Tenor John McDermott on roots music, great songwriters and support for veterans

One of Canada’s foremost singers is setting out on his annual Canadian tour, touching down in Cranbrook along the way, making new friends and meeting old ones. When autumn comes to Canada, tenor and balladeer John McDermott feels the pull of the road — leaving his home base in Toronto and traveling and performing for a country and audience he’s gotten to know well.

“We go out at this time of year every year,” McDermott told the Townsman over the phone from Toronto. “We flip flop between the East Coast and the West Coast, and this time we’re heading west. Which is terrific. It’s extensive, but it’s not gruelling by any stretch.

“Going back to familiarity as well. It’s really satisfying. Jason, my guitar player, keeps track of all the restaurants and coffee shops. We have our favorite spots.

“And we’re going back this time to places, some we haven’t been to, and some that’s been at least 15 years since we were there last. We’re really looking forward to it.”

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Born in Glasgow, Scotland, McDermott’s family moved to Toronto when he was a boy. After becoming a professional vocalist in the early ‘90s, with a success of a release of “Danny Boy,” one of his signature songs, McDermott enjoyed a global stint fronting the Irish Tenors before resuming a prolific solo career.

McDermott’s Celtic connection emerged at an auspicious time when he was starting out — with a wave coming out of Atlantic Canada that marked a renaissance of tradition East Coast music.

“When I first came on the scene, you had great bands coming up through Atlantic Canada,” he said. “The Barra MacNeils, the Rankins, Leahy the Irish Descendants— all these terrific musicians. My first fiddler was Ashley MacIsaac, when he was 17. My only request to him was ‘please steal the show,’ and he did.”

Musicians like these were reviving, a focus on traditional Celtic music, McDermott says.

“And what I had done was the ballads of Celtic music, and the songs and stories related to them. There was no one else doing that. I think that helped a great deal in my success.

“We’ve come around full circle.”

McDermott has worked and recorded with some of the great songwriters in Canada, like Ron Hynes, Ron Sexsmith. He goes way back with Gordon Lightfoot, for example. When McDermott first starting singing and recording songs by arguably Canada’s greatest songwriter, Lightfoot communicated that he enjoyed McDermott’s versions. McDermott continues to record and perform Lightfoot songs, and always gets great audience reaction.

And McDermott continues to support and perform the songs of up-and-coming Canadian songwriters. But his song connection goes beyond Atlantic Canada, beyond Canada itself, into the global realm. John Prine is another prominent cover source, and friend. And McDermott has worked with other singers and songwriters of legendary stature: Michael Smith from Chicago (“A lot of people don’t know the name but they certainly know his songs,” McDermott says); Eric Bogle from Australia (“The Green Fields of France, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”) — “one of the finest writers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and touring with,” McDermott says. Matthew Broderick — “a fantastic songwriter. I’ve recorded some of his stuff.”

Add to this mix the standards and classics that make up the must-hear McDermott — “Loch Lomond,” “Danny Boy,” “September Song,” “The Streets of London,” and you have a repertoire of work enough to fill the 30 albums he’s recorded, mostly at Canterbury Sound Studios in Toronto.

Listening to his music, one gets a sense of melancholy, of themes of loss and longing throughout. Part of this is the nature of the Celtic soul, the turbulent history out of which many of these songs came, and McDermott’s cultural heritage. But even more so, it’s a result of his personal family history.

“My Dad was a veteran in the RAF,” he recounts. “My Mom’s brother Michael died as a POW at Changi (a Japanese Second World War prison camp). And I had three cousins who lost their lives in Vietnam, two who were killed there and one who took his life later, from PTSD.

“My point being that I’ve always had a great respect for the veteran. I’ve had conversations with my Dad about what he went through — he didn’t really open up a whole lot about it. I’ve got a thousand friends in the U.S. who are all veterans. That impacted me early on in ’95, ’96, when we started breaking the U.S. and meeting those people.

“The songs that I’m recording, some are happy, but many carry a message of the classic line ‘Lest We Forget.’ And I think that’s something that’s very dominant in the material I do.

“But there’s also the positive side of it as well. There’s a melancholy that comes with these songs, but many of the songs will take you down a wonderful memory lane, and pull at the heartstrings.

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“They really do. And they’re primarily based on true events.”

McDermott uses his music to translate this respect for veterans into real world action. He started his own foundation — McDermott House Canada — where he puts money he raises that goes towards projects to help veterans. The project he is working on right now is helping the palliative care unit of the Veterans Wing of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, where McDermott performs every year for veterans and their families.

“I’ve seen a lot of friends go through that unit,” he said. “Phase 1 is done, Phase 2 is underway, and hopefully we’ll get to Phase 3 next year.

McDermott said he asked how much it would cost to completely update and upgrade the unit — “$3.6 million. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get the money, and you’ll do it?’ They said yes. So far, we’re at $2.7 million. Should be able to wrap it up in the coming months.”

As well, McDermott runs a project — “Music in the Key of Giving” — which through a couple of shows a year at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto raises money for Foundation. After speaking to the Townsman, in fact, he was about to head out for one of these shows that very evening — a Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot — before setting out on his tour.

That tour will see him touch down in Cranbrook on Thursday, October 19, with multi-instrumentalist Mark Lalama and guitarist and music director James Fowler. What kind of show can the audience expect?

McDermott has two albums released in the past year — “Raised on Songs and Stories,” which is a nod to his Scottish roots, and “An Evening With John McDermott,” a collection of songs he’s never done before. Those two albums will be a big part of the show.

He adds that every McDermott show includes the standards for which he is known. And watch out for some excepts from a newly released Jazz CD.

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