“I like projects, and I guess I felt I had something to say,” said Ian Tamblyn, by way of explaining his 45 albums over a 47-year career.
That is as good a reason as any. Ian’s prolific artistic output is represented on his latest album, Scenes Through A Mirror: A Retrospective. The 26-song two-disc set includes songs that are as synonymous with Canada as they are with Ian: “Woodsmoke And Oranges,” “Black Spruce,” “The Ballad Of Mark Jarareuse” and “Bay Of Sails.”
Once Ian decided it was time to put together a retrospective collection, there were two concerns. First was the audio quality of some of the recordings and second was the songwriting quality.
“Not only did we move from analogue to digital but we also went through several platforms, from vinyl to cassettes to CDs, even DAT recordings,” Ian said.
With the help of engineer David Bignell, Ian first determined which recordings were still sonically “valid.” Luckily his methods of recording and use of instrumentation over the years wasn’t very “psychedelic” as he put it, which meant his albums didn’t sound dated. Through those years, he was guided by the producing approaches of producer Joe Boyd and artists like Dougie MacLean and the Tannahill Weavers.
“Their production values had an integrity I always appreciated, so I was shooting for that in a way,” he said.
What he was left with was 52 tracks that were then whittled down to the final 26. For some artists who’ve released retrospective albums, there’s the temptation to re-record some earlier songs, not just re-master them. Ian had no interest in doing that, mainly because he wanted to give the listener a sense of the times the songs were recorded in and to celebrate the work of the engineers and musicians who worked on the songs.
The tracks on Scenes Through A Mirror: A Retrospective aren’t sequenced chronologically, but you do get a sense of Ian’s development as a songwriter and singer, going all the way back to 1976’s “Paris Afternoon.”
“My voice has changed dramatically since I sang that, and in some sense, I wish I could re-record it with my older voice. But part of including it was to ‘let the laundry out,'” he said laughing. “The song is saved by a wonderful string section by the National Arts Centre Orchestra.”
As a songwriter, Ian feels he’s become a more simple writer, having taken a cue from Jesse Winchester, who’s motto was, “Say what needs to be said and try to say no more.” Many of the songs on this retrospective are ones Ian still performs in concert, although perhaps not exactly as he once did.
“There’s always a challenge to bring new energy to the songs or look at them in another way through different phrasing,” he said. “I’m either singing the song for myself or for the audience because they asked for it. And that’s as important.”
Looking through the liner notes for Scenes Through A Mirror: A Retrospective, you’ll notice the names of musicians who have worked with Ian for decades, making them as much a part of Ian’s sound as his songs are. Guitarist Fred Guignion, for example, played on 1986’s Ghost Parade.
“And if I can’t get a musician like Fred, I’ll get a like-minded musician like Kevin Breit or Scott Merritt. They’re kindred spirits, so I have sort of a general production sonic awareness of what I’m looking for.”
Over many years, Ian Tamblyn had the opportunity to work with the travel companies Adventure Canada and Students On Ice. As a result, he made many trips to Canada’s Arctic and to the Antarctic, working as a guide and making field recordings, some of which sometimes made their way onto his albums. It was through these travels that Ian now puts his creative output into two categories: external songs and internal songs.
“In my earlier world, I was chasing the North, so I chased it to its extreme and then I said, ‘What’s the opposite?'”
What emerged were songs of travel, like “The Ballad Of Mark Jarareuse,” “Chasing The Sun” and “You Are This Place.” The other songs Ian would write, like “25th Hour Of The Day,” “Low Coast Road” and “I Am Waiting” he puts down to the consequence of travel.
“Now I’m trying to blend them both in the newer songs.”
Ian does have enough songs for yet another album but is unsure about it’s future, given the current state of the recording environment. He’s also aware of the advance of time. He’s 76 years old and in good health but, as he said, “As we grow older, we are increasingly aware of our mortality. As a result it demands more energy to ignore it!”
In the meantime, Ian has started writing another play. This one is about his grandmother, Vera Baird, a singer who entertained in the lumber camps of northwestern Ontario after the First World War with a piano player. Ian discovered her sheet music in a piano bench and has now recorded 20 songs he can choose from. This past summer, he went on a canoe trip to Quetico, Kenora and Keewatin to research the area and the times his grandmother lived in. There’s no date yet for mounting the production but he already has a piano player interested in taking part in it.
For more on Ian Tamblyn and Scenes Through A Mirror: A Retrospective, go to http://www.iantamblyn.com.