Grit Laskin: The four letter F-word
by Jan Vanderhorst
"I'm proud to be a performer of the four letter F-word!"
Now before you get your hackles up, realize Grit Laskin is talking about folk music and why his latest CD is titled 'Unabashedly Folk'.
"It's the way I feel about folk music", he says.
The album is a two-disc set containing his first two recordings from 1979 and 1985, which have been re-mastered, remixed and include two songs which didn't make the original releases. The Toronto resident's stock and trade is as a luthier, a maker of guitars, mandolins and other stringed instruments. He has also for many years been a member of the Friends of Fiddler's Green, a collection of performers mainly from the British Isles; of which incidentally he is not. It was through both of these vocations that Grit came to know Stan Rogers, Canada's pre-eminent folk performer, and have his albums released on Stan's Fogarty's Cove label. Stan played some of Grit's instruments and shared many a festival stage with the 'Friends'.
"It was out at the Mariposa Festival", Grit remembers, "(Stan) was there performing, I was there with the Friend of Fiddler's Green, and it was in the performers area while we were each holding a sandwich when he actually said to me, 'so do you want to make a record?'. 'Unmasked' was the first record other than his own music that he put out. It was sort of the beginning of him turning Fogarty's Cove into more than just a vanity label."
Stan served as producer on the 1979 recording which featured Grit playing just about every traditional instrument imaginable. Grit's next album though, 1985's 'Lila's Jig', was released under difficult circumstances.
"(Stan) wanted another record", Grit related, "and I was actually a little behind schedule from what he wanted. We were recording it pretty much in-studio when Stan died. So that record kind of got caught in a limbo. Fogarty's Cove was pretty much a shoe-string operation run by Stan's mom out her her living room. She was on the phone all day, mailing letters (in the days before e-mail) and had a great network she connected with. Stan was touring all the time and took the records out there, (he) even took ('Unmasked') with him on tour and helped sell them. So (then) 'Lila's Jig' comes out and the record company stops (operating). Stan's wife wasn't really interested in running a record company; she's kept (Stan's) music out there, but she didn't want to continue being an expanding record company. So ('Lila's Jig') never got any distribution and it wasn't taken out there by Stan on his gigs. I had some for mine, but it wasn't distributed, not promoted, so maybe 5-,6-,700 copies are in circulation and that's about it. Also it was LP and then cassette, right about the time when CDs started to appear", Grit laughs, "so everything was stacked against it."
The two albums now out as 'Unabashedly Folk' are on the Borealis Recording Company label of which Grit is a co-owner. In a few short years, Borealis has established itself as Canada's leading folk label, comprising over 30 releases from a roster 19 artists.
To prepare the albums for re-release, the folks at Borealis couldn't just use the 15 to 20 year old masters the way they were.
"The tapes had to be what's called 'baked'", says Grit, "and literally they are cooked. (This) restores some deterioration (and) it did rescue the sounds that were on the (tapes), because there were a few songs I wanted to remix and we needed nice clean sound to re-master them. But they weren't altered a lot. Mostly 'Lila's Jig' (was remixed), because I self-produced it and the budget was tight and time was tight and I was inexperienced. There were sounds (on the album) that have bothered me ever since and we took care of them. (Plus) nowadays with CD and digital technology, people can hear more in the sound than they could before. (Musicians) are capable of delivering more qualities of sound, more dynamics, so you have to put them in there. So you're enhancing frequencies and whatnot in re-mastering."
Listening back to the tapes of these albums was a bit strange for Grit and one he wasn't sure others would want to experience.
"Well the first thing (is), my voice sounds so young", he says, "I'm still getting used to it, because I haven't listened to these for a long time. I honestly thought 'Who's going to want to listen to this old stuff?' People were nagging me for it and that's why I did it, but I really didn't think anyone would be interested anymore. But having listened through it, I was pleasantly surprised that I still like a lot of these songs and tunes. Actually there's a number (of them) still in my repertoire! But on the musicianship side, especially 'Lila's Jig' which was half original dance tunes, there's some playing on there that I would have to be awfully warmed-up to match (today). I was younger (then), the muscles moved a little quicker", he chuckles, "the mandolin is my most technical side, musically-speaking, but there are some fast triplets and things happening that I am not certain I could duplicate (now). So I'm glad I accomplished them and they were recorded for posterity."
Of course these days all of that blinding speed and dexterity has been replaced by maturity, elegance and grace.
"Oh absolutely!", says Grit with tongue firmly in cheek, "speed, ha!, been there, done that, yeah yeah. Now I'm going for the musicality, the quality, where each note is imbued...oh absolutely!"
As mentioned earlier, 'Unabashedly Folk' features a couple of songs which didn't quite make it to the final product the first time around, including 'The Upper Class Shanty (Dow Jones).
"People know that shanties were work songs on boats", says Grit, "and they had a rhythm that helped people with their rhythmic routine and physically tough task, pulling rope, reefing in sails, whatever it might be. The Shanty Master would sing and help the work go (along). So I decided to go to the other end, to the upper class, the people who would have been the captains and ship owners, and gave them a shanty, but of course set it in modern times just to have some fun. It was recorded in the same sessions for 'Unmasked' and the Friends of Fiddler's Green was there and sang on the chorus. (Unfortunately), it didn't fit the balance of the songs and (we) couldn't quite squeeze it on and rationalize it being there, so it never (made the final release). Going back to listen to these tapes, I had forgotten we had recorded and mixed it, finished it and just never used it. So there it was to be used, as silly as it is, another from my parody period."
Me father bought a shippin' line
Me age by then was 10 and 9
I made captain in two weeks time
Sing "Hey" for me father's shippin' line
The reissuing of 'Unmasked' and 'Lila's Jig' continues a growing trend in folk music circles of older, well-loved vinyl recordings seeing the light of day once more on CD.
"Once CDs started coming out", says Grit, "I found them so convenient that my LP's sit there. Even music I really enjoyed. I've gotten out of the habit of all the things you had to do to take out an LP and get the needle down...and I find I'm not listening to them, so I like (reissues) on CD too."
If up-coming reissues are as timeless as 'Unabashedly Folk', folk music will be well-served for years to come.
For more information on Grit Laskin, the web address for the Borealis Recording Company is: www.borealisrecords.com
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org