Talk about those directions.
For one, I was starting to listen to music of other cultures, in particular Indian musicians like [sitar player] Ravi Shankar and [sarod player] Ali Akbar Khan. Some of my more adventurous peers and I got into playing free jazz—we were heavily influenced by saxophonists like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. Of course the teachers were horrified by this music that had no rules, so we’d play our free improvisations on Saturday afternoons, then do more traditional stuff during the week. At the same time, I was in an old-fashioned jug band in which we played whatever tunes we felt like.
Did you stay at Berklee for four years?
No. While I certainly learned a lot in Boston, after two years I realized that it wasn’t really for me and that I was just spending too much of my parents’ money.
Why is that?
In general, there were too many orthodox musicians who were all about having flashy chops and playing in the styles of guitarists like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. They were certainly great players, but I didn’t feel the need to rehash older styles. I was interested in moving toward new sounds and combining different influences like Szab— was doing, and at a certain point I just wasn’t learning anything new at school.
When did you get into songwriting?
It happened that some friends of mine in the Ottawa folk scene were in a band called the Children, so I joined up with them right after I dropped out of Berklee. That’s when I started writing songs—at first just music for other people’s lyrics, sometimes with more success than other times.
After a while, I encountered Bill Hawkins, a poet who was deeply central to the Ottawa scene, and he became a type of mentor, encouraging me to write lyrics of my own beginning around ’66. In playing with and writing for various rootsy bands in the late ’60s I developed my own little core of songs. After a while, I decided that it’d just be more fun to strike out on my own and have worked as a solo artist or bandleader ever since around the time my first album was released.
Fast-forwarding to the present, your latest record, Small Source of Comfort, seems to be filled with alternate tunings. Can you tell us about some?
In the past, I never really used DADGAD like so many other players have done, but in the last couple of years I have been experimenting with it. A lot of the album is in that tuning or in what I call “Egad”—just like it sounds, similar to DADGAD, but with the sixth string tuned to E, as on “The Iris of the World.” I play “Parnassus and Fog ” in a tuning that a call drop-F-sharp, in which the G string is tuned down a half step, to F-sharp. With these tunings, I get all kinds of nice ringing possibilities that help me approach the guitar differently. There are actually only a couple tunes on the record in standard—“Driving Away” and “Ancestors.”
What sort of guitars did you play on the record?
I have three guitars made by Linda Manzer—a 12-string and two six-strings. I also have a little solidbody electric charango that she made for me. It doesn’t appear on the record, but I play it sometimes at shows. And I’ve got a 1959 Martin D-18, which you can hear on “Bohemian 3-Step.”
Were the Manzers made specifically for you?
They’re custom. I commissioned one of the six-strings from Linda back in the 1980s. The other was one she made around the same time for someone who wanted one like mine. Both are cutaways, the original one has a cedar top and other one has spruce. The 12-string was made for yet another guitarist around the same time as the other two, but I didn’t get a hold of it until much later, about five or six years ago.
Tell us about the baritone guitar that you used.
That was made by a guy named Tony Karol from Toronto. I acquired it when we were doing the last studio album, Life Short Call Now. He had left it in the studio for me to try and I ended up using it on the record. You can hear it on “Lois on the Autobahn” and on “Gifts.” It’s tuned a fourth lower than a standard guitar, so when I play an open C chord it sounds as a G. On “Gifts,” along with the baritone I play a regular six-string with a capo way up the neck, so that I can also play a C fingering in the key of G. The music sounds more interesting that way.