Singing the Alaska Highway

Brandon Isaak almost trashed his musical career before it even started.

Isaak was in his early teens when his father, Yukon music legend Ed Isaak, returned from a road trip with a guitar for his son.

“But my room was so messy, I didn’t see it. I stepped on it, broke it in half and hid it in the closet for a couple of years until Pops found it,” he confesses.

“We glued it back together and I started my guitar career. So I was a couple of years behind.”

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. First came the mandatory period of fixation with rock.

“I was into all sorts of crazy stuff, Joe Satriani and all these speed demons, and that was cool,” Isaak says. “I got that out of my system and I slowed down and settled into what I like to do, more blues and jazzy kind of stuff.

Now, at age 40, Isaak has earned a reputation as a solid bluesman who has performed in Europe, the United States and every Canadian province except Newfoundland and Labrador.

So when the folks at CBC Radio were looking for someone to write the definitive song about an iconic Yukon road for this year’s Great Canadian Song Quest competition, it’s not surprising that they would turn to Isaak.

Not surprising, that is, except to the musician himself.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” Isaak admits. “I can’t believe I even thought about it, because it’s such a cool thing, but I took the job on.”

With his song Back to My Home Town written, recorded and set to air nationally on CBC Radio 2 this week, Isaak is glad he did.

“It was a fascinating idea. I’m used to writing songs, but not songs when people give me the theme to write about. I’ve never done custom songwriting.”

Now in its second year, Song Quest engages musicians from all 13 provinces and territories to write and perform songs highlighting a special aspect of the place they live.

For last year’s theme of towns and cities, the Yukon representative, Kim Barlow, wrote about Dawson City.

This year the theme is roads and highways. While Isaak knew he would be writing a song, he didn’t know in advance what road he would be asked to commemorate.

“It could be a cul de sac, it could be an alley, it could be anything, depending on what Canada votes for,” he explains.

When online voters overwhelmingly selected the Alaska Highway, Isaak couldn’t have been more pleased.

“I was hoping for the Alaska Highway. I put a couple of votes in for that one myself,” he laughs.

“I think that road is worthy. I mean, it’s one of the biggest engineering feats they’ve achieved in the 20th Century since the Panama Canal.”

The fit between songwriter and theme couldn’t be better.

Aside from being born in Whitehorse, Isaak spent several summers in Watson Lake, playing drums and acting in the Canteen Show with his dad’s band, The Canucks.

The show replicated one of the 1942 shows the United Service Organization (USO) staged for US and Canadian military personnel who slogged through muskeg and mosquitoes to punch a rudimentary road from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks that year.

Today’s Alaska Highway is still a big part of Isaak’s consciousness.

“It’s really ingrained in me,” he says. “It was a way of life for years. So it’s just a natural progression for me to be writing about this highway now.”

When CBC Radio 2 unveils the Yukon song, what can listeners expect?

Until it goes to air, Isaak is sworn to secrecy about the lyric content of what he and his brother, Chris, came up with and recorded last week in their Blue Star Studios in Whitehorse.

But he did provide a few hints.

“A road song is either a great groove that propels you down the highway, or something that talks about self-exploration. Or both,”Isaak says.

“I didn’t write it in a blues vein, which is what I normally do,” he adds. “I tried to give it a modern twist, make it a little hipper.”

And a few more hints.

“It’s more of a personal journey than a road map. It’s about coming home to the Yukon. Everybody always comes home,” he says “And how do you get home? Well, the Alaska Highway. That’s the doorway into Yukon.”

At the end of the songwriting road, is the creator happy with the creation?

“My mother likes it,” he laughs. “We just gotta put it out there and see what happens.”

When it comes to the potential of Back to My Home Town to shine the spotlight on Yukon, Isaak sounds a note of false immodesty.

“When you’re cruising up in your RV, it’ll be like, ‘Hey, listen to that. They’re playing our song, honey.’ I think it’ll be good for tourism.”

Isaak’s song and the other 12 provincial and territorial entries will air Friday, October 22 on CBC Radio 2. Check the Song Quest page on the CBC website for broadcast details.

Blues Musician Brings it Back Home


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