'An inspiration for all of us': What it was like working with Gord Downie on his final solo recording
His new album, Away is Mine, sees the late musician 'unshackled and in full flight,' says his brother Patrick
When Gord Downie died in 2017, he left a massive hole in the hearts of music fans across Canada, but he also left us with a lot of work to fill it with.
Downie was a committed and focused musician who was always about the work, and he wasn't going to let brain cancer stand in his way. Of course there was the now legendary 2016 cross-Canada tour, culminating in the Tragically Hip's final show in their hometown of Kingston, Ont., watched by one-third of the country on CBC. That same year, Downie released Secret Path, an album for and about Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwe boy who ran away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont., only to die of hunger and exposure trying to walk the 600 kilometres home. A year later, Downie's solo album, Introduce Yerself, came out and was received as his final artistic statement, a personal, touching tribute to his friends and family.
But true to his reputation, Downie was far from done with the work, and as summer of 2017 rolled on, he was busy writing and recording his final 10 songs.
Away is Mine will be released Oct. 16, and was recorded at the Tragically Hip's studio in Bath, Ont. On it, Downie stares down his mortality like never before, a poignant statement from a man who was so good at seizing the moment.
"He's always got pieces of writing in various forms of completeness and they're always within arm's reach. Just piles of poems and little things he's got at his disposal," says his brother Patrick Downie, Gord's caregiver through the last two years of his life. When he speaks of his brother, Patrick considers the weight of his words carefully, and will sometimes speak in the present tense. "It's an inspiration for all of us. He's a very dutiful, hard-working guy. He left us a lot, including this drive to carry his legacy forward in the same way he would have."
Patrick describes the period following Gord's diagnosis as a bit tumultuous, with his brother instantly going into "writing mode" in order to complete Introduce Yerself. Both that album and Secret Path had a real sense of urgency to them, as if a clock was ticking, whereas the material on Away is Mine is much more relaxing and pensive, the sound of a man who is under no pressure and alone with his thoughts.
Introduce Yerself was more of a thank you. Away is Mine is more of a goodbye. - Patrick Downie
"Come be surrounded/ by those who love you the most," Downie sings on "About Blank," while on "Useless Nights," he seems to be addressing a higher power. "Please be good to me/ Yea, save me from the useless nights," he pleads.
It makes sense that the songs on Away is Mine were written during a period of down time, after the Hip's grand finale and his two solo projects. "Introduce Yerself was more of a thank you," describes Patrick. "Away is Mine is more of a goodbye."
'It was just a good way to spend time with Gord'
The songs featured on Away is Mine started as a way for Gord to stay busy. He collaborated with Josh Finlayson, the guitarist and co-founder for Toronto band the Skydiggers who is also described as Gord's "oldest Toronto friend." They first met in the early '90s, when the Skydiggers opened for the Hip at the Spectrum in Montreal. For a while, the Hip members were living in Toronto, but as they slowly began to move away, Gord stayed and put down roots in the city, sparking up a lifelong bond with Finlayson. For Finlayson, working on music with Gord was just a way to stay connected, doing something they've always loved.
At the time, Gord was working on a book, but that ultimately proved to be too isolating, especially for an artist who thrived on collaboration.
"It was just a good way to spend time with Gord," says Finlayson, not ever thinking it was more than an exercise. "Music was a very familiar place where I think he found solace and peace of mind, so I felt that was the best friend I could be to him in that situation."
I really wanted the last thing he did to be the first thing to come out- Patrick Downie
They recorded their parts, Finlayson on his iPhone, Gord into Garageband on his Macbook, with nothing but guitar and vocals. "It was a nice distraction for him and he loved to work. But then he said, 'What do you think about going to the Bath house?,'" Finlayson says of the decision to take the songs and record them at the Hip's studio outside Kingston.
There, each song was arranged by producer Nyles Spencer, the Bath studio manager and engineer for both Gord's solo work (Introduce Yerself, Secret Path) and the Hip (Man Machine Poem, Now for Plan A). It was never planned that these songs would make up an album, nor was it planned that these would be the final songs Gord ever recorded, but once it was in motion, it was never questioned whether or not they would be released.
"Dealing with grief of losing a brother, it's been a real gift, but at the same time it's not always been easy," says Patrick of having to make some final decisions around his brother's legacy. "Those are not easy decisions to make under the haze of sorrow, so to speak, but this one, I always felt super solid on. In a way it's been my anchor. I knew we always had this in the can and there was no question about where its place in his legacy is.… I really wanted the last thing he did to be the first thing to come out. To me it puts a nice cap on his solo catalogue and I just feel like it's him really unshackled and in full flight."
'He gave it all he had'
The recording process is described as an intimate, light affair, with friends and family brought in to flesh out the songs, including Travis Good of the Sadies on fiddle, mandolin and guitar, Dave "Billy Ray" Koster on drums, as well as Gord's son, Louis, on drums. His daughters, Clare and Willo Downie, provided the album artwork, and the album is being released on Arts & Crafts, the Toronto label that has handled almost all of Gord's solo albums since 2001's Coke Machine Glow.
According to Patrick, it was like "any other trip down to Bath.… Very business like, but also light and fun," he says. "We really didn't know how much time Gord had left and it wasn't like there was some kind of a countdown or that the pressure was really on."
Only in hindsight does he realize that perhaps Gord, always quiet and reserved when working, was even more so.
"But that was all part of the situation, because he's sick with a terminal illness, and so there's a lot of drugs and side effects and things like that," he says. "I'd say he was holding up fairly well, even if I found him maybe to be a little bit run down. By the time we finished, I think that was probably, you know — he gave it all he had."
Over four days, the songs created by Finlayson and Downie transformed from acoustic ballads into something otherworldly, complete with overdubs and vocal effects to make them sound, as producer Spencer puts it in the press release, "from another world, from the future, from a place we don't know."
But at one point, Finlayson also realized he wanted to preserve the acoustic songs he and Gord had recorded, all of them played in open C tuning in the style of folks artists like Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens.
"In my mind, it was more like I'm taking a selfie or something," he says. "It was just a little document for me. I wanted something that sounded really good, not just the phone or the laptop recordings we had. But then when we listened to it back, it was really cool."
A decision was made to include both electric and acoustic versions of the songs, the latter stripping away almost everything but the guitar in order to leave Downie's voice floating in the ether.
"We listened to it and we thought, 'Wow, it's too good to not include,'" adds Patrick. "It really felt like it was a cool listening exercise in which you can just see the potential of a song. It was very contemplative, almost a study."
Arts & Crafts first heard the album in October of 2018, when label president Kieran Roy emailed it to a small group of employees. "Looking back at the thread, my immediate reaction to the album was, 'It's a beautiful thing,'" says Jonathan Shedletzky, the marketing and label manager at Arts & Crafts. "I was struck by the inventive production of the record, how it both shrouded and emulated Gord's voice, and how unguarded his lyrics were."
They always knew there would be more music from Gord (it's been stated that even though Away is Mine was the final thing Gord recorded, it will not be his final solo release), and they treated it like any other album from him. "I see Arts & Crafts' role in honouring Gord's legacy as the same role we've always played in our work with him: to let the art lead, in contempt of convention," says Shedletzky.
For both Finalyson and Patrick, it's been a relief to release something into the world they've both been holding on to so closely for so long.
"It was a great thing for me to have in the grieving process for Gord," says Finlayson of the recordings. "It's been a nice tonic and has provided a bit of a pivot for all the uncertainty. This was always a very certain thing. Music is great medicine for everyone."
For Patrick, it hits on many levels, both as a grieving brother and as someone in charge of honouring that legacy.
"Like a lot of stuff with Gord, sometimes it hits you in one way and sometimes it hits you in a completely different way. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it just feels like he's right there," he says before pausing. "I would just say this album kept him close and it kept him alive for me."
Gord Downie's Away is Mine is available Oct. 16 from Arts & Crafts.