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In my heart you’re north of the border
Shining down like the aurora
I still dream of you like a restless explorer
When you get a little older, a little wiser, you begin to truly understand the concept of home. Loves lost and found, lessons learned and hard-won, the past and the present: all form a path towards that place to call one’s own.
Many a great songwriter has been inspired by the Canadian landscape, attempting to capture its majesty through poetry and melody.
With Northern Gospel (her 10th full-length album to date), Emm Gryner places herself firmly in that grand tradition, all while continuing to hone the characteristically poignant sound that resonates deeply with anyone who hears it.
Since her earliest beginnings as a fledgling artist in the 1990s, Gryner has forged both her own path and her own sound – one album, one effortlessly tuneful song at a time.
Refusing to become a casualty of the major-label system, she turned the tables and founded her own label, Dead Daisy Records, to record and release her albums on her own terms – leading the indie revolution long before doing it yourself became the new music-industry paradigm.
15 years into a uniquely diverse career, the Ontario-based singer-songwriter has chalked up an enviable list of accomplishments: vast discography aside, Gryner has performed as a backing vocalist with rock icon David Bowie; been hailed by U2 frontman Bono for her indelible ballad “Almighty Love”; appeared opposite Joshua Jackson in indie film One Week; and on top of it all, last year she took on perhaps the most important role of all: first-time mom.
Clearly the road to Northern Gospel was paved with many grand adventures, including much time abroad – after her passport filled up with stamps and the road finally came to an end, she came to fully appreciate that old truism: There’s no place like home.
“I travelled nonstop in 2009, so when my son popped out and my passport expired for a while, I felt more than happy just to be at home here in Canada,” Gryner recalls. “If I never saw another airport again, I'd be happy!”
And thus the inspiration for the album began to take shape. Produced and recorded by longtime Gryner cohort Stuart Brawley, Northern Gospel brings together some old favourites and some new gems, all stitched together with a common thematic thread: it’s never a Gryner album without a little heartache, but with a whole lot of hope thrown in for good measure.
Recorded in Algoma, Ontario over the spring and summer of 2011, the songs on Northern Gospel were largely written in recent months at home as Gryner tended to her son, a brand-new source of inspiration in her life as a songwriter and artist.
“My heart has been resuscitated as a result of becoming a mom,” Gryner explains. “I want to be honest, and even if that’s scary, I know it’s worth it. So I face some of my demons on this album – whether they are old or new, I look them in the eye and ask them to teach me what they know, ask them to preach their gospel to me. And then I make nice melodies out of it all.”
Longtime Gryner fans will immediately recognize two previously released tunes that make a welcome return on Northern Gospel: “Fast Exit” first appeared on The Great Lakes, a limited-edition release from 2005, and “A Little War” goes back to early b-sides collection Dead Relatives. Gryner, who often produces her own work, jumped at the chance to once again collaborate with Brawley, who helped give the songs new life with fuller treatments and dynamic production.
The ten-song collection centres around one of Gryner’s classic ballads – “North” is indeed a love song, but not simply in the typical sense: set against the backdrop of the splendour of the Northern Lights, this paean to Canada serves as a love letter to the place Gryner calls home, taking inspiration from the musical greats who also saluted our nation through song.
“Songs about Canada make me really emotional,” Gryner notes. “We live in a phenomenal place in a crazy world – there is a naive, jubilant spirit here, and I treasure that. ‘North’ refers to where I live, and that settling back in Canada these past few years has been a real personal education for me. I've grown up, so to speak. A little late, but better than never!
“‘North’ is the most personal song on the album in some regards,” she continues. “It's about giving up petty fights, and bad romantic habits – hanging up the lovelorn boxing gloves.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that ‘North’ evokes the feeling of looking up at an immense expanse of sky, as the other nine songs on the album shine like a constellation of stars, throwing light on the vagaries of the human condition: Gryner’s silvery voice weaves through tales of life and death, love and regret, the past and the future.
“The gospel is a lesson – or at least it was meant to be that when I was falling asleep during mass as a youngster,” Gryner quips. “So instead of a reference to anything to do with an organized religion, the title has more to do with what I've learned from where I am – geographically, emotionally, or otherwise.”
Gryner has carved out a career from putting such life lessons into song – given her knack for giving voice to both the joys and sorrows that make up a life well lived, it’s hard not to want to sing along. Call it her own particular brand of gospel.