David Newland talks to Paul Corby about his new Arctic-themed album
David Newland is one of the co-founders of Roots Music Canada. He’s also a singer-songwriter and adventurer who serves as an ambassador for Adventure Canada. He recently released his latest album, Northbound: The Northwest Passage in Story and Song, and will perform a launch concert in Cobourg next month. Paul Corby spoke to him about the new project on his Radio Regent program Corby’s Orbit.
PC: Your title, NORTHBOUND, suggests a direction, but also a connection, a bond between Canada and what we now capitalize in our swag as “The North.”
DN: We are bound to the Arctic, yes – one – in that our attention is always being drawn northward, we define ourselves in northern terms. And two, we are bound, legally, with the Nunavut land claims and the others approved by the Inuit and the people of Canada.
PC: It’s sort of a flashpoint now for environmental issues that are significant worldwide.
DN: The Arctic makes clear the extent to which the great changes of our time are imposing themselves on us. And they’re happening there first and most obviously.
PC: We’ve grown, as a country, from that same winter-centric culture.
DN: And you go around calling yourself a northerner. You’ve kind of grown up on Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton…
PC: … Lawren Harris…
DN: …but then to actually go to the north, and you have these compelling images, and when you reach there it’s beyond that; it’s almost impossible to express the qualities of the geography. And then the second you get into a community, what is really really the key element that hasn’t been told in the stories is that it’s a people’s place. The whole place is an Inuit homeland. It’s not an empty place; it’s not an unexplored or undiscovered place. It’s someone’s home. And I understood that if I was going to tell the stories. according to my eyes being opened in that space, it would be an opportunity to collaborate with the people who were there already, telling their stories in their own language, within their own musical history, focusing on different aspects than I normally would – about relationships, relationships with food, relationships with family, relationships with the land.
PC: What proportion of time do you actually spend up there?
DN: Well for the past seven years I’ve been travelling into the high Arctic for several weeks a year. I’m aboard ships as an expedition host in a very comfortable environment, you know, but in a way, that allows me some insight into what the place feels like and, in a way, that puts me next to the people living there.
PC: We’re hearing a lot of refreshing music coming out of there now.
DN: The way that global communication works, even in a place like Nunavut, which is 25 very small communities, no roads interconnecting them – no railways – the Inuit have always been a very worldly people. And now that technology allows for interaction you hear a lot of thoughtful music coming out of there, because the kinds of challenges that they face there are so unusual and interesting, even in this day. Creativity is really honoured in that culture, going back to sculpture and painting and wall hangings. And stories.
PC: This record is full of stories.
DN: There’s a tension between the received Arctic stories that southerners are blindly operating on and the ones that Inuit continue to tell and to operate on. I like the tension there; there’s something there to explore artistically. The story that most southerners enter by is the Franklin Expedition story. They were trying to join the Atlantic and the Pacific through the archipelago that is now the Canadian Arctic and it goes terribly wrong; they never come home. That’s what most people know. But it’s only a jumping off point. And so what I do in the album is come in through that story in the voice of one of the sailors, a ghost. Using the fact that the story is compelling and interesting and somewhat familiar, I take the legs right out from under it and place you in a landscape with new eyes, as I was, so we can turn our attention away from the received history and take a more considered viewpoint against the backdrop of the Inuit’s continued presence.
PC: You’re setting yourself up as an inheritor of Stan Rogers’ and Gordon Lightfoot’s musical historical trailblazing.
DN: Here’s the part of that that I would be comfortable with: I absolutely grew up on Gordon Lightfoot’s music, and, being raised five miles north of Parry Sound, 60 or so miles north of Orillia, I’m deeply aware of the landscape in which Gordon Lightfoot’s songs exist, and I’ve also hosted the Gordon Lightfoot tribute at Hugh’s Room for the last 15 years.
As for Stan Rogers, a lot of people associate him with that great song “Northwest Passage,” but it’s a problematic song, because it’s not really about the Northwest Passage, it invokes it…
PC: It’s a romance.
DN: …and he refers to “the land so wide and savage,” and I can’t sing those words without doing a whole lot of preparation work for the audience first. So it’s a piece “of its time.” Those are songwriters who deliberately turned their hand to Canadian history and geography, and I can’t claim to be in the same echelon …
PC: But you’re in the same business.
DN: It’s the same business yes. It has always been a folk singer’s job to tell stories: work stories, travel stories. My stories come from my job as a Zodiac driver on the ships in the Northwest Passage, and I’m conscious of the fact that even though it’s 2019, I’m doing what folk singers have always done. And I like to think that the stories that live around the campfire and in the little venues and on radio shows like this one (Corby’s Orbit on Radio Regent) will always be important as an endeavour for artists to transmit and develop, [and talk] about – how we got here, where we are, where we seem to be going.
And there are lots of genres to tell them in. I’m in the folk tradition because that’s what I grew up in, and I hope it has a meaning for people. But one of the things that Gord did was to expand the folk idiom by using elements from pop, rock, country, jazz and blues – once even a spoken kind of rap breakdown in the 80s. He used whatever colour he needed. And one of the interesting inheritances of the Canadian songbook is that I don’t think it’s ever been too closely tied to genre. Because there are so few of us, all the genres had to co-exist. If you listen to what The Band did or what Joni Mitchell did …
PC: .. Bruce Cockburn …
DN: … there’s such a variety of influences. And that extends into the present day. Even Drake, and I can’t claim to be intimate with his work, but what I really admire is that he’s a boundary breaker. He just does it different. And I like that because it’s a service to the song. Songs are natural phenomena. The song will tell you what it wants to do. It’s useful not to be too squared off in a given tradition.
PC: Well good on you bringing history back to life, especially with it being dropped from the curriculum in public schools.
DN: When I take this show around, what I hear from people is they don’t want a Tim Horton’s version of Canadian history; they want a focus on the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s unwise to receive your history without constantly re-examining it. It’s important to look at where the biases are, look at who wasn’t telling the story, look at who was left out, who received the worst of it, and try to get that back in there and try to find out some truth.
David Newland – Northbound CD launch!
June 7, 7:30 p.m. – Concert Hall at Victoria Hall, Cobourg, ON. This show will feature a complete performance of NORTHBOUND plus new songs just for the local audience!
David will perform with his band, Uncharted Waters, and Inuit cultural performers Siqiniup Qilauta / Sunsdrum,
The event will include a screening of the mini-documentary, Which Way Does Your Compass Point? featuring images, video, and stories from David’s travels in the Northwest Passage.