Saltwater Hank

Saltwater Hank

🕔May 04, 2018

Saltwater Hank has reached the other salt water. It’s a long way from home, but it’s the next leg of a long, grand journey for singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Pahl.

Pahl is in Cape Breton, on tour with Prince George’s Danny Bell. Pahl and Bell have logged many miles on the road together; both are former members of Prince George folk sensations Black Spruce Bog. Tonight, they’re playing in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. “East Coast audiences are different,” says Pahl, contrasting their listening habits with those of laid-back West Coast crowds. “They sit watching you in total silence and it’s hard to read them until after the song is done, and then they clap and you can tell they’re really into it.”


This leg of the tour included a few tiny “house shows,” which come with their share of after-show jamming with locals. Pahl and Bell particularly enjoyed one that featured “insane fiddlers” playing “crazy Irish chord progressions,” which no doubt fuel the restless music appetites of these chroniclers, song collectors, and troubadours.


As well as being a great journey across Canada, the tour is also in support of the new, debut Saltwater Hank album, Stories from the Northwest, which has been drawing praise from audiences and publications across the country. The songs that make up the album showcase Pahl’s deep roots in northwest BC, from the style to the lyrical themes to the unusual recording technique.


That recording style is perhaps antithetical to the manicured, auto-tuned sound of today’s pop music machine, but was once standard for bluegrass bands and other ensembles: one ribbon microphone in the midst of the group, with players moving towards the mic as they take a solo, stepping back into a careful arrangement to balance the volume. When it’s pointed out that this approach requires considerable musical skill and ensemble cohesion, at first Pahl just laughs. With characteristic modesty, he concedes that many of the players on the recording have played together a great deal, including support from Bell, fellow Black Spruce Bog alumnus Amy Blanding, and Prince George alt-country/folk chanteuse Naomi Kavka.


Who is Saltwater Hank? “Hank is my dad,” says Pahl, who also had a beloved great uncle by that name. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Hank.” And now he is one. The Saltwater part of the moniker is from the Pacific—Pahl was born in Price Rupert and spent his early childhood near or on those waters, as a Tsimshian and member of the Gitga’at community.


Country music, including that of Hank Williams Sr., just as deeply suffused Pahl’s childhood, often played around a fire, where his dad and grandfather would jam in the big circle. Pahl’s grandfather played dances in Prince Rupert from the 1960s on, bringing a Western swing sound to the people.


Pahl also grew up partly in Chilliwack, where as a teenager he discovered punk rock, skateboarding, and black metal. “I saw [Vancouver punk legends] D.O.A. when I was 14,” Pahl says. He also mentions seeing other punk luminaries like the Dayglo Abortions and the Evaporators. He found his way back to the North as an older teen, when he moved to Burns Lake to start a metal band with his cousin. That band was named Gyibaaw (roughly pronounced gah-bow, with the second syllable like a tree bough, and near equal syllabic emphasis). Gyibaaw is the word for “wolf” in Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language; true to this spirit, the band blended elements of black metal with the sounds of traditional Indigenous instruments. Pahl and the band would go on to tour South America.


A similar spirit of complex inhabitation of music and Indigenous identity lights up Pahl’s forthcoming Saltwater Hank project: an album of songs in the Saltwater Hank style, combining Western swing, bluegrass, and other country and folk styles, with all the lyrics in Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language. Pahl says this remarkable idea “came out of the ether.”


This project is funded by a federal grant and involves Pahl going back and forth with the Tsimshian language-keeper to ensure that grammar and pronunciation are correct. Speaking to the ambition of this unique project, Pahl anticipates some of his learning to complete the work. “There are a lot of different sounds, guttural sounds, glottal stops,” he says. The plan is to record this record the same way he did the debut Saltwater Hank album, with just one microphone and multiple musicians.


This summer, Pahl will perform as Saltwater Hank across BC (among other places) at indie venues and summer music festivals, including the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival.

— Jeremy Stewart