Although he’s now based in Fort Frances, Ontario (nearly 1700 km from Toronto), Derek Harrison’s latest project takes its inspiration – and its title – from the corner of Bloor and Ossington in Toronto. This engaging and thoughtful album tells stories rooted not only in city life, but also in the depths (and challenges) of the heart, and digs at the various tensions we experience in our lives.
The album opens with “A Fool Is a Fool,” a harrowing description of a child’s fright juxtaposed with Derek’s delicate fingerstyle guitar and Tish Gaudio’s gentle background vocals. “I Am a Coward” is a tale of loss so letter-perfect that I could feel the abandonment myself, while “Sight from Sound” is a terrific musing on the tension between wanting to be home and wanting to be away (with great touches of banjo and harmony vocals). “Grass Green Sea” and “Coffee” could be parts of a whole, focusing as they do on different (but connected) aspects of drinking too much and finding oneself in situations one didn’t anticipate or desire.
“Shelter Valley,” the album’s lone instrumental, provides a welcome pause from these contradictions in life – a chance to rest a bit in the simplicity of melody before bringing the listener to “The Places I Have Lost,” probably my favorite song on the album. Derek’s exploration in these lyrics of the aftermath of leaving home – and how home is never quite the same once we leave it – really resonated for me. The album closes with “Visions,” exploring how the ghosts of our past can impact our present.
Listening to this album may not leave you comfortable – it’s not that type of folk album – but it will likely leave you mulling over things in your life that are unfinished, or in conflict. And that is just as valuable a listening experience.
We’re so pleased that Derek took some time to chat with us about the album.
This album was inspired by the neighborhood of Bloor and Ossington in Toronto (which you’ve now left, I think?)… how so? What is it about that particular area that fed into these songs?
I moved in to that neighbourhood in late 2014, a third-story apartment on Bloor St., and lived there for about a year and a half. I wrote most of these songs in that apartment but none of the songs are actually “about” that place, not exactly. But a lot goes into a song, and I think songs like “Grass Green Sea”, “Places”, and “Visions” couldn’t have been written anywhere else, or would have come out very differently. “Places” references, in the last verse, the anonymity that comes with living in Toronto, and presents it as a comforting thing. At some point that flipped for me… actually when I wrote “Visions”, the line in the third verse was reversed, it was: “Further from Toronto and closer to the shore, can’t we turn around?” At the time Toronto was where I wanted to be, but by the time we recorded that song I had flipped those around, I wanted to get away.
The photo of the payphones on the cover was taken right at the corner of Bloor and Ossington, about a hundred feet from where we recorded the album. By then I had moved to High Park, but most of the people who worked on the album with me had, coincidentally, moved to Blossington. Brodie, the producer, had his home studio on Ossington and Devin and Josh were living on Bloor. So the whole atmosphere during those two weeks was very Blossington, eating lunch at Tall Boys, replenishing our gear at Long & McQuade’s, snacks from Simply Bulk, checking out the buskers in front of the LCBO. Even though it’s right in the thick of gentrification row, that strip of Bloor was still dotted with empty storefronts and the occasional condemned building, and I think that, subconsciously maybe, that atmosphere inspired us to push the levels a little too far in search of a signal that was a little bit dirtier, a little rougher. If we had recorded the album in a cottage in the woods we probably would have made something much cleaner and brighter sounding.
The name came later, sort of. Without really thinking about it, I was referring to these recordings as “The Blossington Sessions”, and then when I was trying to decide what to name the album, my partner said “What’s wrong with Blossington?” and that was that. It felt right.
The concept of place – being rooted, or being rootless – seems to me to run through all these songs. As someone who has lived and worked in a number of places, how does that feeling of belonging – or not – contribute to how you write and create?
I’ve moved around a bunch but I’m such a grass-is-always-greener person that I’m always thinking “What if I had stayed there? What would my life be like?” So I have all these complicated feelings tied up in places, and I think it’s caused me to always keep one foot out, to not become too rooted anywhere. That’s what “Sight from Sound” is about, that chorus – “I’ve had from the start a broken heart, I waited even then for your love to end” – is speaking to all the places I list off in that song and acknowledging that my leaving was my own fault, that I never let myself believe that I could make a home there, and that became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The characters in my songs, with varying degrees of autobiography, are often stuck in between this adolescent idea of freedom and the desire for home. For me, that’s a compelling conflict to write about.
You worked with members of your band The Old Salts on this project; how does collaboration differ when it’s your solo project versus a band album?
The Old Salts is a very democratic band. I’m not the main songwriter but when I do bring a song to the band, by the time we’re done with it I barely recognize it. James always sings it a bit differently than the way I wrote it, the rhythm section comes up with something unexpected… somehow it stops being a Derek Harrison song and becomes an Old Salts song. And I think it’s great. But when it’s a Derek Harrison performance everybody is very mindful of not getting in the way of what I’m doing… they’re trying to play what’s in MY head rather than what’s in their heads. The results are very different.
“Shelter Valley” is a lovely instrumental… what inspired you to include it on this album, and how does it speak to your overall theme?
That track was a spur of the moment thing, a tune I had written years ago which popped into my head right when were finishing up the acoustic guitar parts for the album. I stopped Brodie right when he was about to rearrange the mics to do Devin’s parts, sat down and played “Shelter Valley” in one take. That ended up being a weird twist of fate, because in December, one week before the album came out, Shelter Valley Folk Festival announced that it was closing its doors. So I guess, unintentionally, it fits the theme of losing your connection to a place. Which is convenient for me, but also a real shame.
I’ve lived a number of different places myself over the years (and lost loved ones), and so I really resonated with “The Places I Have Lost” – ‘the path home is always grown over, but the barn door is always unlocked…’ Coming back to that idea of rootlessness, how does its juxtaposition with the concept of home play out for you?
I’m glad to hear it connected with you! I always worried that that song was too heavy. As someone who has a habit of relocating, I’ve always struggled with how much I’m allowed to take ownership over a place, or whether I’m stuck with always being, you know, from somewhere else. The one exception to that is Essex County, the place I grew up and where I can unambiguously claim that I have roots.
“The Places I Have Lost”, in the verses, recognizes all the baggage associated with home and acknowledges that things change and people disappear, but then the chorus says that no matter how hard it can be to go back home sometimes, it’s always there. The door is always unlocked.
At some point I came to realize that I had a pattern of blaming my own personal failings on my environment, and when I felt especially down I would just move and expect that to fix all my problems. In these songs, especially in “Places” and “Sight from Sound” I can hear myself coming to terms with that, recognizing that my rootless feelings have been mostly self-imposed and that home has always been within reach. For me, songwriting can be very therapeutic in that way.
What plans do you have for touring for the new album?
I launched the album with shows in Fort Frances, Essex County and Toronto in December, but decided to wait until better weather to do proper touring. So I’m in the process of organizing all the dates for a tour in May which is probably going to overflow into June, and, if all goes according to plan, is going to take me all the way from Halifax to Vancouver.