When you get a chance to chat with a living legend such as Gordon Lightfoot, there are so many thoughts that go through your head about what direction to take the interview. Do I talk about the past, present or future? What about the subjects that have been beaten into the ground? So I decided that I would ask him what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about the here and now, the planning for the current tour, a subject he is clearly still very passionate about. Now in his mid 70’s, Lightfoot is as witty as ever and is sharp with his answers. A great conversationalist, as you might figure out from the story telling approach of his music, he is clearly still having fun at his craft, a craft he’s been working on for over 5 decades. He tells us that the days of writing a new album are over with but I hardly believe that, although he said he applauds those that are still out there making it happen.
One thing he shared surprised us, I mean who’d have thought this folk song-writing genius who has sold millions of albums was a hip-hop and heavy metal fan? But then again, why not? One of the beauties of his music has always been that it is so genuine and about the human condition, all of it, all encompassing. So it makes sense that he’d be open to other genres such as hip-hop and heavy metal. So, from his spot on a beautiful fall evening in Toronto he shares with us what life’s been like for the last 50 years on the Carefree Highway.
We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.
NWMS: Anything in particular you want to talk about?
G: Well, the tour is going well. There are many things of course. We have our personal lives to think about, our families. We also have the music business to think about. They’re kinda like equals. The family equals the music; the family usually wins. *laughs* We have a very good band, a very good sound going on right now with our five-piece band, and we’ve been getting some very good response to it. I’ve been doing a little bit of writing, but not enough to make an album; a lot of other people are still doing it, though, and I give them credit for doing that. I do have an extended family too now. Another album is just kinda unlikely, but we like playing shows; I’ve been performing ever since I was a child, and I like getting in front of a crowd and doing a show, and I think we’re getting rather proficient at that, and at a very high level, really mature. We’re getting a good response from it, we’re doing a lot of shows, we’re doing 88 shows this year, to be exact. There’s seven trips involved; we’ve broken up into segments, for family looking-after business.
NWMS: I was reading something about the way you guys go about touring, and it sounds like a finely-tuned operation.
G: It’s relatively small. We have 13 people traveling. Some of these other groups have like 30 to 35 people traveling with them, two or three trucks, a couple of buses, and maybe an airplane. With the folk rock kind of group that we’re in, we’re somewhat small in terms of numbers traveling. We tune our own instruments, we do our own guitar maintenance on the road, and not all of the staff of a larger group at play. We basically have one 18-wheeler for equipment, and the bus is for the four-man stage crew.
NWMS: Well, at least they have a bus and not a van.
G: They use the bus. Both the bus and the truck have to be there when I get there, so then they have to leave several weeks in advance when we’re going out to your country here this time; out to the western United States. We’ll be arriving there the night before by a private airplane, the truck and the bus will already be there, but he’ll have driven it for a week from Toronto, and the bus goes from Kissimmee, Florida and we rent the plane here, and they stay with us for the whole trip, so the plane carries the band.
NWMS: So is your band all from Toronto?
G: Yeah, we’re all from the Toronto area.
NWMS: Let’s go back to the beginning for Gordon Lightfoot. Do you remember what the first concert you ever went to was?
G: It was perhaps Bob Dylan. That was just after his album #1 or album #2, and then it was Ian & Sylvia, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Some of the rock bands later on when I was getting my chops together, I was straight in the middle of the folk revival, and I was seeing all the concerts for folk artists. I’d seen Pete Seeger in concert around that time too.”
NWMS: There was this big folk revival sort of going on in the very early ‘60s, and then the Beatles came in and killed that, to some extent, right?
G: Well yeah, it sorta moved quite a few people onto the back-burner. Nevertheless, quite a few people made their way through it, but the Beatles, I once knocked Paul McCartney out of the first place in the Billboard Magazine anyways. That’s the one claim to fame I have as far as the Beatles go. I’m always big on the competitive side of the business, it’s kinda fun. It’s why we try to do perfect shows with my band, ‘cos it’s like playing a game; having a game of sports.
NWMS: Do you think because the Beatles got so big back then, that you had to scratch and claw your way through the ‘60s and work a little harder than you would have if folk would’ve really took off then, that that helped you sort of develop this staying power that you’ve had?
G: Yeah, I was also getting a lot of cover recordings, but I wasn’t getting airplay. I was getting a lot of cover recordings during that period of time, so it sort of sustained me true until I got with Warner Bros. in 1970, and we got our first hit single at that point. Before that, it was just me getting recorded by other artists, I won a couple songwriting awards during those years, and one of my albums got nominated for a Grammy Award, my third album; it was definitely an interesting time in my career.
NWMS: Now, your songs have always been about totally real things – relationships, feelings, nature, etc. – is that why people have been able to connect with your music so well, because of the deeply-personal songs that you write?
G: Yeah, because I live a very normal existence, like everybody else. I experience the same things and anxieties and insecurities that most people do, not that I’d want to prey on that, because a lot of my songs are very optimistic. But yeah, a lot of my songs have to do with personal experience because I know that others have experienced the same things that I have experienced. Getting through things with the family, marital situations, being able to work, even being able to have a place to live.
U: Yeah, life can be tough for some people
G: Yeah, need is the word. For the most part anyway; I’m one of the lucky ones that’s been able to be successful and all, and I still think about those who are not, and I seriously sympathize with them. My songwriting was what really got me started. Because of my songwriting, I was able to get a management situation, and I had a really great manager at the time. It wasn’t situated here in Toronto, of course, but in New York. Being a large hit with Peter, Paul and Mary with one of my tunes, and they offered me a management contract. I had to think about that one for a while, clear up some obligations that I had here, cross the border here in Canada first before I could do it, but I did it, and I did it for seven years, and they made me a really good publishing connection here in New York, and we made a lot of great cover recordings.
NWMS: Obviously you’ve got an incredible back catalog of songs. Is there any song in particular that seems to resonate the most with people?
G: Yeah, it’s funny, because you can usually find them anywhere in the radio. I guess the most magical one – you know, there’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and there’s “Sundown” and there’s “If You Could Read My Mind”. But the most magical one is probably, “If You Could Read My Mind”. We never thought about that at the time when it was recorded, the record was already out and had no legs left; the record did not sell well, maybe 80,000 records and it stopped in its tracks. But then “If You Could Read My Mind” got added to a station in Seattle.
NWMS: Do you remember what station?
G: I don’t remember. It was the Top 40 station, and it was a very important radio station.
NWMS: So that’s what gave it legs again, huh?
G: Well yeah, after that station, that song and some others were being picked up by some more stations, and then more and more stations. One thing led to another, and before you knew it we hit #5 on Billboard, that’s around when it stopped. But that was good enough, I think it sold great. The album itself is awfully close to a million. That would be my favourite one ever.
NWMS: Let’s talk briefly about Edmund Fitzgerald and the TV show about the shipwreck
G: They wanted to prove what happened. That documentary was done by National Geographic and it was called “Rogue Wave”, and it was dive detectives, involving divers, and it actually proved what happened. One of my guys had brought the thing to me in my office and showed me, and he wanted to get some of the music in the show, in order for me to say yes. Because we won’t let them use any of the music until we’re cleared with the Ladies’ Committee in Wisconsin.
NWMS: It’s obvious you know a lot about this story.
G: It’s quite the story; it’s really quite vast. It’s ongoing, and it’s been really, really interesting. I went to one of its anniversaries in Michigan, where they had over 800 relatives and friends down there in one place.
NWMS: So I was reading that you’re into all different kinds of music, from classical to heavy metal to hip-hop, you like everything.
G: Yeah, I love the low-ends on hip-hop. I always listen to the low-end and the bass. It just gets me going.
NWMS: I bet a lot of people wouldn’t really know that about you.
G: Well I mean, I’m not a huge fan, but I appreciate it for what it is, because one of my kids was really into it for a while, and he would play it in the car and radio all the time, and he’d turn it up quite loud, and I was getting an appreciation for what was going on down there with this music, it’s built from the floor up. You can really get going listening to these tracks, because they’re made with such expertise from the producers and record producers that make them. The band tracks are phenomenal on these things.
NWMS: Now there’s a big surge of EDM and beat-driven electronic music that’s getting very popular. There’s a lot of producers out there doing that. Do you think that could potentially hurt music at some point? Like, if there are people that aren’t playing traditional instruments, if they’re creating things electronically, or do you think that doesn’t really matter?”
G: Probably the latter. I don’t think it really matters. All’s fair. It’s a commercial sound, you know? If that’s how they do it, with the use of electronic instruments; but not everything on there is just electronics; it’s like half and half, with all the vocal choruses and stuff that they do. But the basic tracks, though, is where the secret is in that stuff, just all the drums and bass and percussion sections. A lot of the really good acts too get the really good musicians doing it all. You know, people like Beyonce and people like that, they’ve got real musicians going on in their stuff, or at least I believe they do, anyways.
NWMS: Let’s talk about some of this new stuff. I read somewhere that you aren’t a real big computer person. Have you gotten one yet?
G: No, I don’t have one yet. My kids are pretty much into it, but no, not me. I have one in my office that we use quite a bit, but my secretary and assistant do most of that work. Perhaps if I had taken typing in high school, I would’ve been more ahead of the game.
NWMS: These days the Internet is full of music and a large amount of it you can get for free. You can create more music than you’ve ever been able to create, and get it out to a lot more people than ever before. Do you think that helps or hurts the music industry?
G: Well, it probably kind of is detrimental in a way, but the best answer I can give to that one is that it’s affective in some respects. But, you know, retail record sales are down basically. Fortunately, I sold most of my records back in the 1970s and 1980s so I don’t have to worry about that. All I have to worry about is my show. Just getting ready and getting prepared, and I just try to monitor what’s going on, listening to the radio, I get bits and pieces from my office and the staff there, and I go in there every day and stay in touch, trying to get the family thing going, I’ve got six children spread out all across the land now.
NWMS: Are any of them making music now?
G: They did, they have and they came out on the other side of it, really. I had one kid that gave it a good try; he put out about three albums. They just couldn’t stand against the wave, with so many artists and so much talent. They tried, they played, they had their own band. My son just married a lovely girl, and he became a pilot. He went to flight school while he was playing music here on Queen Street in Toronto, which is a pretty well-known musical outlet for a lot of young bands. She had her own band at one point, and he worked in a couple good bands that had potential, and he was a guitarist. He made a whole complete album of songs with everything on it. It was his last project, but then he moved onto being a pilot. He’s a Bush pilot now.