Special To The Star
“It ain’t gonna stop now!” a feisty Gordon Lightfoot declares at the conclusion of a 30-minute interview about the state of his six-decade-plus career. We’re sitting at a table at his record company headquarters north of the 401, and it’s obvious that at 81, the fire still rages in the Orillia-born troubadour’s belly.
He’s not interested at slowing down in the slightest.
Lightfoot, who resumes touring in Iowa on March 25 and whose closest-to-Toronto dates over the next few months include Casino Rama on April 18 and Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo on June 4, is itching to get back on the road with his four-piece band – especially following a leg injury he suffered after tripping over a bench at a Toronto gym (he has worked out religiously since the ‘90s.)
“This thing, I was laid up for four months,” he says, mentioning he’s still being treated for it eight months later.
“We had to cancel and postpone everything. We fought our way through that. I’ll keep it rolling until there’s a health issue. Somewhere, something can happen. I’ve learned that. It happened to me twice – once for 28 months and once for just four months. But it’s causes a heck of a to-do when it happens, because everybody wants to go to work…including myself.”
Of course, the “28 months” the man who has bequeathed us such classic songs as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Beautiful” and oh so many more is referring to is his near fatal abdominal aneurysm that derailed his life for that time period.
It is also the era from where his newest and 21st studio album Solo – out March 20 – sources its material.
“I actually found about half of this stuff by accident,” the visibly thin Lightfoot, wisps of brownish-grey hair touching the shoulders of his jacket, recalls. “It was a group of demos we did back in the year 2000. We had already started learning this – my band and myself.
“We were getting ready to record, and we were going on tour first – and as soon as we got back off that tour that Fall, we were going to get into a recording studio and get all these tunes down.
“All of a sudden, I was down for almost two-and-a-half years. During our time in and out of the hospital, we accumulated a certain number of tunes- enough to make an album which I called the Harmony album, which came out in 2004.
“We orchestrated the whole thing and made it sound like an album. All the vocal tracks were new – we didn’t use all of what was on our demo selection, which had 18 tunes on it, which we had recorded about 1998.”
But this is what’s intriguing about Solo it’s much, much different than the rest of his catalogue.
The intimate album contains 10 songs that feature his voice, his guitar, some whistling and occasionally, Lightfoot insists, his foot tapping along to a tune.
In other words, they’re the original demos, discovered when Lightfoot stumbled upon a CD of them while moving office space 18 months ago.
“I looked at it and I didn’t recognize half the titles on it,” Lightfoot admits. “I’d see the title and I didn’t remember the song.”
For a man who is a meticulous perfectionist, five of them passed the muster for Solo consideration. He had another five in the can and was contemplating whether he would “orchestrate” them – Gordspeak for arranging them with his band – before deciding to “let it go the way it sounds.”
“If we put it through those changes, it’s going to lose the character that we’re hearing right now, “ he reasoned.
“Because, at that time, there were still no health issues and I was at the peak of my ability when I did that stuff. And now, we’re going to take that stuff and throw it out and start from scratch and do it all over again? Or are people going to think I’ve become lazy or something like that?
Lightfoot took three or four months to decide, but then recalled that in 1982, Bruce Springsteen released the barebones Nebraska.
“He and Bob Dylan are probably my two biggest influences,” Lightfoot reveals. “There are many other people – many, many more, but those were the two that would spring to mind most quickly – all though on his stuff he did some of his own overdubbing.
“So, I said, I think I’m going to try doing some of that, too. I tried doing some orchestral stuff using synthesizer. I tried adding rhythm tracks and I said, people are just going to know that this is….we can’t even get a remix on this stuff. All we can do is just put it out.”
As for the subject matter of such songs as “Oh So Sweet, “E-motion,” “Better Off” and “Just A Little Bit,” Lightfoot doesn’t dwell on the details, but admits some of the songs stemmed from a painful time in his life.
“Well, my second marriage was in decline – and some of that found its way in through poetic license, I suppose,” he says.
“There are a few personal things about it. Poetic license is a funny thing. I’m on my third marriage. My wife’s name is Kim and she’s a wonderful lady. I was very, very lucky to find her and we’ve been together a long time. We were married only five years ago, and we’ve only known each other for 12 years.
“And this stuff was written back when my marriage (to second wife Elizabeth) was failing, so Kim has already picked up on the fact that the emotions speaking about right now are finding is way into the songs. And she doesn’t feel exactly comfortable about that because it’s about the former wife.
“I try to keep it out of the conversation, but I know that people are going to ask me about it. And I may even have to man up about it, you know? But it’s not like it’s going to change my plans or anything like that.”
I’m surprised by Lightfoot’s candour, and mention that until the release of Nicholas Jennings’ excellent and revealing authorized biography Lightfoot in 2017, he was a very private person.
“I still am!” he laughs.
Any fallout, I inquire?
“I had some reactions from close range,’ he admits. “About all I can say about it is that I had reactions from close range from two or three different areas, from people who are very close to me. People that I care about.
“One of my daughters. Ingrid found stuff about it a little offensive. Kim found a little bit. There was one other… but I don’t really think about these things very much.
“The first thing I think about is, ‘Oh, I’m being put upon because I didn’t know everything I was saying at the time I was being interviewed. I wish I hadn’t talked about some of the stuff that I had mentioned.’
“And they say, ‘Well, I guess that’s all right then.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing, or I don’t remember saying that. I get prepared for the next (inquiry), and every time I do that, I feel a little bit stronger and try to maintain my composure.
“Because it does upset me. And the best thing for me to do is put up with it or go one step back and deal with it. Because everybody in humanity – every one of us – has their own world to deal with. Each and every single one of us.”
As much as music fuels his soul, family is also a big priority in Lightfoot’s life, with a menagerie that includes six children, five grandchildren, one great-grandchild – which is why the singer and songwriter hints that he may not have another album in him.
“I’m really not thinking of doing it. It eats up too much time,” Lightfoot admits. “I have an extended family, and when that’s the case, you’ve got to pay more attention. Your interest can’t be… I mean, I had times, when all I thought about was music. Just the show and writing songs, for years…years!
“At one point, I was single for 19 years, after being married once. I stayed that way and during that time, my goodness, I made maybe eight or nine albums, you know? This is number 21. So, do I have another one brewing or not? “
If not, he’s certainly satisfied with “Solo.”
“I was singing at my best,” Lightfoot says. “I can still sing well but not like I was singing around 1998! That was 22 years ago. I was at full health – I was at my peak!
“This one is special – it’s a really good one but it’s as different as it’s ever going to get.”