It’s a good thing that Calgary songwriter Shane Ghostkeeper’s Northern Alberta uncles love pure country music. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be speeding then meandering along on his decade-and-a-half, wild, winding musical ride, a ride featuring hairpin musical curves, roller-coaster melodic hills, park-in-the-dark-and-soak-up-the-stars insights, and peek-a-boo surprises. His journey seldom travels through pure country music, but sideswipes it waving out the window while flowing the opposite direction on the wrong side of a two-rut road.
After high school in his hometown of High Level, Ghostkeeper moved on from his dad’s dreams of him being an NHL player (when he was three he started doing workouts, jogging, and more towards that end) so he picked up a placebo guitar.
“When I was 18 and got interested in music I went to my uncles, who are musicians on my mom’s side, and after a couple of hours of hanging with them, they decided that I was hopeless and I was tone deaf,” Ghostkeeper says with a chuckle from his Calgary home while Finn, his two-year-old son with life and musical partner Sarah Houle, chatters nearby. Big brother Vittal, nine, is at school.
“I think they were right. I mean, I couldn’t sing at that point, I couldn’t play any instruments, and I wasn’t able to grasp it immediately, to their teachings or to their patience levels, anyway.”
But, rather than giving up and continuing quietly working (“Doing a business with my dad and my grandpa — forest logging and oilfield work — running chainsaws and that kind of stuff. Working with trees basically”), Ghostkeeper pursued his muse.
“I was still so enamoured and intrigued and stuck on the obsession of learning how to make music, so I just went to writing my own. I believed then that it was hopeless for me to learn music, so I stopped learning music and started writing my own, based on wherever my guitar happened to be tuned at that point. I tried to memorize some of those tunings and eventually learned how to really tune as well.”
Lucky for us. This meant that eventually Ghostkeeper and Houle would create an evolving, elusive, effusive trail of albums leading up to Multidimensional Culture, to be released May 27 by Victory Pool. The album’s often playful romp starts with first track Doo Wop, with lines like, “Nothing ever come out of this mouth bigger than a little white lie” lying back against tempo changes and sweet wordplay around a coin toss – tails or tales.
This is music comfortable in its own skin, music not concerned with whether or not anyone else finds these blurry, cheeky verbal and musical lines a comfort. If you’re having one of those vital moments in your relationship when you wonder why the soothing aloe plant also has thorns, this music helps you appreciate every fibre.
For Ghostkeeper, mirroring the music where nothing is obvious, neither was his path, although it was cleared not by chainsaws, but by love. He met Houle, who also had ties to Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement south of High Level, after she’d attended an arts-based high school in Victoria. She then studied art in Halifax. For years family members said they should meet. Unlike the uncles’ initial take on Ghostkeeper’s musicality, this time they nailed it.
Soon, Ghostkeeper was visiting Houle in Halifax, and she was coming back to Paddle Prairie for summers. Not only did they realize they belonged together, but Houle saw something in her beau that he hadn’t yet discovered.
“She convinced me that I should also try to be an artist as a move, as a career choice, as a life choice. So, Calgary made the most sense for us to easily be together. She transferred over to the Alberta College of Art and Design and it was easy for me to find a job in Calgary (yes, still working with trees), so it just made the most sense to take a step forward.”
Coming from the northernmost town in Alberta to Calgary was bold. “It seemed like a pretty massive leap out of my comfort zone, that’s for sure, coming to Calgary to be artists. I guess it was a huge concrete turning point in my young life to say, ‘OK, I’m going to identify as a practicing musician by way of lifestyle.’ ”
Houle started drumming, but wasn’t yet comfortable playing open mics where Ghostkeeper tested out his songs. Within a year they were playing 20-minute sets together “without any breaks because we were too shy to have banter.” They caught they ear of the Patron Saint of Worthy Underheard Music, Dawn Loucks of Saved by Radio/Vinyl, and suddenly had an album, Children of the Great Northern Muskeg, in 2008, along with the support of foundational scene members like Jay Crocker and Lorrie Matheson.
“It was a pretty wild and fast ride, and we were really grateful and lucky. Looking back though, I don’t think I would have made a record on the first 10 songs I’d ever written,” Ghostkeeper says with a laugh.
Until he met Houle, he’d never had a girlfriend, let alone been in love. Shortly before their move to Calgary, they spent a winter and spring at Paddle Creek. “I guess we spent just that time just hanging onto and exploring and getting to work on our mutual decision to pursue a career in the arts together. And it seemed pretty wild and even scary for me at first because I’d never known an artist at that point. Even my uncles who were musicians, they just did cover bands in the local bars playing old country classics, so I’d never known a real practicing artist, whether there was monetary success or not. I’d never known anyone who was living that life.”
Beyond all this, or likely because of it – roots, family, journeys, love, music, art, courage, and children — Ghostkeeper circled back beyond the forthcoming songs on Multidimensional Culture during the hiccups in time during the past few years.
“I’ve been working on a solo record. The first two singles came out last summer and did really well on radio, so, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on that, which is basically my gift to my people up north who only listen to county music and only believe that country music is the real music,” the soft-spoken musician says with a laugh.
“So, my mom and my dad – everyone – my aunties and uncles, they’ve been patiently waiting for me to stop messing around and making this weird experimental pop rock psychedelic folk thing or whatever you want to call it. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on that these past couple of years because Sarah’s been really been building on getting a lot of momentum on her visual art career.”
But forthcoming traditional country album or not, Ghostkeeper stays firmly grounded in his Métis heritage. “In that regard — in the Cree traditional regard — that’s always there. I’ve been playing a handful of solo shows lately and I have these book ends where I sing based upon the influence for Cree singing, especially coming from my grandpa and watching him drum and sitting on the front porch growing up.”
That album will have to wait for a while, until the wake from Multidimensional Culture flattens out, but no doubt both albums will capture music lovers at first listen, as Ghostkeeper’s music consistently has for this writer, a rarity four decades into music journalism. Lead single This is How I Know You, about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, is a lilting, beautiful tribute free from malice, full of tenderness.
The songwriter’s creation journey is as unique as his sound. “My process is always music first, and then that informs the song, the lyrics. So, I spend a lot of time; I’ll noodle around until something strikes me, it hits, there’s a story here I can relate to this sound, this vibe.
“And I work on that simultaneously with starting to think about vocal melodies that convey the emotion that I’m running with, and then I put that emotion into words last, basically. Then I start practicing my vocal melodies while playing my guitar compositions, filling in the blanks basically, with the lyrics that are true to the feelings that I’m capturing.”
As for the family who were concerned when Ghostkeeper followed Houle away from the sure thing of the forest business and into the cityscape wilderness to mark their own path, well, it all worked out. “My last grandfather passed away about five years ago, and at that point, he was happy. Him and I were really close because I was his first-born grandson, so I spent all my summers with him and my eldest sister, a year younger than me. He was definitely really disappointed that I left a solid work environment in terms of building a business when I was just so young and kind of achieving entrepreneurial success up there in the logging business and oil industry, so he was really shocked and disappointed and angry that I left all that to try and be a musician when I clearly wasn’t a musician at that point.
“But as the years went on he was really happy because he saw Sarah and I build a life together without being a burden to anybody, keeping a home, and eventually having our first son who he was able to meet before he passed away. I had his blessing in the end.
“And as far as my dad, he too was very angry with my choice.” He laughs. “But he’s really proud and excited now. He’s definitely excited for my solo album to come out which is based on more traditional ideas in country music.”
(Photo: Zoltan Varadi.)
Ghostkeeper’s album, Multidimensional Culture, is available now on Victory Pool. They perform during Sled Island, which runs June 22-26 at various locations around the city.