It took a decades-long relationship to bring final recordings to life
OF ITS MANY CONNECTIONS TO THE TRAGICALLY HIP, SKYDIGGERS’ 2019 ALBUM Let’s Get Friendship Right
takes its title from a Gord Downie lyric, though there isn't a single line Josh Finlayson holds above the rest. In remembering his late friend and collaborator, the latter group's co-founder points to music, family and humour as foundational to their personal and professional relationship of nearly three decades, which now culminates on Downie's posthumous new record, Away Is Mine, due October 16.
“[Gord] was very, very funny,” says Finlayson. “As a performer, he could be humorous in his actions. But even lyrically, sometimes there would just be funny things that were inside jokes, and other times, things that were outright fuckin' laugh-out-loud funny. I think maybe I'm drawn to that stuff because I shared a lot of laughs with him.”
Finlayson came to know Downie when Skydiggers supported the Hip on Canadian tour stops behind their 1989 debut, Up to Here, and would go on to become one of his closest collaborators outside of the beloved band. First entering the studio together for Downie's 2001 solo debut, Coke Machine Glow,
Finlayson would then appear on 2003's Battle of the Nudes and 2010's The Grand Bounce as a member of the songwriter's backing band, the Country of Miracles.
It was after a turn playing in Downie's Secret Path backing band in late 2016, for what would be the songwriter's final live performances, that the pair began to write the material that became Away Is Mine. Still tooling around with a guitar in an open-C tuning from those aforementioned shows, Finlayson would exchange musical ideas with Downie while he penned lyrics, coming away with 10 acoustic sketches they would then take to the studio to expand upon.
In July 2017, three months before Downie's death from brain cancer, the pair decamped to the Hip's Bathouse Recording Studio to transform the tracks with in-house engineer and producer Nyles Spencer, who would apply drum machines, synthesizers, and vocal effects in the name of creating a sound “from the future.” While the album's “electric” version sports additional playing from the Sadies' Travis Good, Downie's son Lou, and longtime Hip associate Dave “Billy Ray” Koster, an accompanying “acoustic” mix of the same 10 tracks pares things down to only Downie and Finlayson's instruments, offering an uninhibited glimpse of their process.
“[Gord's] brother Patrick had this great phrase for this record, ‘When the artist becomes the art,'” Finlayson recalls. “I think that's such an apt expression for Gord, and his life as an artist, and his life once his diagnosis was given to him and what he chose to do with it.”
For Finlayson, Away Is Mine ultimately commemorates a friendship and relationship held dear. “I just feel like it's such a great way for me to honour Gord and to be able to talk about him,” he concludes. “It's an opportunity to express the gratitude and love that I have for him, his family, his bandmates and his creativity. Chances are good that I'll be talking about Gord the rest of my life.”