Feature

How a chat with Jon Brooks inspired the ‘theme’ of James Keelaghan’s new record

James Keelaghan. Photo by Jen Squires.

When artists start putting a new album together, many like it to have an overarching theme or vibe. Sometimes they like to highlight struggles for social justice, a personal journey through challenging times or a look at what’s positive in this world. So what was singer-songwriter James Keelaghan’s motivation for recording his latest release, Second Hand?

“Aside from ‘Jesus, you better get a CD done and out there?” he said laughing. “It has been a few years. I’ve been really busy raising my boys, keeping a roof over their head and food in the fridge. That sort of distracted me from some of that stuff. But I had a stock of songs and a little bit of time to do some concentrated writing.”

Like many people, James at first attempted to record the songs himself but that proved to be unsuccessful.

“I have the patience to write the songs and the patience to sing ’em, but to sit there and press all the buttons while it’s going on just isn’t something I could do. So Bill Garrett stepped in the producer’s role and cracked the whip.”

Recorded mostly at the Treatment Room in Montreal, the album features contributions from Solon McDade and David Woodhead on bass, Bill Garrett on guitar and Bob Stagg on piano, organ and accordion.

“Piano is a sound I’ve wanted to explore with my voice for quite some time and never quite seemed to get it together,” James said. “I think my voice is suited for piano. So Bob played some amazing, amazing piano on this.”

For someone who cut his teeth writing historically-based songs in the tradition of people like Stan Rogers, Second Hand is the most personal collection of songs James has released.

“I had a conversation with Jon Brooks,” he said. “Jon felt that if I was going to write about history, I had to write about a more personal kind of history. So that’s really come out in this album. There’s a lot more personal stories, and a little bit more personal history.”

That history doesn’t necessarily deal with what’s happened to James himself though.

“‘Just A Letter’ is taken from the life story of a friend of mine who was the victim of an assault when she was younger and now every year has to relive that as letters come from the parole board from the person who attacked them. Every year they bravely write a letter back to the parole board reminding them what they had to go through as a result of this. To see this wonderful, gentle, amazing person have to live through that every year, the song is about that and parole and about victimhood.”

For the past number of years, James has been wearing quite a few different hats at the same time. Besides maintaining his musical career, he’s also the artistic director for both the Stewart Park Festival in Perth, ON and the Summerfolk Festival in Owen Sound, ON.

“In a normal year it wouldn’t be as much of a juggling act, but this year we were also re-building Stewart Park as well, getting our policies and procedures in place,” he said. “So I’m having to do a lot more than just the artistic direction to make that happen. Is it something I want to do again next year? I’m just not sure. Two festivals and then add a CD on top of that, that’s a lot of stuff to do.”

So now that the summer festival season has come to an end, the focus will be to tour in support of Second Hand. The cover of the new album features a photo of James with his very well-used Laskin guitar.

“Yeah, I’ve had that guitar since 1984, and it’s the only one I’ve played on stage, and every recording I’ve made has been on that guitar. It’s just so much part of my voice and so much part of who I am. I think we’re both getting grizzled at about the same rate!”

For more on James Keelaghan and Second Hand, go to keelaghan.com.

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