Just before Henry Svec stood up to sing in a Sackville, New Brunswick, bar last year, an elderly man approached him. "Make sure you turn up the vocals," he said. "I really want to hear the lyrics." He believed that Svec's songs---off his latest album, The CFL Sessions---were written in the 1970s by real Canadian football players, recorded by Marxist folk song collector Staunton R. Livingson, then forgotten until Svec rediscovered them in the National Archives of Canada.
"It's all a hoax," Svec admits over the phone from New Brunswick, just an hour after his SappyFest performance last week. "If you have a guitar in your hand, people believe whatever you say."
Svec---a 28-year-old cultural studies student at the University of Western Ontario---wrote and recorded The CFL Sessions with his friend and collaborator W.L. Altman, and spent the last year casually touring the album across Canada. This week he's in Halifax, playing The Company House on August 11 and living as the artist-in-residence at the Roberts Street Social Centre until August 15.
"It wasn't written as a hoax," he says of the Sessions, which are available as a free online download. "I never thought anyone would believe it. When they do, it's not fun---they don't realize the work that you've done." But it's hard to miss the winks and nudges on the album itself, which opens with the line, "You're so pretty and you're so young/ I'll mess around a bit but I can't cum/ I need my legs, I need my energy," and song titles that range from "Song Written Upon Getting Cut by the Argos" to "Life is Like Canadian Football." The concept lends itself to pure comedy, but instead it turns out to be nine sad, cute and surprisingly sincere poems set to acoustic guitar. "In the indie world, it's all about sincerity and being real," Svec says. "It's a stage that you can use to tell stories, so I'm both trying to write songs as well as I can, and trying to inject a bit of performance art."
This isn't the first time Svec's imagination has taken flight in public. After the dissolution of his first band---Peter Mansbridge and the CBCs, probably the best Canadian band name of the last several hundred years---his follow-up album was The Boy From E.T., when he pretended to be a grown-up Henry Thomas, child actor in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.
While in Halifax, Svec'll be working on his latest album, Folk Songs of Canada Now. He's decided to do what he only pretended to do with The CFL Sessions: track down and recreate old folk songs, originally recorded by a real Canadian folk song collector named Edith Fowke. His plan is to take the songs' titles to other artists in the country---Al Tuck, Laura Barrett, Wax Mannequin---and have them re-interpret the tracks in any way they choose. "I said that they could listen to the originals if they wanted to, but they don't have to. And they might sound nothing like the original."
He hopes that the reinvented songs will reach beyond their Canadian roots. "Pure folk music is a global thing that transcends a border," Svec says. "I like that idea...that a group of people can be authentic, that there is such thing as authentic experience, that you can capture that." And if Svec's proven anything, it's that you don't need to be factual to be authentic.