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Tragically Hip frontman's final recordings face down mortality
Gord Downie had already announced to the world he was dying and did his farewell tour with the Tragically Hip by July of 2017. He could have easily stepped back, and while away the time he had left.
But that was not Downie's way.
Instead, just three months before his death at the age of 51 from brain cancer, the singer, songwriter, author and activist went into the studio with longtime friend Josh Finlayson to make a final album -- "Away is Mine," which comes out Friday, Oct. Oct. 16. If "Introduce Yerself," released 10 days after his death, was a farewell to family and friends, "Away is Mine's" 10 songs, presented in both acoustic and electric forms, are a more internal rumination on and coming to terms with mortality, a poignant and wry collection that echoes the way Downie approached music throughout his career.
"It was not a surprise, in that he loved to work," Finlayson, who worked with Downie from his 2001 solo debut "Coke Machine Glow" on, says by phone from Toronto on a joint call with Downie's brother Patrick. "And of course he had done so much and it was so incredible what he was able to do, given his illness, and this was yet another achievement. I think maybe the surprise is that his health changed so quickly after we made these recordings."
Peter Downie -- executive producer of the album and his brother's caregiver during the last two years of his life -- says that what surprised him about "Away is Mine" is the way his brother approached the album, with a different kind of drive than he'd generally applied to the rest of his repertoire.
"He wasn't necessarily pressing to do this work," Downie explains. "It was not like, 'I've got to keep writing and recording as much as I can before I die!' It just sort of happened naturally. So if anything I was more surprised he had all this great material in him and he wasn't necessarily pining to get it out."
After the Tragically Hip's nationally broadcast final show on Aug. 20, 2016 in its home town of Kingston, Ont., Downie jumped into another solo project, "Secret Path," which included an album, graphic novel and animated Canadian TV special (for which Downie won two Canadian Screen Awards, posthumously). Finlayson, who plays in the band Skydiggers, says Downie has started working "loosely" on another book after that, but "I think by March (of 2017) he was kind of feeling like that was a bit isolating." During visits and other conversations, the two began talking about writing songs together, and Finlayson suggested that he come up with some ideas using a guitar tuned to Open C, a key he says Downie favored.
"By the time we started writing it was late April, and in about 10 days we came up with 10 songs," Finlayson recalls. "I'd come up with something and send it to him. Sometimes he had some lyrics written already, but some of the last ones were all new lyrics." The duo initially started recording on mobile phone and laptop computer, but Downie eventually proposed moving to the Tragically Hip's studio in Bath, Ont. to make a proper recording, which he and Finlayson finished in just four days with engineer Nyles Spencer and players such as Travis Good from the Sadies and Downie's son Lou on drums.
Downie's daughters Clare and Willo also created the original art that's part of the "Away Is Mines" package.
"This writing is Gord at his most unshackled -- I wouldn't say unfiltered, but without any restrictions, strictly going on feel and instinct," Patrick Downie says. "It was something I noticed over the last bunch of things he did, that he really learned to trust that instinct. These songs came pretty fast and furious, which was always Gord's favorites. It feels like he's pretty at peace with what he's doing here."
Finlayson says Downie's health was a kind of "elephant in the room" that didn't need to be discussed as they were working on the album. "He was surrendering to his art to accept his fate," Finlayson says. "This record was an opportunity to propel his artistry forward. It did become a way of helping the mourning that came later, but also recognizing that Gord was kind of pointing us in the right direction to move on."
That moving on, according to Finlayson and Patrick Downie, will doubtlessly include more music from the vaults in the future, with releases that are still being examined and determined.
"We really felt, obviously, that the last thing he did should be the first to come out, but there were a bunch of projects Gord was working on in the last two, three years of his life," his brother says. "And then there's other stuff that was ongoing throughout his career, in particular over a 10-year span towards the end.
"There's still lots of stuff that will be coming out. It's really just about finding room and the proper space to put ("Away Is Mine") out and then move on from there."
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