan of Smog.
With such a consistent live presence and such a uniquely haunting sound, many bands would perhaps struggle to balance the logistics of the two. After all, much of Great Lake Swimmers’ material is recorded in locations such as old churches, community halls, abandoned grain silos and rural locations – a far cry from the hectic buzz of continual touring and live performance. They have a tried-and-tested survival mechanism though: “staying healthy, trying to eat right and being surrounded by good people definitely helps.”
As for the future? While greater commercial success undoubtedly beckons, that’s not the be-all-and-end-all for the group. They’ve spoken about how their career will progress on their own terms … and if their own terms continue to sound as good as they have, then long may they continue.