Voluntary In Nature • 2021

With Wayne ’76, Voluntary In Nature is making sure that Wayne McGhie gets his moment in the spotlight and secures his place in Canadian musical history.

In the waning days of 2021, Voluntary In Nature, “an outlet for sharing” according to their Bandcamp bio, quietly re-released three “lost” albums to digital for the first time. These treasures had come their way through thrift-store finds and, in the case of Jamaica-born Toronto-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Wayne McGhie’s 1976 recordings for an album never released, directly from the hands of the artist himself. 

The liner notes for Wayne ’76 on Bandcamp explain that in 2004 (while working with venerable Seattle-based label Light in the Attic Records on re-issuing McGhie’s 1970 debut, Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy and the compilation Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk, and Reggae 1967-1974), Voluntary In Nature’s Kevin Howes (the Grammy-nominated producer and archivist who worked on last year’s stellar Willie Dunn anthology, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies) connected with the genre-crossing McGhie. With his blessing and complete cooperation, McGhie entrusted Howes and Voluntary In Nature with the 2” master tapes that contained what was supposed to be the follow-up to …The Sounds of Joy, culled from sessions recorded between gigs working with the legendary Jackie Mittoo. 

McGhie died in 2017, but the music that sparked his joy and creativity endures on Wayne ’76. Though it’s easy to understand how and why the late-60s/early-70s microcosm of the Canadian music industry could largely ignore and under-appreciate a Black immigrant musician, Wayne ’76 makes a case for just how much of a crime it was that McGhie’s vision and work went unheard for so long. Unabashedly shifting from funk to soul to reggae and R&B, McGhie is a musician in a class all his own. His multi-faceted sounds were ripe for the picking, which explains why 1990s hip-hop and rap recordings widely sampled his work. Still, a battle with mental health issues through the tail-end of the 1970s and 1980s left him unable to write and record just when it seemed like he was reaching the peak of creativity. 

“Love Over Yonder” immediately stands out as an instant funk/soul/disco classic. Piercing strings introduce the song’s infectious melody setting up McGhie’s soulful croon as he sings of walking a tightrope over deep waters while carrying a heavy load, always with an eye on the horizon towards the object of desire. “Love Over Yonder” is the kind of song you swear you’ve known all your life the first time you hear it. So too, “Too Bad,” an impassioned song about missed opportunities that may have initially been directed at an ex-lover but now feels like a pointed criticism towards the greater musical community that systemically oppressed racialized voices. Opener “Think It Over” flirts with McGhie’s Caribbean heritage, adding calypso-inspired bounce to a ballad that sways like palm fronds in a midday Montego Bay breeze. “So What,” “Talk to Me,” and “Let the Music” are reggae-pop hybrids that could just as easily have inspired the Clash and the Police if they’d ever seen the light of day at the time of their recording.

But just as an ill-fated warehouse fire destroyed most copies of Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy before they could be sold, fate held up the collected works on Wayne ’76 from ever being publicly heard. Until now. In the 1970s, while Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young were being held aloft as “Canadian” musicians, McGhie and his contemporaries were overlooked as artists, and their rich cultural and musical traditions undervalued. About half a decade after his death — and more than forty years since recording it — McGhie’s sophomore album is getting the recognition it deserves. Howes’s Voluntary In Nature is living up to its mandate of “celebrating our community, acknowledging tradition, and expanding the landscape of intergenerational and cross-cultural awareness and connectivity.”

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