Away Is Mine
After making his terminal brain cancer diagnosis public in 2016, Gord Downie spent the last year of his life engaged in acts of extreme generosity. That summer, he treated fans of his band, The Tragically Hip, to an emotional final cross-country tour that’s since become the stuff of Canadian rock legend. Shortly thereafter, he lent his voice to Indigenous activism through his Secret Path project. And for his 2017 double album Introduce Yerself—released a week after his death that October—he wrote each song about a special person in his life, gifting it to them like a postcard keepsake. As it turns out, Downie completed yet another record in the months before his passing—but this one was for him.
Away Is Mine began as a writing exercise in early 2017 for a potential memoir, before Downie decided to devote his limited energies to doing what he loved most: making music. But instead of plotting some grand-finale statement, the album was conceived as a casual amusement between Downie and Skydiggers guitarist Josh Finlayson (the trusty right-hand man on Downie’s previous solo records) where the two attempted to write an entire record in the open-C tuning heard in the work of inspirations like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. “I would record these ideas on my phone and he’d put them in his GarageBand and put the words and melodies over top,” Finlayson tells Apple Music. “That could have been the record; it could have been that simple. The songs appear in the order we wrote them.” But Downie suggested they rerecord the demos at the Hip’s Bathouse Studios and give in-house producer Nyles Spencer carte blanche to reimagine the songs. “Gord intuitively knew that Nyles would take this material somewhere the two of us couldn't,” Finlayson says.
Reworked in just four days, Away Is Mine retains the original project’s modest dimensions, with 10 songs clocking in under half an hour. But Spencer’s production liberates these roots-rock reveries from the soil and lets them float out into the cosmos, uncannily blurring the line between country authenticity and ambient experimentation. “The feeling that Gord is singing from another realm is very much what Niles was trying to create,” Finlayson says. That spectral quality is all the more amplified by the record’s companion acoustic version, which strips the rerecordings down to Finlayson’s original acoustic bed tracks while retaining the otherworldly vocal effects that Spencer applied to the finished version. But that haunted ambiance is balanced by the levity of Downie’s lyrics, which, far from being fixated on death, seem to analyze his life’s work—as both a musician and father—with an anthropologist’s eye, as if to actively deconstruct the mythology that was built up around him during the Hip’s victory lap. “I write about words/Try and make them sound like my/Thoughts of nature will still accept me,” he sings atop the psychedelic twang of “River Don’t Care,” and he repeats variations of that phrase throughout the record, reframing the artistry of a rock icon as a humbling vocation.
“I know for some people, this record may be hard to listen to,” Finlayson says. “But lyrically, I don't find it's a very dark record. Despite what Gord was going through, I think he felt gratitude—he felt he had a good life, and that he had been a lucky person in a lot of ways. So I think there's humor in this, there's humility and hope, and a sense of acceptance.”