I’ve found myself increasingly attracted to stories of the paranormal these days: ghost stories, UFO sightings, mysterious disappearances. They don’t have to be scary–in fact, I’m something of a baby when it comes to horror–but the fantastical stories themselves are enough to draw me in. I don’t care if they’re true, because the truth is beside the point.
Science and rationality are vital for societal progress, but truth is a stubborn and practical skeptic: time travel is impossible, the Bermuda Triangle is no more deadly than any other part of the ocean, and the Loch Ness Monster is just a huge sturgeon. The paranormal, then, tantalizes us with the possibility that we don’t have all the answers, that this is not, in fact, all there is. What if there really were aliens at Roswell? What if King Tut really did curse his tomb? What if spirits really can linger on after death? What then?
“Fog Walker of Copton Ridge,” a new song by the Canadian singer-songwriter Mountain Mansion (aka Shane Turner), is not technically a ghost story, as the titular “fog walker” was not dead. Part of a project of music inspired by his time in a fire watch tower in the Canadian wilderness, Turner relates a story he heard from an old lookout about a run-in with a man who had a scraggly beard and a face like a skull. According to this lookout, the man was not a ghost, but rather a trapper who had lost his mind and wandered through the fog–that is, if he existed at all.
In Turner’s hands, though, it feels like a ghost story, albeit one that’s more sad than scary. The atmosphere is wintry and overcast, and it emphasizes the sense of isolation that both the lookout and the fog walker must have felt. If the walker was real, it’s scary; if he wasn’t, it’s mournful. The image of a gaunt, skeletal man emerging from the fog is haunting, but equally haunting is the idea that, stationed in a remote watchtower far from civilization, you may not even have ghosts for company.
Tell me about the story behind the song.
I watched too many horror movies as a kid. Too many movies all around but some of those slasher flicks live in my subconscious and pop into my mind at the worst times. Some nights during my first season at a fire tower I would get startled by the creaks and knocks caused by weather and wildlife and my imagination would have puppies.
I tried writing a song about this. A humorous one full of Cabin in the Woods-type movie references. I couldn’t quite nail it.
Then I recalled a story of an old lookout who was spooked by a hiker showing up during a cold and foggy night. His fire lookout at Copton Ridge was fly-in access only, so he wouldn’t see anyone until a helicopter came for him.
And yet one night the lookout woke up to his dog making strange sounds. Peering out the window he spotted a long bearded man with a face that looked like a skull. The lookout trembled nervously on the edge of his bed waiting for a bony hand to knock on the door. It never came. Somehow the skeleton man vanished. Who knows what he wanted? Years later the lookout heard of an aged trapper in the same area who had contracted rabies and didn’t die but instead became insane, wandering in the High Country for years afterwards.
I thought this freak out was a relatable thing to write about. The poor trapper probably just needed help. Or maybe he was just a figment of the lookout’s imagination. Who knows?
Why did you choose to go about this song from the angle you chose?
I was listening to the Tragically Hip’s “Nautical Disaster” and wanted to pen a song with the same first person narrative structure, where nothing repeats and there is no obvious chorus as it tells its story.
You made effective use of atmosphere here—how did you set about making the song feel as unique and haunting as it is?
Thanks! I had just moved from a warm fire tower to a cold alpine summit and right away I was trapped in stormy weather that lasted a week. I wasn’t used to the relentless wind and it started to get to me one sleepless night. I thought I might as well make something of it so I started doing field recordings of the weather. Some cool stuff but not much I could use in a pop song.
I had recently watched both versions of Suspiria and I was into the windy Moogs in the original [soundtrack]. I thought they would be perfect for capturing this story . I tracked down a plugin version and I wrote (previous single) “Tornado Mountain” and “Fog Walker of Copton Ridge” with the Moog, Ukulele and real and fake wind.
I wanted the song to have guitar parts that reflected the lyrics and was unique to each section, more like a film score. I grabbed a marker and wrote down in big letters “Waking Up”, “Dark and Foreboding”, and “Curious and Mysterious” as chapters. I set up different configurations of guitar pedals and jammed out each theme until I ended up with a Beach House-y riff, some Deerhoof inspired chords and a surf riff shifting the moods. Without those the song would be too peppy for the subject matter.
What are your ambitions for the future?
When I got my first fire tower, I actually had intended to retire from music. I’d been in bands full time since I was 15, played over 500 shows and wanted to see what else was out there. On my second season a wildfire was fast approaching my tower, and on the helicopter rescue out I wrote a song called “Evacuation Day” about the experience. There was something about the matter of fact almost log book/ journal approach to lyric writing that I found really inspiring. And few people were writing about the same fire tower specific themes so with the encouragement of some co-workers I kept going until I made it to over forty songs.
Now I’m taking my favorites and making a four-part series called Songs From A Fire Tower. The majority of the music was/will be recorded and mixed at fire lookouts during rainy days and nights. I tried to give each album its own sound and I want to keep exploring what is sonically possible in this glass box in the sky.
#1 is a ukulele folk record, out on March 4, 2022.
#2 is out now, and it’s a loose and funny folk record about things going wrong at towers.
#3 is a little more personal shoegaze-y record with drums recorded during a year that I had a drive-in fire tower.
#4 brings them all together.