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Great Lake Swimmers Pay Their Respects to the Great Outdoors

Tony Dekker on the Lake Superior trip that inspired the band’s new album, Uncertain Country.

by Stephan Boissonneault 

Since his debut as Great Lake Swimmers 20-odd years ago, multi-instrumentalist Tony Dekker has been bleeding Canadiana. Somewhat in the same vein as great Canadian folk rock and ethereal blues-country legends like Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, albums by Great Lake Swimmers exist in a mysterious realm that consistently honour and pay tribute to the Canadian great outdoors and often forgotten areas. A castle, dilapidated churches, the underground Toronto subway … Great Lake Swimmers have hit them all. Even as early as the band’s self-titled debut in 2003, Dekker was capturing and recording the air in an abandoned grain silo from his childhood home in Wainfleet, ON. He has continued this unorthodox, location-based approach with nearly every recording. 

“I’ve always been a firm believer in using the recording space as a member of the band,” Dekker says from his home on the outskirts of the Niagara region. “It’s one of the reasons this has been a throughline since the band’s incarnation, to add that extra sonic texture. I love abandoned buildings or places kind of forgotten to time.” 

The band has grown since the debut LP, now with four core members playing live and on most of the releases, but Dekker still remains the mastermind behind the album’s concepts. The latest, Uncertain Country, exists as somewhat of an anomaly in the Great Lake Swimmers’ repertoire; originally an idea crafted around the majesty and wonder of the Lake Superior region. In the summer of 2019, Dekker, along with an audio engineer and videographer, went on a “reconnaissance mission” along the North shore of Lake Superior, forming the thematic backbone of the next record. The recording sessions were scheduled for March 2020 … and you can guess what happened then. The first real recording session was in September 2020, and the theme of the album started taking a different shape. 

“Going into these sessions, it was really odd because we were recording between lockdowns, with masks, social distancing, and I think we all realized we wanted to just make music to make ourselves feel better,” Dekker says. “I think I wanted the album to be a sort of calming or soothing balm for all of the anxiety we were facing.”

Uncertain Country was recorded over three years of outtakes and sessions—the longest Dekker has worked on an album from start to finish. And Dekker, of course, found some 100-year old churches and historic buildings throughout the Niagara region to record in. 

“They were really happy to have us in some of these very beautiful churches, historic buildings, and old halls,” he says. “It was really more of a refuge than ever recording in those kinds of spaces during the pandemic.”

He also added some local musicians to the recordings, including Miniscule—a 15-person all-female vocal choir—that guests on the tracks “Moonlight, Stay Above” and “Respect For All Living Things.”

“Working with them, and especially the leader, Laura Minnes, who has this huge presence and talent for choral arrangements, was just magical and it really elevated those songs to this transcendent space,” Dekker says. “It’s safe to say I’m now a huge fan of theirs.”  

A smaller incarnation of Miniscule actually opened for Great Lake Swimmers last month on the Eastern leg of their 2023 tour. “After their set, we invited them back on stage to play those two songs from the album, so it was really cool to take that collaboration on the road and I hope to do it more,” Dekker says.

Dekker is already thinking about the next Great Lake Swimmers project, saying his mind is “always running.” And now that he lives on the outskirts of a small town, if he’s ever looking for inspiration, he just has to walk 10 minutes down the road. 

“We’re close to the Bruce Trail, which is great for hiking and just being in nature,” he says. “I realized during the pandemic that I needed more quiet to reflect on this wonderful landscape I’m lucky enough to call home.”