For 25 years, James Keelaghan has been performing and touring his Canadian brand of folk music. He’s released nine solo albums and two others with Oscar Lopez as the Compadres. He’s been dubbed Canada’s finest songwriter and a national treasure.
After all this time, Keelaghan says he’s feeling calmer and more relaxed. And he no longer feels the pressure to keep up with his past output of an album every two years.
“When I write I really want to write from a place of wanting to write rather than having to write,” he told me. “Rather than saying it’s time for another album and starting to write.
“I could put something together and it would sound nice and mediocre and we could have that by six months from now. Or I could just really take my time and it could be out when I have a bunch of really killer stuff.”
I reached Keelaghan by phone when he was at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference in Mississauga, Ont. The conference is a chance for all the folk festivals in the province to come together, share ideas, talk about what their doing and learn about up-and-coming performers. There, Keelaghan was wearing two hats – one as a performer and the other as artistic director of Summer Folk in Owen Sound.
With 25 years in his resume, Keelaghan is a known commodity in the folk music world but with his new role of artistic director, he’s been listening to lots of new music.
“When I go to a folk festival I’m looking forward to the thing that I don’t know. I’m really looking to be surprised,” he said. “The challenge in your personal career is to really have that happen as well. You want to find delight and discovery in the things you write or the people that you play with or the concert tours you’re doing or the city’s you’re going to tour. There has to be some sense of delight or it’s not worth doing.”
Keelaghan is a storyteller by nature with a passion for history. “I like telling stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
He brought up one his songs, Cold Missouri Waters, about a fire crew chief who jumped on a fire in Montana in 1949 and had to invent a new firefighting technique to save him and his crew.
He then mentioned another song, Kiri’s Piano, about a Japanese immigrant who knows she’s about to be sent to an internment camp, so rather than have all her stuff repossessed, she pushes her piano into the water so no one else can have it.
“A story like that begs to be written,” he said. “It tells something about the human condition and that’s what I like to write about.”
Keelaghan’s love of history led to him record the Great Canadian Railway Trilogy for a Gordon Lightfoot tribute album several years ago. This being Revelstoke, I asked him the story about recording that song. He chose that song without hesitation.
“I hadn’t played it since I was 20-years-old but I picked up my guitar and sang it from end to end and I went, ‘That is a great song,’” he said. “It is so well built and it so well crafted and it is so iconic that having not played it in 20 years I could pick up a guitar and play it.”
And, yes, he will be playing it on this tour.
Keelaghan’s new focus is on writing music primarily geared towards singing. He says he wants to step away from playing guitar and just sing in front of a band. That poses new challenges for his songwriting, he said. Instead of just writing for the guitar, he has to figure out what instruments will work.
“I’ve never just gone out in front of a band and sung,” he said. “I’m always part of the rhythm section. That for me is a pretty huge departure.”
In Revelstoke, Keelaghan will be accompanied by the musicians Hugh McMillan and David Woodhead, who he called “two of the best players on the face of the planet.”
He will be playing guitar, but on some songs he will just sing.
“I think you can expect a really high energy show with lots of story telling,” he said. “Two of the best players on the face of the planet, great harmony singing, great instrumentals, great vocals. I think it’s going to be a really good time.”
James Keelaghan is playing at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre as part of the Revelstoke Arts Council’s concert series on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. The Maritime Kitchen Party is opening. Tickets are $15.