Gordie Tentrees: "Probably the best experience I've ever had was having the worst experience"
North American artists come a long way to play in the UK, but rising singer-songwriter Gordie Tentrees has come further than most. He hails from Canada’s remote Yukon Territory – last stop before Alaska. Despite its tiny population and its distance, for Tentrees it has been the perfect environment to make music and develop his career.
He is currently on tour in the UK promoting his third album, Mercy or Sin, a record that entirely represents its title, moving from characters struggling for redemption and forgiveness to the tenderest of love songs. It’s drawn in part from Tentrees’ difficult early life. Growing up in rural Ontario, he experienced poverty and the troubles of a broken home – something that he sees as a blessing as well as a curse.
“I’m sure everybody has something they could complain about. I’d say I feel pretty lucky to have it. It taught me a lot of things about taking something that wasn’t so good and try to get the best out of it and learn from it.
“As a kid I kind of knew that I wasn’t going to let it dictate who I am or what I was going to be. I knew I just had to get through it, deal with it and then take advantage of opportunities. Probably the best experience I’ve ever had was having the worst experience.”
Tentrees has often been compared to Canadian alt-country hero Fred Eaglesmith, and that’s not much of a surprise. Not only has Tentrees played with him – his only previous UK tour was as support to Eaglesmith – but he grew up listening to the music, and later playing it.
“When I first started playing music, his songs were the only ones that I knew. So I started learning all his songs. The first band that I played with, we played his songs for about two years, 40 songs a night. Then I started writing my own songs.”
Tentrees trained as a special needs teacher, and it was a teaching job that took him to the Yukon territory, a huge patch of sparsely-populated northwestern Canada that even most Canadians have never set foot in. Twelve years on, it’s very much home for Tentrees, and it’s the antidote to the madness of touring.
“I live in the woods, on five acres with no running water. I’ve got mountains out of every window and animals walking through my yard. I’ve been touring so much that when I got back there I often don’t leave it, I just hide out in the woods and get to know myself again and sort of come down from all the socialising and constant moving of touring and just relax.”
After seven years of teaching, Tentrees made the decision four years ago to go into music full time.
“I was taking time off from teaching, and it got to the point where I couldn’t get a sub for a month to go on tour, so I kind of had to make a choice, and it was starting to build up.
“I loved the job, but definitely there was a need to try something else. I might go back to it if I need to, but not right now.”
Tentrees says the Yukon Territory has a thriving music scene that has helped him develop his career.
“It has the highest per-capita of musicians making a living from playing music. There’s only 25,000 people and they’ve made 80 albums in the last 10 years, which is pretty incredible. It’s kind of like the Nashville of the north of Canada.
“They clear the dinner table and everyone can play an instrument. There’s a lot of songwriters, a lot of storytellers, and it’s always appreciated, always fostered. Being able to tell a good yarn is sort of a prerequisite to living there.”
The fact of coming from such a remote and unknown place has also worked well for Tentrees when he’s touring internationally.
“Not only are we from Canada, which is interesting enough, but we’re from a very special part of Canada which not many people have seen. It’s definitely a very eccentric part of Canada – the whole mystery behind the distance and the dark and the cold of it.”
Tentrees is also making a name for himself within Canada, so much so that he was asked to play at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver earlier this year. The fact that he and his band were on tour in Texas at the time was no problem for the Games organisers – they flew the musicians to Vancouver for the day, then returned them to Texas to finish the tour.
“It was an exciting thing to be able to fly to the Olympic Games for 10 hours. To get asked to do it was a real honour because there’s a lot of great people they could have asked,” Tentrees says.
He plans to go back into the studio in January to record his fourth album, and then in the spring he embarks on a three-month tour, playing every night, across North America, Italy and the Nordic countries. “This is going to be the biggest one we’ve ever done.”
Tentrees can see development in his career – he’s playing bigger venues in more countries. But he’s not sitting back on his laurels.
“It’s always been important to keep moving forward, not only building up your career, but also building up your show and your music and your songwriting, adding stuff to your show. As long as we keep being able to entertain people and when they see us six months from now they see something different to what they saw six months ago, for me that’s really important.
“So it’s been a steady climb, we’ve been playing 200 shows a year, and when you keep doing it and doing it all sorts of good things happen.”
Gordie Tentrees on Backroads (including gig dates)