Greg MacPherson travellin’ man

Winnipeg troubadour crosses the country — for the 38th time

It’s a faded black 1965 Danelectro guitar notched with paint chips and dents. It’s been covered in gallons of booze and sweat — a testament to countless performances across the country from the Maritimes to the Yukon — and its electronic guts are held in only by its pickups which at times are affixed to the instrument with duct tape. Still it’s Winnipeg troubadour Greg MacPherson’s frequent travelling companion when he crosses the country — something he’s done more than 25 times as a musician and he estimates 37 times in total. And while it’s seen better days it hasn’t seen its last.

“I’m bringing it in to get a look at” laughs MacPherson. “It’s covered in blood but I’m still playing it. It’s 50 years old it’ll live on.”

But while his guitar is plenty illustrative of his industrious touring career MacPherson’s primary instrument is his remarkable voice. He’s comfortable in plenty of different registers; in the space of a song it’s commonplace to hear him swap between a friendly conversational tone to a menacing whisper to an explosive rebel yell. Known to go au naturel by ditching his mic at points in his performance — indeed he possesses that kind of vocal power — he’s certainly not a stool-bound singer-songwriter afraid of spilling his latte.

“I’m not an entertainer. I’m a performer” he says. “Our performance is affected by how excited we are and we’re not going through the motions and just playing the old tunes. The shows I remember the most are the shows where you’re seeing artists at their best.”

And at his best MacPherson’s literate narratives are subtly autobiographical. Indeed MacPherson paints each of his six studio albums as a period piece (“I’m not the type who writes concept albums” he says. “My records are snapshots. It’s a documentation of where I’m at a place and time.”). As for Mr. Invitation released earlier this year via Dutch label Play/Rec it’s an exploration of his recent travels in Europe told through the lens of summery ballads rollicking prairie folk and jittery down-stroked post-punk.

While the travellin’ troubador is one of folk’s most-worn tropes few can back it up with MacPherson’s experience. An ex-military brat he’s lived in seven provinces. But surprisingly he’s not tired of travel — although he’s tempered his approach in recent years.

“Initially I travelled for the adventure. I wanted to see the world meet people” he says. But at one point I realized that travelling has a price tag. It’s hard on your relationships and your material stability. Now I tour smart. I do it in the limitations of my personal life.”

Part of his personal life — and something that clearly informs his music — is his labour. He’s worked as a gravedigger a television production assistant — heck he’s even worked for Statistics Canada. These days he works for West Broadway Development working with low-income tenants on neighbourhood renewal projects and poverty reduction strategies. It’s easy to see why he’s often painted with a populist brush — he speaks as passionately about his art as he does his craft.

“(Like Calgary Winnipeg’s) density has spread outwards not up and we’ve suffered as a community” he says. “It’s a city founded on conflict there’s lots of racism and segregation. Downtown has been left to rot and we’re working trying to address housing issues. I’m meeting people whose lives are so difficult and traumatized and magical.”

While MacPherson has found permanency in Winnipeg the same can’t be said for his recording career. Indeed both of his Canadian labels — the Propagandhi-founded G-7 Welcoming Committee and Smallman Records — have shut their doors. That would be enough to dissuade plenty of musicians but MacPherson isn’t stopping any time soon. Rather he says that 2010 despite the ever-shifting whims of the record industry is a curiously inspiring time to be a musician.

“There’s so much trauma in the world environmental degradation and shocking social and technological advancements” he says. “I wouldn’t trade this time in history for anything. We have a front-row seat for the most exciting time (in history) even if we’re looking at the dark side of humanity.”