Folk veteran and politician James Gordon mixes the personal and universal with new album, Sunny …

James Gordon.
Photo submitted.

James Gordon admits it is a bit of a weird double-life: artist and politician.

Since the late 1970s, the singer-songwriter has been a fixture on the Canadian folk scene. While his work has often had a political bent, Gordon made the full plunge into politics in 2011 when he ran for the Ontario NDP in his hometown of Guelph, Ont. He ran again in 2014.

He didn’t win, but later that year he was elected to Guelph’s city council, on which he currently serves. Not long after the election, he told the local press that he no intention of giving up his political activism or his music career. They were pursuits that often overlapped, particularly in projects such as his scathing one-man political satire Stephen Harper: The Musical. In fact, that was touring Canada just before Gordon was sworn in as Guelph’s Ward 2 councillor.

He said it was the late Jack Layton and current federal NDP leadership hopeful Charlie Angus, a former punk and roots musician himself, who convinced Gordon to enter politics as an extension of his work as an artist.

“They both said there are strange similarities,” says Gordon, who will be playing the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Tuesday. “To be effective in each, you have to be really responsive to what people are looking for, to be a voice for them. My musical work, even when it’s not political, is reflective of stories I heard. I like to be a voice for the little guy, musically. But politically I find that’s what I’m doing, too, in Guelph. I’m trying to move forward with issues that matter to the community that I feel deeply connected with. Sometimes I’m up making a speech and wishing I had a guitar, and sometimes it’s the other way round.”

But while the councillor position is ostensibly part-time, Gordon says he was beginning to feel like it was taking over his life, often at the expense of his day job as a songwriter and touring folk musician.

So he decided he needed to get back to his roots with his newest record, Sunny Jim, which included taking it on the road.

“I was letting my part-time councillor gig cut in too much,” he says. “It can take over really quickly. You’re always on duty. I noticed the music side was suffering because of it. In the last six months, I said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s my own fault. I have to make sure I’m balancing those two worlds.’ I’ll be taking some of the council stuff with me when I go, but I’m going.”

Sunny Jim is Gordon’s 40th recording, topping off a prolific output as both solo artist and former member of the traditional folk trio Tamarack. Musically, it returns him to the stripped-back folk sounds he is known for. Lyrically, the songs occasionally enter the political arena, particularly on numbers such as Call to Arms (“How strange they call them arms, those killing machines”) and the quasi-apocalyptic lament Took the Long Way Home (“Rusted cars filling up with vines; signs of our long slow decline”). But there are also tender personal songs such as I Picture You and old-fashioned folk ballads such as Halong Bay.

“As my work has been getting more political, I’ve learned what doesn’t work is hammering someone over the head with a message,” Gordon says. “But it’s more just putting forward human touch stories and experiences that might be advocating certain issues but are mostly inviting people to share that experience rather than me lecturing them. Some of them are reflective of experiences that I’ve had, I want to make sure when I write a song it has a combination of the personal and universal. Why would you care if it doesn’t look like I put myself into it? But also why would you care if you don’t recognize something of yourself in it?”

Sunny Jim also features a recording of one of Gordon’s best-known songs Frobisher Bay, a campfire-ready favourite that dates back to his Tamarack days. It has been recorded by more than 100 artists and was even used as an audition piece for Canadian Idol. 

Gordon has been a mainstay in Guelph’s rich music scene for decades and in the past decade his family has become a bit of musical dynasty. Sons Evan and Geordie have their own impressive resumes in Ontario’s indie-rock scene, having played with acts such as Islands and the Constantines and their own band, The Magic. Evan produced Sunny Jim and both he and Geordie play on it.

“The recording is almost an excuse for dad and the kids to get together,” Gordon says. “Evan has become quite an accomplished producer and engineer and I have a recording studio. Most of us old troubadours are do-it-yourselfers, almost out of economic necessity. So it was nice to have the confidence to give over the production side and get the input from those guys. They nudge me a little bit past the folky side of things and I tend to nudge them a little bit towards that. It’s a nice meeting in the middle.”

James Gordon plays the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Tuesday, March 14 at 8 p.m.

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