“Maybe you wonder why nobody seems to try. And they never give anything, but they want everything”. All morning I have been singing this line from Dean Baltesson’s new song “Lonely Ghost”. The Canadian musician uses his music and lyrics to tell a story, I use my paintings.
For thousands of years, people have told stories to share their experiences and we do – in many different ways – to this day. In the old days stories were passed on by word of mouth, often in the form of verse ballads, or songs. And wherever pilgrims, merchants and wandering people travelled, they took their stories with them.
Songs are our fears, hopes, dreams, losses, celebrations, memories and experiences. And they are each a story. Good musical story-telling is an art, as proven by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, who composed the symphonic poem “The Moldau” to musically represent the course of the great river Vitava as it flows through his homeland past a forest hunt, a peasant wedding or the city of Prague. Dean Baltesson’s CD “Covering Ground” is the story of his journey from the Canadian Prairies to the West Coast, and I had the chance to talk to the songwriter in detail about the art of musical story-telling shortly after the release of his new album “Covering Ground’.
Dean Baltesson, your musical journey began on the Canadian Central Plains, a land of gently rolling hills, burning summers and hard winters. ‘Covering Ground’ is the title of your new cd. What ground have you covered before you began writing the lyrics, composing the music, playing all the instruments and singing your songs three years ago?
Dean: My music is a reflection of the country that shaped my life as I made my way slowly west – from the Prairies to the Rockies and eventually to the Pacific Coast. This geography has an influence on us all in some manner, and that is something I find worth writing about.
Is “Covering Ground” the musical story of your life?
Dean: I suppose that my journey “Covering Ground” is in a way an autobiography, but not in the sense that it is a story of my life and what I accomplished, which – if I may add – I don’t consider remarkable.
Growing up, I was a solitary person and retreated into music, specifically the singer-songwriter album oriented music of the seventies. The other things that impressed me were landscape, weather, and the beauty of the land. I loved all kinds of landscapes, even unnatural ones. I remember one frozen winter morning when I arrived at work in downtown Edmonton, seeing the sun rise over the refineries to the east of the city. Ironically, I was even drawn to this kind of industrial beauty.
It seems like music and nature have been the 2 staples in your life that particularly speak to you?
Dean: Absolutely. They have made life appealing for me, and I guess the obvious result of such a combination is a collection of songs about the land. That is really why “Covering Ground” exists.
When you think back to those lonely highways and endless distances during long winter nights, what music comes to your mind?
Dean: There were so many different kinds of music I listened to growing up that it’s difficult to identify a particular song or artist that characterizes my original home. In 1979, however, I started listening to the music of Pat Metheny. I love the album “New Chautauqua”, which is sparse, brooding and beautiful. Its songs, and also Pat Metheny´s “Cross The Heartland” still take me back to the prairie.
To this day those songs awaken your feelings and memories. Dean Baltesson, you mentioned that just as powerful as music were the photographs of Canadian photographer Courtney Milne to you. Why is that?
Dean: Courtney Milne published a book in 1985 called “Prairie Light”. I was infatuated with his images because I felt they captured my emotions and sensations about the land I lived on.
As is happens, “Homeless hills” is one of my favourite songs on your album “Covering Ground”. Were you inspired by a certain image or memory?
Dean: One of the photos by Courtney Milne entitled “Almost Home” is in fact the inspiration for the song “Homeless Hills”. It is a picture of a single light shining on a dark blue winter night. The mood conveyed by that photo is something I know very well. I would have loved to meet Courtney, but unfortunately he passed away in 2010. The book was filled with many similar images that were very compelling to me. I tried to acquire the use of some of these photos for my CD, but it was not possible.
Dean, you sing about hills that were peaceful and safe. Have you ever wondered if you once believed in truth because of your innocence?
Dean: I believe that truth exists, even though some people may argue that the truth is relative or arbitrary. I do admit though that defining the truth can be complicated, particularly when it gets entangled with our beliefs and desires.
On “Covering Ground”, I am suggesting that truth seems less complicated during childhood, the setting for “Homeless Hills”. For example, if you are lucky enough to have loving parents, you can trust them and therefore believe what they tell you. As a child, you believe in truth. But after you grow up and move out on your own, it starts to become more complicated.
Where did you find peace when you were young?
Dean: I often experienced a strong feeling of contentment, but it didn’t always have to be peaceful – it could be passionate and emotional, and always came from nature, music and books. I was a dreamer. I wandered in the fields and the forests surrounding my home, where my imagination would really run away with itself. I loved the idea of living outdoors primitively, really being a part of the earth, the rivers and the sky. I liked the urgency of dramatic weather and wind blowing in the trees. Those things soothed my mind and energized me.
Did music consume you in the same way?
Dean: I could become lost in an album looking at pictures and following along with the lyrics. I imagined playing each instrument as I listened to songs. Of course reading books also activated the imagination, so I would say that dreaming and creative imagination were the activities that occupied my youth and gave me peace of mind.
Dean Baltesson, as a boy, which instrument did you choose to play first and how did you learn it?
Dean: I was always drawn to the drums because I liked the precision and the texture of the sounds. My favourite drummers showed me that it wasn’t just about keeping time. Drumming is musical and creative. I was fascinated with their ability to play time, but also to fill a space at just the right moment.
Did you find rock the easiest music to learn to play drums to?
Dean: Yes, because you can get up and running pretty quickly. Learn a few things and you can find yourself playing along with almost anything on the popular radio stations. I taught myself by listening to Elton John and mimicking the drums on those big hits of the seventies. I treated it like learning a musical score and memorized the drums of entire albums. It was an obsession. Before I owned my first set of drums, I would look at pictures of drum sets and play songs on them in my head.
Would you say that musicians choose different instruments to express different emotions? Like a painter may choose between bright and dark colours?
Dean: That is an interesting question. I love trying to play any musical instrument. When you are teenage boy, it can be very difficult and risky to express emotions, but if you play a musical instrument, it’s like an accepted, even a cool way, to be emotional. Playing the drums could do that for you, but it is probably the guitar that best illustrates what I am talking about. It offers great freedom. You can cry out with a guitar. No wonder so many kids play them.
Your song ‘Lonely Ghost’ is about people trying to cry out in their own misunderstood way, unable to identify the true source of their pain. How, do you think, is this kind of suffering a result of our modern world?
Dean: I think that the modern world amplifies suffering, which is a problem as old as time itself, or perhaps we should think of it as a mystery rather than a problem. The mystery is that we just don’t know where we are, why we are here, and where we are going. As progress occurs, life becomes apparently too easy, and I say apparently because there really is no easy way to be alive …
… although we never seem to stop looking for one!
Dean (chuckling): One of the things that I’ve noticed about my own life is that it has usually been possible to coast. There have been – and still are – issues and challenges I could better serve myself by dealing with immediately, but it’s so easy to push them aside and distract myself with an easy form of gratification.
When problems are too much to deal with, I sometimes wonder, “Can I just stop pedalling and coast without any real detriment to my lifestyle?” I’m not going to fall off the bike. It is just luck that I can do this – luck and the fact that many, many people have taken the trouble and sacrifice to create a society that makes this possible.
The modern world strives to make our lives one long downhill coast, but one wonders whether this doesn’t lead to stagnancy and disaffection in many ways.
One of your songs is about a wide, deep river that is calm on the surface, holding a strong current in its heart. You say of yourself that you have become used to searching constantly. Is this your quest, like the river’s current could not be halted?
Dean: The river in “Treading Water” is a reference to a little story at the beginning of Richard Bach’s book “Illusions”. In the story, there are creatures that live by clinging to rocks and twigs, and the big challenge for them is to let go and let the river take them. The song tries to convey the difficulty of letting oneself go in the current, and also the idea that it will lead to the sea, which is where my album is headed as it travels from the Prairie across a widely varied geography to the ocean.
The ocean is also symbolic of life in the song as we are treading water in a directionless place and have to keep moving until we are drawn back into it.
I heard you recall calm moments in the mornings, carefully making a fire,
waiting quietly for sun to break above the high peaks, touching the flames. You were just a teenager when you learned to appreciate mountain weather. Did the patience you discovered then become a valuable skill while letting go of all expectations as you got older?
Dean: Unfortunately, most of the time I discover patience in hindsight, which as you know has 20/20 vision. But when I look back, I remember quite well the moments when I just stopped struggling and trying to force things.
I remember my first time in Vancouver. I was hell bent on walking everywhere and seeing everything, but as it was raining continuously, I finally had to stop. So I sat down outside at a little cafe out of the rain and relaxed. I find that these “what’s the rush”-moments feel incredibly satisfying. It is only when you are in that state that you can observe things and are open to experience.
A particularly enjoyable moment for me is the one you mention – a cold morning in a campsite when you get the fire going to keep you warm until the sun gets over those high peaks. And then it’s a great feeling. You’re suddenly ok again and the sun is going to keep you alive. I’m happy to say that as I get older, I am able to be patient more often. Patience is always available to us.
Dean, it seems like you are very driven to find answers. Will you keep covering ground with new music?
Dean: It took me three years to write and record “Covering Ground”, and I’ve really been looking forward to stopping the obsessive momentum now that it’s finished. I thought I would just sit back and enjoy the destination and do nothing, but this attitude, I think, is really no different than resisting change and trying to stay in the same happy place all the time.
I have plenty of notes and ideas for new music. “Covering Ground” has been a great journey me for literally and artistically. It has helped me shed some of my seriousness, at least for the time being. I’d like to write some happy songs for a change. Life and love have to move onward in whatever way possible.
Dean Baltesson, thank you for this interview and all the very best for “Covering Ground” and your future musical journey.
Dean Baltesson: deanbaltesson.com
Courtney Milne: coolscapes.sk.ca/index.php
Photo credits: Mark Petrick, Derek Ford, Daniela Herold and Dean Baltesson