Chris Luedecke, the banjo-strumming minstrel who's better known by his stage name, Old Man, was on the other side of the globe when his world was turned upside down. It was on tiny Flinders Island, at the northeastern tip of Tasmania, that Luedecke received word that his 2008 record Proof of Love had won the Juno for best roots album. It was the first moment, he now says, when he realized, "I'm not just screwing around here. This is really happening."
The award marked a high point in a career that has seen him criss-cross the country, banjo in hand, slowly building up prestige as one of the country's most engaging young performers, a reputation likely to be cemented with his latest album, My Hands are on Fire and other Love Songs, which arrives in stores today.
Although one can never guarantee success, the 34-year-old Luedecke admits in retrospect that he maybe should have seen it coming: "You look back on it and you see that it's been working out forever, you know? You realize that you've been lucky all along, people have been kind. Your sense of things is that it's a mean old world, but clearly, if you look back on it, you can see that there were things that should have been giving you indications that it was going to be fine."
In 2003 Luedecke released his debut album, Mole in the Ground, which was followed up by Hinterland in 2006 (that disc featured the joyous, kazoo-infused singalong Joy of Cooking and the free-spirit anthem I Quit My Job), and finally the acclaimed Proof of Love. On each successive release, Luedecke unveiled a slate of campfire-ready tunes that sounded timeless the first time you heard them, and an unfailing dedication to the banjo.
"I guess I love it because I guess I haven't figured it out yet at some level," says Luedecke, on the phone from his home in Chester, N.S., a small oceanside town about 45 minutes from Halifax where he's lived for six years. "I've had a series of eureka moments that have kept me wedded to the rhythm of the instrument, and the ability to express the things that I've got to express through it. It's just a very wicked, rhythmic [instrument]."
"I certainly have gotten bored with it," he adds, "and wonder if that sound is no good. And obviously I'm not really a stranger to the fact that not everyone loves the banjo."
But nearly everyone loves a foot-stomping singalong, which his albums offer in abundance. Though he laughs when asked about the folk-braggadocio offered up on the new song Machu Picchu, where he boasts "there was never a song I couldn't sing my out way of," listeners may agree after giving the new record a few spins.
Though it may be subtitled and Other Love Stories, there is plenty of heartache and longing on the album, which was recorded over three days with Vancouver producer Steve Dawson, who worked with Luedecke on Proof of Love. On Inchworm, the closing track, Luedecke admits "the journey seemed much simpler at the start."
"I've always had a really dim view of where I would end up, but at the same time I've also had a naive view of what was involved," he says. "You know, as an artist you're constantly struggling to prove to yourself or to the world that what you're doing is worth their time. And that's more complicated than just making the work."
Speaking to Luedecke, one gets the sense that he's still struggling to prove to himself that he's arrived for good ("I tend to be a fairly fearful person. I'm probably like the Woody Allen of the banjo.") Both lyrics from the song The Rear Guard, from which the album takes its name, and the cover art, by his wife, Teresa Bergen, imagine Luedecke as an Icarus-like figure, flying too close to the sun on homemade wings. He describes the song "an anthem to myself," and doesn't mind that, ultimately, Icarus fails. He's okay with that.
"I'm not a winner, necessarily. But I'm going to be the king of the losers."