Oct. 07, 2009 - Issue #729: The Secretaries
Elemental Folk: Songwriter Trevor Tchir inhabits the Sky Locked Land
A decade ago, at 19, Trevor Tchir made his first album. His debut demonstrated a natural affinity with a classic strain of poetic folk straddling the rootsy ease of Townes van Zandt and the high-minded '60s coffeehouse sounds of Leonard Cohen. Tchir was also blessed with an almost effortlessly lovely voice, smooth and supple and nearly too pretty, like a differently-tuned cousin of James Taylor.
Over his follow-up records, Tchir conscientiously shepherded his talents, deepening his lyricism, building his craft and collecting musical collaborators between his academic base of Ottawa and his St. Albert home. His songs ranged from closely observed sketches of people, usually fellow seekers, to chiaroscuros that linked events to landscapes, eventually enlarging to interrogate fundamental issues of Canadian-ness, like the shifting sands of families and communities and the maintenance or erasure of history.
His earlier efforts are all worthy, but now, with the release of his fourth album, Sky Locked Land, comes a startling integration—a sense of Tchir completely inhabiting his work, like when an actor who was previously handsome and capable acquires the further burnishment of character. An intangible something has been breathed into the music, and the songs that make up Sky Locked Land have a lived-in feel that animates the entire album.
"The approach I wanted was naturalistic; intimate," Tchir explains. "I wanted to be less didactic than I had been in terms of imagery, trying to capture the themes and moods through indirect images and the actions of characters. Every song has an underlying thesis—a point I'm testing out or trying to apply, but the best songs are not literal, but artful."
Sky Locked Land answers the American Songbook with a Canadian volume, seeking to project that kind of universality through the specificity of stories and the beauty of craft. Listeners travel with Tchir through space (from the Great Lakes to Slave Lake on a longtime couple's road trip; from Newfoundland to the tar sands in search of prosperity) and through time (to a childhood backyard discovery; to an unproductive Alberta farm) and into dreams that range from disturbing to hopeful.
The stories largely converge on themes of collective memory, community and haunting dislocation, stretched across the elements of earth and sky, and are counterpointed and echoed by the warmth of the music, whether polished and full or loose and spare.
Perhaps the key to the album's vibrancy is a sort of spiritual interplay between the stories—rooted in truth, drawn from his own experiences or those of family members—and the music, created with an ever-expanding circle of musicians Tchir counts as community.
"The album started two and a half years ago, when everyone I played with was moving away," Tchir notes. "They all left within months. Half the songs were recorded before they left, and we'd record whenever anyone came back. Our philosophy was to use good performances, as complete as possible, and not cut and paste much. We had a playback catchphrase for when it was working: 'Yeah, that sounds like a band. There's life to it.'" V
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