Every guitar tells a story. The one David Leask used on his latest record tells at least 64.
The acoustic axe is composed of that many pieces of Canadian history — segments of Wayne Gretzky’s and Paul Henderson’s hockey sticks, the port terminal at Pier 21, an original seat from Toronto’s Massey Hall, a piece of spalted oak from the St. Boniface Museum, and a lucky Gimli stone, among others, and Leask — a Scottish-born troubadour living in Mississauga, Ont. — mined the instrument’s physical material for inspiration.
"This guitar is anything but standard," said Leask, who released the six-song EP Voyageur in Song in September. "It’s a unique instrument, with unique qualities, representing many different voices. Maybe that’s a metaphor for Canada."
Leask’s relationship with the guitar began in 2010, when he came across its creator, Jowi Taylor, at a workshop in Toronto. Taylor conceived of the guitar and the "Six String Nation" project around the time of the mid-90s Quebec referendum as a way to unite the country by stitching pieces of every province and territory into the body of a single instrument. After its completion in 2006, the guitar was taken on the road, and Leask was intrigued by the wandering instrument’s ties to his adoptive country.
"It’s a bit of a time machine," he says, as well as a map of the country’s history, and the album’s cover depicts a lone musician walking down a fretted highway, from the East Coast to the West.
A few years after their introduction, the songwriter again crossed paths with the guitar. Leask’s idea was to examine the 64 pieces from which to build his songs, ultimately settling on five: the legendary Golden Spruce (Kiidk’yaas) from Haida Gwaii, felled by a protester in 1997; Mi’kmaq fisherman and oyster-shucking champion Joe Labobe’s knife handle; a piece of Labradorite, an iridescent blue mineral found on the East Coast; Saskatchewan’s Doukhobor grain elevator, built by migrants persecuted in Tsarist Russia; and the seat from Massey Hall, arguably Canada’s most famous entertainment venue.
The sixth song, Les Chanson Du Voyageur was inspired by the guitar itself, nicknamed Voyageur, and its nomadic journey between the coasts, directing the audience to "listen to this storying guitar." Aside from Leask’s voice, the guitar is the only instrument played on the track, used for percussion and modified as a bass.
Other pieces of the guitar include wood from the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, an institution that was still segregated in the 1960s, an inlay of a canvas frame from the Group of Seven’s studio, and a strip of Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.
In all, Leask — backed by veteran Canadian musicians such as Justin Abedin and Gary Craig, who’ve played with Nelly Furtado and Bruce Cockburn — gives new meaning to the genre "country music."
It was his plan to take the album on the road to the places from which it drew inspiration, including Manitoba, but COVID-19 shook that up. Instead, Leask has been doing media interviews and shooting music videos in hopes of getting the album, which blends folk, blues and bluegrass styles, out into the world.
"A tour is now a virtual tour," he said. One morning, he’ll be on TV in Saskatoon and on radio in PEI, all without leaving his house.
"It’s been an interesting thing," he said. "But there’s nothing like having people in an audience to see, and even touch, the guitar. But we have to do what we can with the world we’re living in."
Now, it’s just another story the guitar can tell.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.