Songs can come from so many places, but for Canadian singer John McDermott many of them come from his memories of home.
About to tour B.C. on the 20th anniversary since he first stepped on stage to perform as a solo artist, McDermott recalls the day his mom handed him a collection of her favourite songs.
“I went to visit my mom, and she asked when I was doing a hymn album. I told her I wasn’t sure and she said, ‘yes, you are.’”
Not long after their conversation McDermott’s record label EMI called and wanted to know if he would record an album singing songs with an inspirational message.
“It’s funny they asked,” said McDermott, who, of course, made a call to his mom. “Thirty minutes later, my mom went and took 16 of her favourite hymns and gave them to me, and we recorded them all.”
Hailing from strong Scottish stock, McDermott was born the fourth youngest of 11 siblings in Glasgow. He grew up in Toronto, where he attended St. Michael’s College for boys and sang in the school choir.
Now living on Georgian Bay, about a two hour drive from the city, McDermott’s roots, especially his family, come to play in many of the stories and songs he is about to share when he sets off on the western leg of his Looking Back tour, which stops at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Thursday.
“I am just going to talk about my career and what’s happened over the 20 years, and take questions. It will be a relaxed and intimate atmosphere,” he said.
And, don’t worry, the former member of the Irish Tenors also plans to sing some of those beloved favourites that first got him on the stage: songs such as Danny Boy, which he named his first album after, as well as Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and Green Fields of France.
“I don’t get tired of singing them or telling the anecdotes that come with them,” he said.
He even remembers the date of his first concert with his own band: Oct. 5, 1993 in Halifax, N.S. It came the year after he had toured as an opening act with famed Irish group The Chieftans.
Before then, McDermott was working in circulation with the Toronto Sun newspaper.
“I had such great fortune when I first started. With my first tour with The Chieftans, my fiddler was Ashley MacIsaac. My second tour had fiddler Natalie MacMaster.”
That fortune continued, McDermott says, citing the time he was asked to perform with famed Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. It was in Victoria, and Harry Belafonte had to bail from the tour with Mouskouri due to health reasons.
“She had remembered me when I was touring with the Irish Tenors and asked if I could complete the tour with her. It was in 2003 and the tour ended in Athens at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (a stone theatre built in 161 AD). I walked on stage, looked up on my right to the Acropolis. There were 9,000 seats looking straight up at us.”
It’s not a coincidence that McDermott has built his career on singing ballads about wartime, many with a Gaelic or Celtic lilt, a tribute to his roots and his support of veterans’ causes.
It was his dad, who died in 1995, that first got McDermott interested in helping soldiers, young and old.
“My dad was a vet of the Second World War and I had some cousins killed in Vietnam. My uncle was a PoW in Middle Asia and died at the camp. It was sort of the same thing as in the (1957 film) Bridge Over the River Kwai,” he said.
It was after McDermott performed his first show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto that his dad said he should give back to the veterans.
McDermott House, a foundation to support those returning from service, was born out of that.
“We just celebrated our 12th year in Boston and our third year in Washington, DC. In Canada it started as a foundation and we are currently working on the renovation of the palliative (for veterans, military and first responders) wing at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. The first stage is expected to be completed in January of next year.
“Our work continues as there are these young men and women coming back from Afghanistan or wherever seeing things that you or I can’t imagine. We are focussing on helping those with post traumatic stress disorder and children of people with PTSD.”
Back to his music, McDermott has more recently recorded songs and performed with the likes of contemporary artists such as Ron Sexsmith, Jim Cuddy, and Lawrence Gowan, who co-wrote the song Along the Merry Road to Hell from McDermott’s 2010 album Journeys (Bringing Buddy Home), which is about McDermott’s brother, who died after a long battle with alcoholism.
He also credits his longtime recording and stage mate, Toronto guitarist Jason Fowler, whom he recorded the 2012 album, The Old House, with and also produced Journeys, for helping light a fire under him after he left the Irish Tenors in 2000.
It was also at that time that his mom died followed by one of his brothers and a sister.
“I needed time to reflect and the (other members ) of the Tenors couldn’t deal with it. I thought I would take some time off and I did for a while, then Jason arrived at that point and he brought a new energy,” said McDermott. “It became fun again and creative and challenging. He pushed it.”
McDermott is bringing Fowler along on his Looking Back tour, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24 at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre. Tickets are $51 (all seats) at the Ticket Seller, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.