Album influenced by feelings of displacement
For much of Derek Harrison’s adult life, home has been an impermanent place.
Though now based in Fort Frances in the far reaches of northwestern Ontario, the folk singer-songwriter and multiinstrumentalist grew up in Harrow, Ont., in Essex County, before moving to Windsor, Ottawa, Montreal, Australia and then Toronto, where he recorded his most recent album, “Blossington,” released late last year.
Named for the Bloor and Ossington neighbourhood in Toronto where the album was recorded and partially written, “Blossington” reflects Harrison’s unease at having to navigate yet another new space when he first moved to the city.
“The influence in the songwriting was mainly this feeling of displacement. It wasn’t Blossington specifically, it was Toronto. It was the fact that I had just moved to a new city, and just everything that comes with that, all the uncertainty and the adjustment,” he said in a phone interview on the road from Madison, Wis., where Harrison had stopped for the night in the middle of a 1,500-kilometre trek back to southern Ontario for a tour that will bring him to Kitchener for two afternoon shows next week.
“Any kind of tension will drive songwriting, I think, or any kind of creative act, and for me that tension was there in the form of wondering whether I made the right decision, and missing both my home where I grew up and missing Montreal, which I’d been in for five years.”
Produced by Brodie Stevenson at his home studio “about a block-and-a-half away” from Harrison’s then-apartment, the album’s sound reflects the gritty, notyet-gentrified feel of the neighbourhood in which it was made.
“I think it would have been a bit more polished and bright-sounding if we had recorded it in a less urban environment,” said Harrison. “When Brodie gave me the initial mixes back, I actually told him they sounded too clean, they didn’t sound like they came out of Blossington. We actually took the signal for most of the instruments, including the lead vocal and my guitar, and ran them through a tube amp, and then re-recorded them and had it slightly overdriven. So there’d be this crunch and it almost sounds like it’s peaking, but it was added in during postproduction — that kind of lo-fi sound, it was artificially added. That was made to reflect these vacant storefronts and the dusty, littery nature of that part of the city.”
“Blossington” also features members of Toronto folk-rock band The Old Salts, for whom Harrison writes songs and plays mandolin, and the album is the followup to his 2014 solo debut, “Dead and Gone.” Harrison, who has also toured Canada, Europe, and Australia with Krief, The Custom Outfit, and Madeleine Leman, said the songs on “Blossington” are the result of his evolving relationship with his craft.
“On the new album, the songs are more deliberate in what they’re trying to communicate and they have a better sense of place. And a lot of them are a bit longer — there are more lyrics in general, but I’ve
also spent more time on the lyrics, I’ve refined them, I’ve edited them. I didn’t just get to the end of a song and say, ‘Great, I have a song,’ I kept improving the songs,” he said. “So I think it’s just a matter of, as I’m older and more disciplined in my life in general, I have a better relationship with work now, and also less free time. I take songwriting more seriously as work. And creating in any way, it’s not just for fun, you’ve got to put the work in.”
Harrison said his frequent moves from city to increasingly larger city in the past were often futile attempts to escape unhappiness, a pattern that was broken by his most recent relocation to Fort Frances, which has a population of less than 8,000. In many respects, it’s safe to say that Harrison is in a better place now.
“The most recent move was for love,” he said. “My partner got a job in the northwest, so I think that’s a good reason, a better reason than the reasons I’ve had in the past, which were just out of searching for something. So I did not choose Fort Frances, it chose me, but it is nice to be in a place where (the) lifestyle involves a lot more work-life balance than in Toronto, particularly, but I think any city, where it’s a little harder to pull that off.”