Great Lake Swimmers Back in River
Tony Dekker, the lead musician of the Great Lake Swimmers, rests his hand on the helm of the Fair Jeanne Tall Ship and surveys Brockville’s waterfront. His Toronto indie folk band is navigating its way up to the top of the music charts with its fourth album “Lost Channels,” named after the mighty St. Lawrence River.
Dekker is getting ready to perform at a free concert here in a tribute to the Thousand Islands hosted by Tall Ships Landing when he scouts the horizon and smiles.
“It’s a little surreal, actually,” says the softspoken singer/songwriter whose voice is often compared to Neil Young. It just so happens Great Lake Swimmers is getting noticed across North America and Europe for songs like ‘Your Rocky Spine” and “Pulling on a Line.”
The band agreed to perform at the event fresh off a world tour in a concert celebrating government funding for the Maritime Discovery Centre, a proposed tourist anchor attraction to focus on the region’s unique river history that is part of the
Tall Ships Landing condominium development.
The band recorded parts of their new album in the Thousand Islands last fall in Singer Castle on Dark Island, St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Rockport and the Brockville Arts Centre.
They are performing here straight off a 61-city tour including concerts in London, Madrid and Paris. Brockville marked their first Canadian performance on returning home from the whirlwind world tour.
“It’s great to be back in Brockville to be where we started,” he said during our interview aboard the Fair Jeanne as a crowd mingled around the marina. “We’ve come full circle.”
I first met Dekker last fall at St. Brendan’s church on a bluff overlooking the river when I did a story about the Great Lake Swimmers’ recording the ambient folk band’s fourth album here last fall.
A lot has happened since then. They are still drawing international rave reviews but are climbing the charts with "Lost Channels". They’re also getting some U.S. celebrity buzz. Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong recently twittered he was listening to the band on his iPod while getting a massage. NBC news anchor Brian Williams has listed the band on his top five play list on Britunes.
And the indie band is cracking the mainstream with the release of "Lost Channels" in March. Its debut started at 48 on the Canadian music charts and hasn’t left the top 200. The critically-acclaimed group has been compared to R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion,’ while ‘Pulling on a Line” has been singled out for its delicate mandolin-driven chorus.
The band found its way to the St. Lawrence River through an email sent to its general manager Phil Klygo over a year ago by Thousand Islands aerial photographer Ian Coristine.
He thought the place would make an ideal natural backdrop to the band’s sound and asked them if they would like to stop at his place at Raleigh Island west of Brockville and record at nearby Singer Castle.
“When I first heard their music, I was mesmerized by its haunting beauty and immediately thought it would marry well to the river,” said Coristine, a pilot and photographer from Hudson Quebec who first discovered the Thousand Islands while flying over the area in a Challenger float plane nearly two decades ago. He was so awestruck by its natural beauty he bought an island where he resides for nearly six months of the year and published three books of aerial photography on the area.
A few days later, the band found themselves in the Thousand Islands and Dekker was inspired enough to incorporate the castle’s chimes into one of the album’s tracks. They then named the album after the area known as the Lost Channel near Georgina Island, under the Canadian span of the Thousand Islands Bridge where a naval boat with fourteen men vanished in 1760.
“Tony was deeply impressed by what he saw here and subsequently decided to name the album Lost Channels,” said Coristine.
The City of The 1000 Islands Mayor David Henderson presented Dekker with a Brockville flag flanked by Coristine, MP Gord Brown, the city’s economic developer David Paul, and Tall Ships Landing’s Simon Fuller. The Ottawa developer who is building waterfront “cottage-iniums” at Tall Ships Landing said the concert by Great Lake Swimmers is to celebrate the recently approved government funding for the Maritime Discovery Centre which is powering the city's renaissance on the river.
Fuller has a long history of sailing on these waterways with his family’s Bytown Brigantine’s tall ship Fair Jeanne. The 110 foot vessel was built by his father, Thomas G. Fuller, known as the ‘Pirate of the Adriatic,’ and named after his mother. His appreciation for the area’s history was sparked when he found out a heritage building in Brockville built by his great grandfather – once Canada’s chief architect – was up for sale on eBay. Fuller restored the 1884 building on Brockville’s historic Court House Square and in the process became interested in developing on the city’s waterfront.
And while it might seem odd for a band of Toronto folkies named after a lake to perform on a river in a town with a growing reputation as a retirement destination, one look at the city’s waterfront that winds through the Brockville Narrows along shipping channels over shipwrecks and past islands, storybook castles and towards the "Lost Channel" that leads to the Great Lakes and, well, it all starts to make sense.
“People here seem to have real connection to the music,” said Dekker. “There’s a real island life here. One of the things I love about music is you can tell a story from a story of a place.”
It seems to go both ways. The Great Lake Swimmers are planning a return to the Thousand Islands later this summer to record a music video from Lost Channels to include Singer Castle.
Bytown Brigantine’s tall ship Fair Jeanne, which provides adventure voyages for youths and adults, will serve as a floating stage for the music video of Palmistry, the first cut of the album.
Dekker describes the area as a hidden gem. “I didn’t know very much at all about Brockville,” he said. “Travelling on the road, we must have passed this place 50 times on the 401,” he said before taking to the stage of towering masts under sunny skies. “It was a treat to learn more about it.”
Dekker is starting to seem at ease on the deck of the tall ship as Great Lake Swimmers prepare to set sail for its voyage in the Thousand Islands where for them, it seems, no nautical charts are required to find their way back to Lost Channels.
By Kim Lunman
Kim Lunman is a member of our TI Life team. An award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville, Kim is presently writing several new feature stories for a new magazine, Island Reflections which will be distributed across the Thousand Islands, on both the Canadian and US sides of the River. Kim attended the June 6th event as an appreciative fan.