David Leask found a guitar that captures the essence of Canada and recorded a new EP with six songs inspired by the instrument.
“Voyageur” comprises 64 different pieces of material – wood, bone, metal, stone and others – many deployed in multiple places and for multiple functions in the construction. Each of those pieces celebrates a piece of Canadian history – from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick to a piece of Lois Riel’s schoolhouse.
The guitar, which was completed in 2006, inspired all six of the songs of Leask’s EP Voyageur in Song.
He Skyped with 519 to chat about the experience.
Tell me about Voyageur in Song, and what you were trying to create?
Voyageur in Song is a concept record. It’s a group of songs written about the pieces and the stories behind the pieces in the Six String Nation guitar, nicknamed Voyageur. And I had seen Joe Taylor, who was the brainchild, the guy who conceived the whole project. I had seen him do a presentation and was really moved by some of the stories and the journey of him getting these pieces and what they meant, and just this idea of them coming into the guitars, essentially like a bunch of living stories.
And I think I saw his presentation about three or four times, and I approached him and asked if I could borrow the guitar to have a go at writing some of these stories in song. And that’s what I did. And it was quite a songwriting expedition for me over a period of four years.
How about the guitar. Does it feel different?
Yeah, it does. If you think of an ordinary, well, not even an ordinary guitar or whatever, you think of guitars like Martin’s or Taylor’s and just they have almost the same number of pieces of wood and they’re generally maybe two or three different types of wood. And this was a whole array of different pieces of different ages and also some stone, bone inlays. So it feels different in the sense that, yeah, it was built tough. I remember Joe telling me that because it was going to be handled by a lot of people it was built tough. It looks absolutely gorgeous in all of its design and ornamentation, but it’s grown warm.
I got to know this guitar maybe 10 years ago when I first held it. And I had the pleasure of recording with it and it really is a warm and rich tone, which for most guitars tends to come from the spruce on the top or whatever their top is. And it has beautiful spalted oak at the back, so the main sounding pieces are wonderful pieces of wood, but it’s not like any other guitar. But one wonders whether that’s less to do with the materials and more to do with almost where these pieces came from, and almost this strange kind of quantum feel from the stories that are embedded in this guitar.
I could see that. So has the guitar changed at all since you first saw it to the point where you recorded with it?
Yeah, I would say the guitar has opened up. I mean, guitars need to be played and it’s through those vibrations that the wood opens up and over the time that I’ve known it, it’s setting in a good place. I have a Takamine that’s about 15 years old, and this guitar, the Six String Nation guitar is 14 years old. And it’s a pretty good age for a guitar, I feel, if it’s been played enough. To me, it’s warmed up a bit.
Is this something that you can actually bring on tour with you or is it just something that you could only use to record?
Well, touring is an interesting bone of contention. I mean, not many people are touring these days, so I’m doing a lot of virtual stuff. And I have been from PEI to BC and a lot of places in the middle, just in the last few weeks, with the guitar here in an online broadcast way. But there is a plan for Joe and I to take Voyageur, and to do a hybrid presentation of his part of the story and his story inspiring these songs and these songs being presented in a theater setting. But I think initially we’re working towards doing something that would be an online presentation of that. And we’re working on that actually next week.
His story must be just as big as yours and totally different.
He’s a bold, brave man to have taken on the task of sourcing these pieces. I mean, his story about finding the golden spruce, I think it was David Suzuki that approached him and said he had a piece for his guitar. And that was through consultation with the Haida Nation out in Haida Gwaii and that took about 18 months I think Joe says of negotiation to finally be allowed the only sanctioned piece from the golden spruce to be used in the guitar. So that’s one of many stories. Given there’s 64 pieces in the guitar and all the pieces on the strap takes an awful lot of sensitivity and sort of vision to pull this whole project together.
What are some of the elements on the guitar that you love Some of the sources are just so incredible. There’s got to be things on there that you were like, “Show me exactly where this is? I got to touch it.”
Well, I think I was drawn to the golden spruce piece because of the story that I’ve mentioned. And you put your arms around that and it’s a powerful thing. But even a little piece of labradorite that’s used in a couple of places on the frets, which is… Labradorite is a dull-looking billion-year-old piece of rock that when the light hits it at a certain angle, it kind of shimmers. There’s an Inuit legend of the Aurora Borealis being trapped inside there. And that was fascinating to me, just the idea of that in terms of a song idea.
But what’s interesting with that is I ended up writing a song called Fire & Ice and I didn’t realize or I wasn’t thinking about the fact that inside one of the pieces of the labradorite was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring and thinking of him as being on the ice, and it was a weird piece of serendipity. So that’s a pretty magical piece for me in the fret inlay.
I would say the Massey Hall headstock is very powerful. Thinking of a seat, a wooden seat that felt these vibrations for over a hundred years, whether it was Jack Dempsey in the boxing ring or Pavarotti or Tragically Hip, whomever. I mean, it’s just an amazing thought that the headstock, kind of the top of the guitar has got such a history in it. So yeah, those are a few of the pieces, but there’s so many. I wrote songs about five individual pieces and then the last song, while I was doing a lot of research on other different pieces, I felt that it should be an overarching piece about the guitar itself and about my own experience in writing with it. So that was the song Les Chansons Du Voyageur.
I can understand having this guitar in your hands and being inspired by it, but was there inspiration to write Canadian stuff before this?
You got me thinking about my back catalog and I mean, the song that comes to mind is a song I wrote, I think back in 2006, and that’s an interesting year to write that because that’s the year that Voyageur was launched in Parliament Hill. I wrote a song about Terry Fox called Run Fox Run. It was at the time when the CBC had done a piece on the greatest Canadians, and I think Terry came in second behind Tommy Douglas.
I had heard a little about Terry Fox, but I didn’t know his whole story. So as I started reading about Terry, I was so moved that I had to write that song, which has been a cool journey for me. And that song’s been used around the world at different Terry Fox Runs in India and Taiwan and Vietnam and across Canada. So it’s been pretty cool.
So the guitar truly did inspire the whole album.
It just kept rolling. The writing experience was one where I, when I got that guitar, I didn’t open the case for about five days because I was revering it so much and I was maybe a little in awe of it. But I picked it up and I got two ideas really quickly and I made this pact that rather than sit and strum just to feel something out and play cover songs or whatever, everything that I played, I recorded, and those ideas became the songs.
So that was the case on the first time I had with Voyageur, and then six months later I got another four song ideas. So it really was that I didn’t want to over think it. It was kind of Allen Ginsburg, First Thought Best Thought. And didn’t question that and just really went to town on sort of the research and the chipping away at how to tell the stories of the pieces I decided to write about.
One of the things about Canada that always confused me was that we don’t proudly declare our heritage a lot. So when albums like this come out, they stand out because they’re very patriotic. And I think that’s something that this country lacks. As somebody who grew up in Scotland, do you see it that way?
I don’t see it as much as patriotic as more perhaps a vehicle for people to reassess what Canada means to them. And Joe talks a lot about this too. And I mean, this project was inspired way back in 1995 when the Quebec referendum was going on, and the idea that he wanted people to have conversations with each other. And I think that the vast sort of diversity of the stories, for example, within the guitar you have a piece from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard staring right across at a piece from Louis Riel school, which is now St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg. And so it’s all these pieces that are trying to get along with each other, and it feels more about getting to understand a bit more about Canada than perhaps we imagine it is.
And even the amazing story of Joe Labobe, the Canadian oyster shucking champion from Lennox Island PEI. It’s not a story that people would think is massively a piece of Canada’s history, and yet it’s a very inspiring story. It’s really a great story, an extraordinary story about an ordinary man doing something that he was coaxed into doing essentially by people in that arena. And he just decided to have a go for it and he ended up almost winning the world championship too. So I loved playing with that idea and the metaphor of someone coming out of their shell. And so it’s pieces like that, I think that every Canadian can relate to. Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick is one thing, but I think the handle of Joe Labobe’s shucking knife is another thing.
So of the 64 parts that make this guitar, how many have you actually visited the actual places or have some sort of connection with at some point?
That’s a really good question. Part of what we wanted to do with this record was to go to the places to do a performance with the guitar. But I haven’t been to Nain in Labrador. I haven’t been to Haida Gwaii . I’ve been to Saskatchewan, but not specifically to Veregin where the grain elevator is for the song I wrote about the Doukhobor grain elevator, but I really want to go to a lot of these places.
I remember I was in Winnipeg, I was on tour out there and I went to the place where Louis Riel went to school. So it was closed at the time. And it was actually Thanksgiving, I think, and it was closed so I couldn’t even get into the building, but there was something I felt there even just imagining what that must’ve been like, and the fact that the wood, which is a powerful piece, the wood is spalted oak that makes up the back of the guitar in the back of the neck. I’ve got a lot of traveling to do, and I hope I get the chance to do that with Voyageur, and who knows what that experience will inspire as well.
As someone who’s not from Canada, how did it feel putting together a Canadian piece? I mean, you’ve been in Canada long enough, but your heritage is Scottish.
Well, the interesting thing about that is I just followed the emotions and the stories and I wasn’t thinking about it a lot. And yet I think you’re right. I think that this was an opportunity for me to, in a way, become more Canadian and learn more about Canada.
And the ironic thing is that throughout the period of years from start to finish, by the time I got to probably mid or late last year, I had at that point, lived in Canada more than I had in Scotland in my lifetime. So I was essentially more Canadian and then the record came out this year. And so it seems to me the right thing that it’s my most Canadian record out of all the seven records I’ve released. And it’s been quite a journey for me and it feels like the right thing to do.
On your website, I noticed that you recorded the whole thing in a specific key.
What I did is I shifted the tuning down by eight Hz. So normally standard pitch is if you hit an A note, it vibrates at 440 cycles per second. And that’s what everyone generally tunes to the concert pitch A 440. But I’d heard about more of an ancient tuning, which is A 432 Hz, and I’d played around with it, but to be honest for the last eight years in my live stuff, and I’d never done any recording with it.
And it just felt like it’s more kind of a natural tuning. It seemed more relaxed. And I gave that a shot, which meant having even the piano re-tuned and having other instruments that were tough to get down, but it’s what we decided to tackle. So it’s kind of a whole other facet of this record is that every song and every instrument is recorded at A 432.
Another really cool thing you did, and you did a whole bunch of cool things with this, but one of the really neat things is that you got all the musicians to play on the guitar.
Yeah. That was a very kind of a last-minute thing. We had this session booked for the last song and it was January this year and I phoned my producer, Justin Abbott, and I said, “I have this idea that instead of Gary Craig playing drums and Drew Birston playing bass, what if we got Gary to just bring some brushes and just hit Voyageur in his own way to create, to build out a sort of drum percussion track and Justin thought it was a great idea. So we turned up that day, the 29th of January, and Gary started laying this down by hitting his fist. And we created a great loop and then Drew played Voyager through an octave pedal and through this big bass amp, and that sounded awesome. And then Justin did some lead stuff on it.
So it was this idea of bringing out all the different voices in that guitar in the way that these creative beings were approaching it with their own musicianship. And they had played on the previous five songs. So in a way, they had a connection, but they hadn’t had the benefit of holding this guitar. I had to play the acoustic guitar parts, so it was kind of this, if you like, just this big finale of all these people who’d be involved in the project actually getting closer to it. And it turned out really, really well.
And we brought in some film crew to record it and they cut an edit on it that looks pretty cool to see all these guys do their thing on it. So yeah, I can check it out. I called it The Storying Guitar because it’s just this idea that everyone gets storied when they get a chance to hold it.
Were there any thoughts of delaying the release because of the pandemic?
It was the opposite. I was going to release this on 31st of January, 2021, and then, there’s no gigs going on and it just seemed like maybe you should just bring it forward. And my publicist advised that too. There was a couple of other industry people that suggested that. And so it meant a little bit of scrambling and a bit of work, but I’m really glad we did.
I wanted to go through each of the six songs on the album. We’ll just go in order. So, Against the Grain is first.
When I watched Joe tell his moving story, he features a video in his presentation, and then in that video there was an elder from the Haida Nation that talked about the idea of regeneration. I mean, just to give some back story, this was a tree that had lived for over 300 years without photosynthesizing. So it was a spruce tree, but it had golden needles and it was the legend to the Haida Nation called Kiidk’yaas.
And when I watched the video and Frank talked about that he wanted something positive to come out of something tragic. It was that idea of regeneration that I really focused on and wanted to capture that in the message of the lyric, in the lyric, “Still letting light come in.” was where I landed. So yeah, I would say that’s one of my favorite songs. It was the first song I wrote for the project and the way this project worked is the sequence of the record is the sequence that I wrote the songs. And so that’s another interesting thing that it just felt like the right thing to do as I wrote a song that it would just go in that order on the record.
The Legend of Joe Labobe.
When Joe did his presentation, there was a video of his wife, Genevieve holding Joe’s oyster shucking knife, and holding it really tight and not letting it go. And it just made me think of what Joe would have to do when he was shucking these oysters, to hold the oyster and shuck it at the same time. And I also liked the idea of him coming out of his shell and played around a bit with that in a metaphor. The instrumentation with the mandolin and the violins, and that seemed to take us to Prince Edward Island out on the water, and Joe loved the water. As I say, it was an inspiring story of an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing. I’m really happy with the way that turned out.
I wanted to add one thing. So we’ll step back to Against the Grain. Where can we find on the guitar, the part that inspired that song?
The golden spruce is the voice of the guitar, if you like. It’s the top of the guitar, it’s the solid top on the very top of the guitar. That’s where the golden spruce resides.
How about for The Legend of Joe?
And for The Legend of Joe Labobe, Joe’s oyster shucking knife is used in the strap post handle where the strap post is screwed in. So it’s kind of a solid footing for the strap post.
Let’s talk about Fire & Ice.
Fire & Ice was an interesting idea when it came out. It was a song that was mostly in 5/4 time, which is quite unusual. And the idea of writing about a piece of rock that’s a billion years old, it was a curious one. So I actually wrote the song from the point of view off the rock and its journey from two tectonic plates crashing into each other and coming up and being noticed in all its Labrador essence. And so, that was a fun ride writing that one.
Where is that part?
That’s in a couple of different places on the fret board as inlay. I think on the 12th and 14th frets.
Spirit Wrestler is a song. The word Spirit Wrestler is a translation of Doukhobor. And the Doukhobors were a pacifist from Russia who were exiled by Tsar Nicholas in 1899. And when I read about them, they had burnt their guns in a show of resistance to the war and the violence. And so they were exiled and they managed to escape to Canada through the benefit of a royalty from Leo Tolstoy, from his book, Resurrection. And there’s just so much in that story, and then to arrive in Saskatchewan, they happened to find a place that had fertile soil and built this amazing grain elevator that became a meeting place.
It’s still standing for, I don’t know how many years now, but it was over a hundred years at the time that Joe got the piece of wood. And so again, one of the Doukhobors, Alex Sherstobitoff, I think, is his name. And he said, when he passed the piece of wood to Joe, he says, “I hope that this insights peace and harmony.” And it was another kind of thought I had to keep in mind in terms of the lyric and the Doukhobor piece from the Doukhobor grain elevator is right down the back of the guitar, right down the middle. Almost the middle centerpiece spine right down the back in the middle of the spalted oak.
I spent some time in Saskatchewan, so I’ve seen grain elevators and I can see how they impact the environment, they impact the scenery, they impact everything.
They do. They’re part of the landscape.
And it really is a part of the prairie’s.
It is. Yeah. Yeah.
Take a Seat.
Take a Seat is written about the seat 69 from the gallery in Massey Hall in Toronto and the idea of all of these vibrations coming through that seat for a hundred years really drew me in. But also the name, like Joe tells a story about going in there and managing to negotiate one of these seats when they’re being replaced, and he actually did walk out with the seat. So it was kind of tongue in cheek, the title, Take a Seat, because he actually literally did that from the building. But of course, it’s the idea of take a seat and the Grand Old Lady on Shuter Street.
But to finish that song was the challenge because how do you condense over a hundred years of performances into sort of a chronological story of what’s gone on in that hall? So it took a bit of research and there was one day when I went to Massey Hall when they had open doors Toronto and Rob Bowman was doing a presentation. And I sat up in the gallery and listened to some of the stuff he was saying, also read a book on it, and just tried to fit in some of the iconic performances there.
But the big, important thing for me about that hall was to kind of embody the acoustics in some lyrics in the chorus, “Let these walls and arches have their say.” Because these amazing arches in that hall contribute to the acoustics, but also this amazing two-second reverb decay time, that Dizzy Gillespie, apparently when he got up there and played a note and he says, “That’s the perfect decay time. So there’s a line in the song just before the bridge, “Two seconds of a dream.” before Kevin Turcotte plays his trumpet solo which is actually an extrapolation of one of the songs that was recorded there by the jazz quintet that famous night in Massey Hall.
Wow. And where’s that piece?
That piece is in the headstock of the guitar, right at the top where the strings are tuned.
Finally, almost the grand piece of all, Les Chansons Du Voyageur.
That took a lot to finish and it really became this piece about the different facets of what Canada is in all its pain and beauty. And I tried to represent that and also just what it felt like to me to be able to write with Voyageur and play Voyageur and “listen to this storying guitar” is a big line in that song too. And it’s just that we can all be storied by our understanding of whether it’s the guitar, the connection to the guitar, or the way people understand their connection to Canada.
Is there a specific piece or is that for the whole guitar?
That’s for the whole guitar. It touches on many different things. So yeah, that’s the nonspecific piece or song on the record.
You’ve told six stories from a guitar that has 64 potential stories.
Will there be more at some point?
No one knows. I mean, if you think that Joe sort of conceived this project, sourced the pieces, he hired George Rizsanyi to build the guitar. And then I listened to the stories and wrote some songs. It’s art inspiring art all the way along the line. And I hope that when people listen to this record and hear about the project, that maybe other singer-songwriters will take up the mantle and maybe other artists will do paintings in their own way about what Canada means to them. I wouldn’t write it off that I would do another six-pack around this, but I think that maybe some other people might pick up the mantle and carry on.
That was actually one of the questions I wanted to ask is, is this guitar available for other musicians to use if they ask properly?
Well, that’s entirely up to Joe Taylor because he’s the owner of the guitar. So I would say if someone spoke to Joe and Joe felt it had merit then yeah, there’s the possibility.
Last question. With no touring, what’s up next for you?
Well, we are shooting some live video next week of all of these songs and we are working towards using that as part of an online show that will incorporate some of Joe’s presentation to give people more background about these pieces in a multimedia format. That’s our big push over the next few weeks to get that production finished. I’ll be doing some online concerts, but right now I’ve been doing different broadcasts just trying to get the word out. And I certainly appreciate you folks helping with that.