There have been a number of changes over the years for those who choose a life at sea. Vessels have gone from being powered by sail to steam to diesel. Cargo ships used to transport goods loosely in the hold. Now just about everything is packed into standardized shipping containers which are easily moved from ships onto trains or transport trucks. While communication by WiFi and Skype has enabled sailors to contact family members while on board, they are still away from home for months at a time. All of this modernization has meant fewer and fewer sailors are required for what used to be the job of many.
In days gone by, the work of sailors was eased somewhat by the singing of shanties. The age-old songs set the pace of the work being done and provided needed camaraderie. So it seems somewhat surprising that with all this modernization, the sea shanty has survived.
In fact, the songs are having a rebirth courtesy of the current TikTok trend. Whole generations are being introduced to these songs through this modern manifestation of the “oral tradition.”
The increased spotlight on sea shanties couldn’t have come at a better time for the Toronto quartet Pressgang Mutiny and the release of their new album Across The Western Ocean.
The album is the group’s second release, and as Stefan Read explained via Zoom, nobody’s more surprised by the renewed exposure than they are.
“Way back when we had the album almost ready to go, we actually had a discussion about how, with the pandemic,” he said. “Because you couldn’t sing together, there would likely be very few shanty albums. So this was a real opportunity for us to make some noise amongst people who cared about sea shanties. Little did we know at the time that sea shanties would be everywhere! What I particularly like about it is, it’s pushed us and other bands to break out of the paradigm of making albums and doing concerts, and that’s how you reach your audience. In fact, there are all these other tools and ways to connect. There are bands that are doing concerts and video games, there’s TikTok, there’s YouTube, there’s online communities of sea shanty enthusiasts sharing memes and songs they’ve written. It’s been awesome!”
The members of Pressgang Mutiny, which also include Richard Kott, James McKie and Tim Pyron, used an unusual location to record the new album: Aaron Comeau’s The Trailer, which was housed in a couple of converted shipping containers.
And the shipping container/recording studio was right next to a rail line!
“We did have to pause a couple of times and re-take due to the old Canadian National,” said Richard.
“Maybe we were on the way to recording something really great,” added Stefan, “and then a noisy train came by and messed up the take, and maybe we never got that song done.”
“I think if you listen very, very carefully with good headphones” said Richard, “you may be able to make out the sound of the engine going over the tracks on the album.”
Pressgang Mutiny has its origins in another group: the Lemon Bucket Orkestra.
“It’s a Balkan/klezmer/Gypsy/party punk supergroup,” said James, who was touring with the band in Eastern Europe in 2013. “We had some very long van rides crisscrossing the Carpathian Mountains, so to pass the time we started sings-songs, [and] all of a sudden, bits of sea shanties started coming back to me. It really resonated with us as we were travelling, and by the time we got back to Toronto, I was determined to start a sea shanty group.”
Starting with members of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Pressgang Mutiny has evolved to its current lineup.
“I remember getting a text from Tim saying he was at the Central Bar on Markham Street,” said Stefan.
“Tim and I have been singing sea shanties together for years. We used to sail on a couple of tall ships on the Great Lakes. So to see that this was something that actually could be performed to a crowd and be appreciated, and create a party vibe, was something we had to be a part of. So at the next Pressgang Mutiny gig, I went and ended up having a few drinks with the boys [and] from there sort of ingratiated myself into the lineup.”
James and Richard have known each other for many years, both having attended a choir school together.
“Time has flown,” Richard said. “I did not have children when we started!’
“We’ve been this lineup for four or five years, give or take,” Stefan added. “It’s a pretty stable lineup that works for us. It allows us to do everything we want to do musically.”
With the added benefit of having two members who actually have seafaring experience!
“Absolutely,” said James. “It gives us way more sea-cred. So it definitely helps to have people with firsthand experience.”
Going into the studio to record Across The Western Ocean, Pressgang Mutiny had what you might call a guidebook to lead the way.
“I think we went in with a basic idea and a copy of Stan Hugill’s ‘Shanties from the Seven Seas,'” said James. “It was our first chance with this quartet to record the songs we were most enjoying singing on stage.”
“There’s 13 tracks on the latest album,” Richard interjected, “and I think we had double that in rough takes as we brainstormed through what we were going to do. While there’s no formal academic approach to which songs were chosen and why on this album versus the last, I think it was a very interesting process to go through.”\
Not all of the material on the new album is traditional. The group has turned one of Jonathan Byrd’s songs, “Poor Johnny” into a sea shanty.
“I’m a big fan of Jonathan Byrd,” said Tim of the North Carolina singer-songwriter. “Whenever he comes to town I try and go see him. That song he uses during his live performances as a ‘singalong.” It works very well, so it seemed like an obvious song for us to start doing for our performances. It kind of perfectly fits the shanty style.”
An age-old challenge for any group that creates an infectious energy on stage is to match that feeling in a recording studio. One only has to look at the number of live albums that have been released over the past decades.
“It’s a very different feeling being together shoulder-to-shoulder in a pub or on a stage and singing live,” said Richard. “Sometimes we’ll do a set list and sometimes we’ll just go down the line and sing what we feel like singing. That’s very different than getting in a studio over the course of multiple sessions, choosing what to record and putting that all down. Across The Western Ocean in comparison to our first album came a little closer to that ‘at the bar’ feeling. Maybe it was the friendliness. Maybe it was the warmth of the summer. Maybe it was that funny shipping container/recording studio. It was an interesting experience.”
Pressgang Mutiny has fully embraced the opportunities afforded them through TikTok and other online platforms with the creation of “The Shanty Show,” James explained.
“It took us a little while to get into it but what we’ve really taken out of it is the opportunity to collaborate with shanty singers and bands around the world that we really admire. We wanted to do a deeper discussion with some of these performers about the traditions they sing, the songs, what drew them into the music, how they approach it. We’re three episodes in, and it’s been a real treat for us to grow our network and to get exposed to what other people in our genre are doing. And we get to nerd-out about it. That’s pretty fun!”