Steady as the seasons, wintry but beautiful, Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers evoke frontman Tony Dekker's Wainfleet, Ontario, childhood home, a quiet farming community near Niagara Falls. Their burbling folk melodies are so spaciously recorded they sound carried in on the wind. Dekker's willowy tenor flutters and echoes across hypnotic gray twilight soundscapes downbeat enough to be elegies, scored by Nick Drake or Mark Kozelek.
Nature metaphors and imagery abound across their four albums, the latest of which, Lost Channels, has earned them a Polaris nomination, making them one of 10 acts shortlisted for the fourth annual Canadian award. Dekker acknowledges the shaping influence of his rustic upbringing on his writing.
"There is definitely an appreciation for cycles and things, especially seasons changing, and sort of like the build of things and the patience that is required of living from the land or living in a rural area. With farming you have to be a lot more aware of things like weather cycles and season change that happen slowly over time. I think because of that, those kinds of themes have come up."
Dekker started the band six years ago with banjo/guitar player Erik Arnesen, but while there have been some personnel changes over the years, Dekker feels they've finally settled into a steady lineup. It's reflected in Lost Channels' upbeat first half, which might startle those who haven't adjusted the volume since 2007's Ongiara. The atmospheric folk of "She Comes to Me in Dreams" bristles like dream pop, "The Chorus in the Underground" builds on a insistent mountain bluegrass vibe, and "Palmistry" jangles and shimmers like R.E.M. The energy jumps from the speakers, a change spurred by the band's input in the writing.
"[The uptempo style] was because of the heavier presence of a band, and us having played together for a number of years now," he says. "I think there was a sense of building that chemistry in that way, in that sound."
Lost Channels is split by the sound of "Singer Castle Bells," which was recorded in a castle belfry in the Thousand Islands. While the first side often bustles, the second half mines the more meditative, ambient folk drift of their earlier releases. They recorded it in several locales around the Islands aside from the castle, part of an ethos that began with their 2003 self-titled debut, which was recorded in a silo.
"I was just searching for a really good acoustic sound to record the songs in, that would add something interesting to them, a sound that you wouldn't be able to re-create using some sort of effect that comes out of a box. And it was really important for me to have that sound of people playing in a room and it being live," Dekker explains.
They still pack up the gear and find unusual recording environs, but over time the idea's evolved into something else. "It started being about place and the sense of place," he says. "And the sort of intangible quality that can draw a certain performance out of you."
You may not be able to pinpoint this idea of place and its connection to the musicians at any particular moment or passage, but it certainly inhabits their music. Though frequently spare and laconic, it has a strong, graceful presence, filling the space cinematically like a fog rolling in. Given that mien, a castle sounds just about right.
"It was such a great and grand place to play—there was a real sense of history there," he says. "That's one of those intangible things we at first didn't think about. We were more excited about the acoustics and the adventure of it, but it turned into something really special and something that went beyond that."