“It’s as much a family as a band, you might say at this point. It just feels right to play together.”
For guitarist Dave Clarke of the Montreal trio Steel Rail, a separation of about eight years from band-mates Tod Gorr and Ellen Shizgal was a difficult but necessary experience.
“As far as going (away), it was to follow (my wife) Lucinda’s brilliant career. She had a great opportunity in Victoria, B.C. to be editor-in-chief of the newspaper there. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t something I really wanted to do but our plan was always to come home eventually. We didn’t think it would take nine years! But Victoria was a wonderful place. I had a couple of very good friends there, and the music scene was great there, so it kind of worked out. In fact, I probably played more music and did more teaching there than almost any other time in my life. We were there for five or six years and then Lucinda got another opportunity to go to Edmonton, and that’s where we were for the last three years we were away.”
But for Dave, the lure of Montreal was never far away.
“We always wanted to come home, even though Lucinda is from Alberta. At this point Montreal is very much home for both of us. And yes, we were kind of wanting to come home.”
In fact, Dave and Lucinda weren’t the only ones looking forward to their return.
“I think my bandmates, and in particular Ellen, were anxious for us to come home”, Dave said, laughing.
“We did try and keep going a little bit after I left. During the time (Lucinda and I) were away we did write some songs, including “When Are You Coming Home.” But it was really great to come back and start playing again and kind of pick up where we left.”
What made the reunion of Steel Rail all the more poignant was the health scare Dave experienced while in Edmonton.
“I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was given a 40 per cent chance of survival at the time. I had to go through some very severe treatments. I got the news we were going back home just after I got out of my final treatment.”
Although Dave was happy to once again start playing with Ellen and Tod, it took him some time to get up to playing speed.
“I was not 100 per cent for quite a while, and a bit of guitar rehab (was) going in there. But we stuck with it and started putting the new songs together and started playing a little bit more and more until we were finally ready to record. Over the past year or so, we put the album together. Of course, our timing could have been better to bring it out!”
Steel Rail’s new album, Coming Home, was originally set for an April 25 release, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that to May.
The finished product is one that Dave is very pleased with.
“It takes me back to the time when we first got together and heard our three-part harmonies for the first time. We all realized we had something special. Here we are almost 30 years later!”
Given the cancer scare, Dave Clarke is reflective about what his priorities are in life and music.
“I’m certainly very grateful to have a second chance and some more time. I remember that even when I was at my most debilitated, I kept reaching for my guitar. There were a couple of weeks when I couldn’t play at all. I guess I can’t imagine living without music. Music was hugely important to me at that time. In fact, I did a lot of solo guitar compositions. I couldn’t necessarily play everything when I first composed it but eventually I figured it out. So a lot of the solo compositions on my next solo record, which should be out later this year, are from that time.”
As Dave mentioned earlier, music was still a big part of his life while away from Montreal. In 2007, he released his second solo album, Reunion, followed the next year by the eponymous release of Shearwater, a trio consisting of Dave, Tammy Fassaert and James Whittall. Coincidentally, a song from each of those albums show up on the new Steel Rail release, “Just Waiting For A Train” and “Argyle Street.”
“Those are both songs that Steel Rail had been playing for a while, and even though I did them in another context, it felt right to do them the “Steel Rail way.” It’s great to hear Tod singing “Just Waiting For A Train.”
While it may seem as though Dave had a busy time full of music away from Montreal, the members of Steel Rail have never been full-time musicians.
“Tod had a group he played with sometimes, some bluegrass players in the Ottawa Valley area where he’s from. Ellen kept writing, and she’s singing in a choir now. But none of us made big commitments to anything else other than Steel Rail. I think we were always hoping we’d get back together. When I got to Edmonton I kind of focused on solo music. My idea was I’d get back into group playing once I could play with my band-mates again.”
When discussing Steel Rail you can’t go too far without talking about the “fourth member” of this trio, Dave’s wife, Lucinda, who is a songwriting partner for all three musicians.
“When we first started, Lucinda came to me and just said, “I think I could write songs.” The first song she gave me was the lyric for “A Thousand Miles Of Snow,” and that was the first tune we wrote together.
It became the title song of Steel Rail’s 1995 debut album.
“For me and for Ellen and Tod, we could all use help with lyrics, so sometimes Lucinda gets the call to help out. But what’s really different about this record, we really branched out more into the collaborations. You’ll probably see some of Lucinda’s writing with Tod that hasn’t made it to record yet. Maybe some day all four of us will write a song together!
We started out as kind of an acoustic/country/folk/grass band that played a lot of different songs that we liked.
Where it really became Steel Rail was when we started into original material, and most of that has been with Lucinda’s lyrics. She’s been very involved in the band in a number of ways but obviously, creatively. If we don’t have original songs, we’d be a completely different band!”
So what does the future hold in store for Steel Rail, given the current pandemic?
“We’re very fortunate”, said Dave, “in the sense that we’re not trying to make a living from it. Honestly, we do want to get back out there (performing) as much as possible, but realistically I don’t see it happening until 2021. We’re looking also at some online options. I do think it’s going to take a while for touring and music to come back. It will be different for a while. I think it can be figured out. I think we can do a little more than is being done right now if we’re careful about it.”
For more information about Steel Rail, their website is at www.steelrail.ca.