I HAVE BEEN so lucky to have had a long life in music as well as in literature. I started performing as a singer with my sister Susan in 1965 in Edmonton. We were teenagers; I was seventeen, and she was eighteen. A year later we were joined by our brother Harry, two years younger than me, and then by a set of neighborhood brothers, Greg and Wayne Vetsch. We were a solid electric folk-rock group called The Circle Widens and we played in Edmonton from 1966 till 1970.
We recorded a 45 with Korland Sound, Joe Kozack’s recording label and production company, in 1969, and I even signed a song-writing deal with Tom Northcott and Mushroom Records in Vancouver in 1971…
We had a lot of fun, and somewhere in there I began to write songs more and more seriously…I performed those songs as a single folksinger in Edmonton until 1971 and then teamed up with a great musician, Michael Baker, and played in Toronto for three years. Back in Edmonton, my four brothers—Harry, Frank, Mike and Tim—created The Lent Brothers band eventually and played and recorded for years, releasing an album called Thicker Than Water in 1990…
Harry, Frank, Timmy and Michael & friends opening for the Edmonton Film Festival in 2016
Meanwhile my own life took me to Nelson, back to Toronto, then Regina for two years and finally, by 1978, to the Okanagan…in time, I became part of a roots/blues/jazz trio here called The Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio (with the brilliant guitarists Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall) and we’ve been performing since 1991. We released a CD called Shadow Moon in 2005 and are working on another one now…and over the past few years, I have also completed an independent CD of my own songs called Strange Ground, recorded in Lake Studios in Kelowna, and produced and arranged by Andrew and Zachari Smith.
The Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio
Aside from The Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio, I sometimes perform with my brother Harry, and with the bass player Mark Nishihara…
I am a member of SOCAN Canada. My song-writing heroes have been, among many, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Robbie Robertson, Jesse Winchester, Phoebe Snow, Shawn Colvin, Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega and Lucinda Williams…
On October 10th, 2019, my brothers Harry, Michael and Timmy Lent are going to join me here in Vernon, with my other musical brothers Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall, and a wonderful Saxaphone player from Kelowna, Craig Thomsen, and we will launch my CD of original tunes (except for Bird On A Wire) called Strange Ground. This album was produced by Andrew and Zachary Smith at Lake Studios in Kelowna over a two year period from the spring of 2015 to the spring of 20917, then mastered and pressed by the spring of 2018. I have not had the opportunity to formally release and sell this CD until now, so it’s exciting to get that chance now.
Buy A Copy of Strange Ground
In order to explain what this CD is all about, I wrote a lengthy introduction to its liner notes so everyone might understand how my family got involved in music so intensely and why this vision of The Lent Brothers Project makes so much sense now. Here is that introductory essay:
S T R A N G E G R O U N D : N O T E S
…everybody in the music industry has a story, and those stories are almost always complicated. I have tried so many times to tackle my own story in order to introduce this CD, but the story keeps veering off into other stories until it collapses from the sideways heft of its own clanking as it acquires more tangents. My story keeps veering away from itself because my own artistic life has always been complicated and veering away from itself, too. I am a literary writer. I am a songwriter. I am a singer/performer. I am from a large family of singers/songwriters and performers. I have lived most of my life under the radar of commercial attention or success, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not…but under the radar nonetheless. I performed heavily from 1965 to 1975 in Edmonton and Toronto, and then again, later, from 1995 to 2018 in the Okanagan Valley and BC and Alberta. I have had ten literary books published over that same period of time, and I have written and performed many songs as well. Some of them have been recorded by various artists, including my own trio, Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio; many have not.
This CD, Strange Ground, is a wonderful gift to me out of all those tangents, and after all that living. What a lucky guy I am.
I love singing and songwriting. There are nine of my own songs on this CD and one cover, ‘Bird On A Wire.’ I wanted to have some trace of all that making that gave me such joy over all those years, and I wanted, too, to indicate how fortunate I have always been to play with such gifted musicians and singers. I tried to feature what I considered some of my best work.
This CD will be CD#1 in a series of 5 CDs that will be part of a larger project called The Lent Brothers Project (See thelentbrothersproject.ca).
The other 4 CDs will be CDs of music written and performed by my brothers, Harry, Frank, Michael and Tim Lent. Our music arcs over many genres of contemporary music, beginning with my immersion in the folk music revival of the early 60s, but ending up, more comfortably, in the traditions of rhythm and blues and strictly blues, and in Michael’s case, Jazz, that characterized the late 60s and early 70s and which traditions my four brothers were completely immersed in.
…Strange Ground is the result of singing and performing and writing songs since 1965, over fifty years ago. Holy Moly! It is significant for me to say I turned twenty in Edmonton in 1968 and that I started performing folk, then folk-rock material with my sister Susan, my brother Harry, and our neighbors down the lane, Greg and Wayne Vetsch, in 1965. We were typical Edmontonians. We listened to all kinds of music critically. We tried everything arduously, full of love and terror. We knew the ‘real’ music world existed far beyond our reach, in mythical cities down east and across the Atlantic. We were right about that in one way, but we were wrong about it in another. We were always wrong about it. Because of the seemingly unbreachable distances the times themselves had created for young musicians like me and my brothers and sisters living in a city like Edmonton, we couldn’t quite believe we were the real thing ourselves, that we knew what we were doing, that we could write our own material and make a success of things ourselves. We couldn’t quite believe in the success/ambition part of it all. We were too innocent, then later, too cynical. I sometimes call it the ‘Eva Cassidy Syndrome.’ It happened all over North America in the late 60s…all those places that were full of music vitality but removed from the centers of things…But man, were we ever happy to play and sing hard, to have fun, to grow and change. Our first group in Edmonton, The Circle Widens, started by playing songs like Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” and ended playing songs like “Piece Of My Heart,” by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company and “I’m A Man” by Chicago and “Everyday People,” by Sly And The Family Stone. We were a great cover band and we were practised and supple in the way we covered tunes. Our best Beatle tunes were “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hey Jude” and “Fool On The Hill.” Our last great covers were of Dylan, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Band. I am saying all this because I look back and wonder at it. And it’s still this beautiful, unarticulated mystery. I never stopped performing and writing. Each of my brothers—Harry, Frank, Mike and Tim—worked all their lives as professional musicians and still do, having incredible careers. Susan still sings in choirs, but gave up performing as a single in the eighties. Of course, we still get her up on stage. I am saying all these things because I am trying to pull something together here. I am trying to launch a project, The Lent Brothers Project, that will allow us, singly and together, to release a series of five CDs that might catch that undocumented musical energy back there a musical legacy from my family, the Lent family from Edmonton…
These CDs, or albums, will be unique. They were never made before this—back when they should have been made— because we were all too busy living our lives, working, raising children, and playing and recording with other musicians. Eventually, in 1990, The Lent Brothers’ Band produced a CD called Thicker Than Water, and its re-release will be one of the five CDs surfacing through this project. That CD was never professionally marketed though it has superb, original material. I have played in a great roots & blues trio, The Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio, for twenty three years in the Okanagan Valley in BC, and we released a CD called Shadow Moon in 2005 and had real success with it. All my brothers, especially Mike, appear on loads of albums and CDs as dazzling bass players, guitarists, producers (Mike), engineers (Mike) and in Tim’s case, drummers. All of us sing as well and appear as back-up singers on other artists’ CDs. But these newer Lent Brothers Project albums need to be made now because there is a strange, almost hybrid blend of bottom groove coupled with strong ears for great melodies and lyrics that is The Lent Family’s legacy in music…it’s a family ‘feel’ for musical elements that are distinctly ‘Lentian,’ but never captured…and that legacy goes back to The Lent Family our father Harry Lent came from in Westville Nova Scotia…another family of seven children who all performed and played professionally in the thirties and forties.
Strange Ground is the first of these five CDs in The Lent Brothers Project. And there may be more than five in the long run. There are at least six nephews and nieces who are now playing professionally…so I hope this is just the start of something that will get bigger and richer. For now, though, I would love to think that myself, Harry, Frank, Michael and Tim will move ahead with these CDs and have great joy recording and performing them.
Strange Ground is the first of these CDs because I am the eldest brother. It’s that bloody simple. That simple, and for me, it’s the pure blood magic of it, too—there is nothing like the mystery of five or six siblings playing and singing together—and that magic goes all the way back to those wonderful, loving years on the southside of Edmonton, all of us rattling around that house on 61st Avenue with our instruments, and performing in those Community Halls and Pizza joints and bars. I want to have some record of that, literally.
The Second CD will be a CD called Northern Star and it will have twelve songs written and performed by Harry Lent, the second oldest brother. Again, simple. And on, and on…
STRANGE GROUND: SPECIFICALLY—THESE TEN SONGS
…in the spring of 2015, in the middle of a necessary isolation that prevented me from performing very much, I stumbled onto the idea of going down to Kelowna and working with Andrew Smith in his recording studio, Lake Studios, in Kelowna. It was something I could do completely on my own, and that’s exactly what I needed. I had already written the songs. They were ready. I liked and trusted Andrew Smith’s gifts for arranging and layering songs, and I was also—oddly—not self-conscious with him. I can be almost inarticulately shy sometimes, and I knew it was one of my stumbling blocks. But I wasn’t shy with Andrew. He just let me be myself, and in a short time, we had a solid work strategy. I would drive down to the studio at 10:00am. We would record two songs in each session. I would play the acoustic guitar track first, then sing to it until we got the right take for the vocal. Later, Andrew would remove most of my guitar track and begin to build instruments around it: drums, bass, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin, back-up vocals, keyboards, even, in the case of ‘Elemental Kiss,’ an incredible saxophone track. From June, 2015 until March, 2017, we recorded these ten songs and Andrew arranged them.
It was exciting for me to hear these tunes transformed into larger, more full and polished pieces. Though I still perform in The Lent/Fraser/Wall Trio, we build a large acoustic sound with just two guitars and vocals. We do not often include other instruments, especially bass and drums. But in the late 60s and early 70s in Edmonton, I had played in a full band for five years, a band that had drums, bass and electric guitars, and each time Andrew sent me the completed, full versions of these tunes, it was like returning to the folk-rock days when the sounds of bands like The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds had dominated my sense of song-writing and arranging.
The first songs we recorded were “Lonely Love,” and “Wrong Way To Live.” The last were “Send Them Now” and “Snow.” It was a wonderful and slow process that took two years, from the spring of 2015 to the spring of 2017. Then, for some strange reason, I drove down one last time and recorded a sparse version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.” Eventually, Andrew’s son Zachari played a breathtakingly restrained electric guitar solo to my singing on this song, and I was dazzled by it. It was perfect. It is the only cover on the CD, but I am so glad it is there. Along with Randy Newman and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen remains one of my favorite songwriters.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I recorded a version of a blues song I had written called “Should Have Seen The Signs.” In this straightforward blues piece, I had wanted to honor what I had always perceived as the dazzling complexity of twelve bar blues music and lyrics. When I first played it for Andrew, I told him I imagined it as an over-the-top Chicago blues song, a Muddy Waters song…and that everyone performing on this cut—including me—had to almost collapse at the end of it from going over the top. That was how I heard it, and that’s how I sang it. Eventually, my best friend and collaborator, Neil Fraser, came in and threw on an arduous electric guitar track. When I first listened to it I could hear —aside from the genius of Neil Fraser himself—Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winters, and, maybe especially, Chuck Berry, and I absolutely loved it. Somewhere in the middle of the middle of all that, Neil and I also recorded a completely different, acoustic version of this song, too, throwing it more in the Mississippi Delta traditions of Robert Johnson and Sun House. We altered the melody and we recorded it live on the floor. That version of “Should Have Seen The Signs” is also on this CD. These two versions are very different from one another.
I made Strange Ground to celebrate fifty years of performing and writing. Because I am a writer of fiction and poetry as well as songs (see johnlent.ca), I know a thing or two about the art world, the world of performance, and the crazy, heart-breaking protocols of fame and glory. I think I knew eventually, in my 40s, that I had written a few good tunes, but I accepted with the same foolhardy exuberance that allowed me to reach that conclusion, that due to some specific conditions in my life, I would always have a difficult time reaching a wide audience with those tunes. Performance would have to be enough. I just couldn’t do it, or didn’t have that other talent required to push something I thought was beautiful to another, wider level. It’s an old, old story. So this CD is an opportunity for me to send these songs out into the world now, and to bring my family and my friends with them. It’s another kind of comfort, another kind of strange ground, and my hope is that my brothers, and maybe even my nieces and nephews will keep adding to it.
I want to thank Andrew Smith for his generosity, his patience and his professionalism. He transformed these songs. He is a producer, an arranger, but even more, he is a gifted songwriter and player himself, and that is why he can do what he does so well in the studio.
This CD is for my Lent brothers and sisters—Susan, Harry, Frank, Mary Lou, Michael and Timmy— and for my musical brothers Neil Fraser, Shelby Wall, Mark Nishihara and Jake Kennedy.
The lyrical visions in the songs are housed in the intricate architecture of my own crazy love for my wife, Jude Clarke.
Here is the track “Prairie City Wind,” a song I wrote in The Sugar Bowl Cafe near The High Level Bridge in Edmonton in 2005 for my prairie soulmate Al Forrie:
And here is the exuberance of the first version of “Should Have Seen The Signs” with Neil’s wonderful guitar lead. I have to say that this version of “I Should Have Seen The Signs” became a semi-finalist in the 2016 International Songwriting Competition out of Nashville, Tennessee. What was so exciting to me initially about this first version was how Andrew Smith took essentially one vocal track and layered all this live music and musical energy around it. I found that amazing. I still do:
Just for the sake of contrast, here is the live, on-the-floor version of “Should Have Seen The Signs,” that Neil & I recorded a year after recording the first version. The music here is all Neil’s incredible channeling of his love for Mississippi Delta Blues and its legacies through players like Robert Johnson and Doc Watson and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee:
During Covid 19, in the summer of 2020, The Arts Council in Kelowna conducted a video interview with Jude and me about being a couple living a life in art as a painter and a writer and a singer/songwriter. They also did another video of me performing a cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” and a demonstration of my own song, “Your Own Bell (Get Back) which is on the CD Strange Ground. Here’s the link to the video:
Here’s a new video (shot by Keith and Diane Hustler) of Neil & I performing “I Should Have Seen The Signs” in Vernon in 2020 during COVID19. Here’s the youTube link:
We had so much fun shooting this with the gentle direction of Keith & Diane. I love Neil’s faces. This is a rare catch…