Matthew Lien’s new album, Headwaters: Music of the Peel River Watershed, isn’t a protest album.
“ What I felt about this project from the very beginning is that we’re not protesting anything , we’re celebrating,” he says. “We’re celebrating phenomenal Yukon, Canadian, North American, global, wilderness. We’re celebrating that country.”
To celebrate the pristine wilderness of the Peel and the people who have lived there for generations, Lien embarked on a three week, 550 km canoe trip, recording the sounds of the watershed and composing the music. Dedicated to capturing the spirit of the land, he brought $30,000 worth of equipment with him, including a binaural microphone.
“ A binaural microphone looks like a human head and possesses the same anatomical characteristics, so it gives a 3D effect when you listen with earphones on,” explains Lien.
Using his journey as raw material, Lien composed the music and assembled the sounds, including the voices of the elders, Jimmy Johnny, Robert Alexie, Sr, and Dorothy Alexie, who happened to meet him and were willing to be recorded.
“ I want to tell this story based on what happened to us,” he says. “That’s the difference between being a Hollywood director and a documentarian. You share the story of what you experienced rather than creating a story in advance. You have to see what nature gives you.”
Lien even recorded demonstrators at the Yukon Legislature singing the choruses of the title track, “Headwaters” .
“ I had no idea if it was going to work because I recorded it on the fly,” he says. “I can’t tell you how elated I felt when I laid in those recordings and they worked so well.”
To perform the music, Lien assembled the smallest band he’s worked with, including Yukoners Lonnie Powell and Paul Stephens , on drums and bass, fiddle player Richard Moody from the Wailin’ Jennys, acoustic guitarist Ed Henderson, and slide guitarist by Doug Livingstone.
“ It was so great to work with these guys and have them to sculpt the project,” he says .
The result is a vibrant and varied album, with each instrument clear and undistorted, each voice — whether elder, wildlife, water, or Lien himself — full and distinct.
Over it all are Lien’s passionate vocal and lyrics; on songs like “Ivory Lichen”, a story of living and dying on this huge , and for now largely untouched land, or “Discovery”, about finding yourself as much as finding an untouched wilderness .
The music itself shouldn’t be classified as merely “new age”, like some of Lien’s previous work .
As he puts it, “People think of new age music as something to listen to when you want to take your mind off things. I want my music to put your mind on to things and follow where your heart leads you.”
The final track, “Who D’ya Love”, is full-on blues-rock, with Tim Porter, who has played with Long John Baldry and The Powder Blues Band, taking lead guitar. The song, a satirical take on a politician ignoring the people in favour of development, feels like a bonus track after a more reflective and spiritual celebration of the Peel.
The album, available at CPAWS and Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse, comes with a 40-page booklet of lyrics and commentary, and some amazing pictures of natural beauty of the Peel, taken by Peter Mather.
“ I feel that Peter Mather is the silent musician on this project,” Lien says.
While mastering the album, Lien’s father , Merle Lien (credited as Merle the Flying Squirrel) , passed away. Lien has dedicated the album to him.
“ I feel my dad’s spirit is such a part of this music.”
Outstanding Track: The album is a whole.
“ I consider an album as one continuous work from the beginning of the first track to the end of the last track.”