Gavin Gardiner sits in the grass, a content smile creeping below his ragged, rain-covered beard. Freshly finished a collaborative workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival alongside devotees The Strumbellas and Reuben and the Dark, the Wooden Sky frontman is looking happy and healthy.
There’s good reason for that. For starters, the band’s self-assured fourth album, Let’s be ready., which was partially recorded at his homegrown studio, swimfan69, will soon be the first record released on Toronto roots-rock band's brand new label, Chelsea Records. No wonder he radiates that energy and comfort, but it’s Gardiner’s newfound addiction that compliments his craft and his calm: running.
“So much of my life is spent listening, so running is the time of my day when I can be in silence," says Gardiner. "I love it.”
After the band performs back-to-back hometown gigs at Lee’s Palace on October 17 and 18, the longhaired, denim-clad songwriter will run in his first half-marathon along the Lake Ontario waterfront and Toronto’s Inner Harbour (he and the band have formed a team called The Wooden Sky Road Runners to benefit MusiCounts, which you can join here or sponsor here).
"There's this conception that when you go on the road, you go into a touring black hole. You don't acknowledge real life,” says Gardiner, 32. “ [Running] feels like, you know what, I'm going to go on the road and enjoy my life playing music but I'm not going to neglect the other things in my life.”
Whether you're entertaining, singing, playing guitar, it's physical. If you don't treat your body right, your body lets you down.
Of course, that’s been challenged before. Think Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who swapped the bottle for a pair of running shoes in 2008; towering Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler has a serious set of basketball skills; then there’s the iconic Black Flag leader Henry Rollins, who has tirelessly expressed how weightlifting is a way of life: “Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
But Gardiner doesn’t refute the stigma. He just thinks it can be conquered.
"When we were first starting to tour a lot, it was like a travelling party,” he concedes. “It still can kind of be a travelling party, but as soon as that starts to spill over into the show and it starts to affect your ability to perform, then you start to change your perception of what it means to perform, treat it with some respect and actually be sober and be in the moment. A lot of the time, you learn through mistakes.”
Gardiner admits that he hasn’t yet perfected that balance between celebration and professionalism. Let’s be ready. is filled with road-weary nomad musings, like the confession that that "drugs don't work" on the new track “Baby, Hold On.” But Gardiner has been changing his perception of what it takes to be a musician, and for that he’s looked to running. "Whether you're entertaining, singing, playing guitar, it's physical,” he explains. “If you don't treat your body right, your body lets you down.”
That was a tough lesson to learn, one that negatively affected some Wooden Sky performances.
“When I wasn't taking care of myself, I couldn't sing by the end of some shows. It made me realize how a guy like Bruce Springsteen must be in amazing shape to play for three fucking hours! Now I can stick out there for like 25 songs. I have had people come up to me after shows now and tell me that they haven't heard me sing that strongly before.”
Gardiner sheepishly admits exercise has helped him in his relationships, both with his girlfriend and his band. He and the rest of the group now bond over free weights in the gym, usually following guitarist Simon Walker’s regiment. In that sense, being in a band and being an athlete are very similar pursuits.
“We sort of formed our own team in that sense.”
Staying fit isn't just a health pursuit. It's also aesthetic. Gardiner attributes What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by Haruki Murikami, as a crucial text in reiterating the connection between long-distance running and the creative mind.
“It's not necessarily physical,” he says. “It's just about being in motion and having things move past you. The distraction of actually being in motion and moving and not having to focus that much on what you're doing allows your brain to free up and not think so much. So much of writing is overanalyzing. I find if you look at it too closely while you're working on it, you'll probably throw it out.”
Gardiner penned the words for Let’s be ready. mostly at his girlfriend’s parent’s Quebec farm in the Farrellton village, on the defunct Tempelhof airport tarmac in Berlin, and in the Toronto studio Lincoln County Social Club with Willie Nelson’s Teatro looking over the proceedings from a music stand. They approached the yearlong recording process in a new way, first creating demoes and then letting the songs develop organically on the road.
“That's your limitation right there," Gardiner reasons. "You make it work or you sink. You sink sometimes, but that gives the ability to try to capture that lightning in a bottle."