The following article/interview was written in August of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, for the folk music magazine Penguin Eggs, after a wide-ranging telephone conversation with Gordon Lightfoot. With the demise of that magazine I am publishing it here, with the kind permission of publisher Roddy Campbell. The conversation below has been edited for length from a tape recording of my call with Gordon Lightfoot.
At 81 years of age, Gordon Lightfoot is unequivocally Canada’s elder statesman of song. Still singing beloved songs to packed theatres, Lightfoot surely has nothing left to prove. But that doesn’t mean he has nothing left to say.
Many fans believed Harmony, his twentieth album, recorded in 2001 and released in 2004, was Lightfoot’s last recording. He seemed to be uninterested in making more records, preferring instead to pour his energy into performing—as many as eighty shows annually, in eight- to ten-night stands all over North America.
All that changed with COVID19. In February, Lightfoot, like every other touring musician, was grounded. By March, he had emerged with a new album and a new approach: one vocal, one guitar, and an organic, intimate sound. For the listener, these are also new songs. For Lightfoot, they are nearly twenty years old. The result is a unique CODA to a career spanning seven decades, appropriately titled simply “Solo.”
Solo is just you and your guitar and a batch of songs. Did you feel like Lightfoot covering Lightfoot?
Well, I had to do some soul-searching with that! I found the stuff just by accident, you know. I was moving my office when I found some stuff I didn’t even know I had. It’s a collection of old demos.
It was around the time of Harmony, which you recorded in 2001 that you wrote those songs?
Yeah—but they didn’t get used because it wasn’t necessary. We didn’t need that many songs. And I had an abundance of songs because I had a really prolific period between 1997 and the year 2000.
What was it like to sort of discover that?
You know, for fifty years we’ve had a stack of gifts and memorabilia that I’ve gathered, in a room—it’s about three feet deep, it’s like a haystack in my office. Looks like a haystack! Well, when we moved the office, we had to go through all that stuff and believe me, there was a lot of stuff in there. And in and amongst that stuff I found this one CD.
And, everything—almost everything I needed was on there. One of them got done over again right from scratch, done so it would fit in, called Easy Flo. And the rest of it was all done when my guitar playing was at its best, vocal was at its best.
You know, I went through some serious health issues just after that period of time. And even when I got back on the road, and got my chops together and got back on tour, I never really got that vocal back to the kind of resilience that it had at the end of the century.
So really, most of what we’re hearing except for ‘Easy Flo’ is from the demos, from that time?
We had no tracks. They were just stereo, two-track presentations. That’s all we had.
What made you say, “I need to put this out as a new Lightfoot record”?
Well, because I wasn’t going to let it sleep until I was pushing up daisies!
It was there, it was album number twenty-one, and I said, “That’s a nice round number—and that’ll probably be the last album I do!”
It’s funny though, because it also seems timely, with so many artists doing solo projects because of the pandemic. Do you feel this is a record for this moment, in some way?
I don’t even know if it’s a record! All I know is, it’s got ten songs on it. I really like the songs. I do. I like the songs.
But these songs, they were all meant to go together, right? But then they slept for a while…
They slept, and they woke up, and I put them out. I mean Warner [the record label] said, “Your fans are gonna love this!”
It’s a very different record for you, there’s no question. Your production –even your live sound — has always been so tight. But there’s an organic quality to this. And it reminds me of those recordings that Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin. Were you conscious of aiming for that kind of intimacy and connection?
No, I wasn’t… I wanted it to flow through, and I wanted the quality of the songs to carry it through. I didn’t want too many weak spots.
You know I had to be careful, doing it without just tearing the whole thing apart, just starting from scratch. You know, you get to a certain age… You begin to wonder, how much work can I do and still pay attention to what really means most in life, which of course is family and kids.
And that old story about, let’s just do it. You know? I’ve cheated people of my time for long enough. We have this material here, we love it, the fans are going to like it. It’s album number twenty-one: let’s do it.
People have compared this album to Springsteen’s Nebraska, where he records a bunch of demos and he goes and he tries to do it with the band and it just doesn’t’ fly.
Well, that was one of the things that made me decide to do this. But he still had all his tracks together on all that stuff. I only had two tracks available. They’re straight up demos. That’s what they are.
But you somehow, with 18 years of hindsight, could listen back to those and say, “I like these. These are gonna stand.”
Yeah, I mean I couldn’t have done any better with the playing or the singing.
We took it over and played it and hooked it up on the big speakers over at the studio one day, and it sounded really good. I was actually quite surprised how good it sounded.
It makes me wonder, did they stick with you a bit over the years?
I didn’t even remember having written about six of them! I had to listen. I had to take the CD home and listen to it. I was quite surprised actually.
That must be the last thing that you were expecting to do or that your fans were expecting you to do.
Of course, I was very hard on myself. Am I copping out? You know, I was really tough about that. I beat myself up about that. Bob Doidge, my engineer, and Kim, my wife, and two or three other people involved and two or three other people who heard it at the record company said, “God, this stuff sounds great the way it is!”
So you’re able to accept the imperfections of a demo recording as long as the tuning and timing is there.
Well, the songs are all different, and the keys, there’s a good variety of keys….
There are also some funny bits , like “Do you ever get tired of the Olympic Games? Do you ever get bored of the CN tower?” Yeah, yeah… It’s light, it’s… it is what it is! It’s hard to describe.
But there is some heavier material too, like ‘Return to Dust”.
Yeah! That one pleases me a great deal. I like the sound of it.
Do you know where that comes from?
I don’t know what it is, but I always say first you get the chords and the melody, and then you get the words. And where they come from I don’t know.
When I first started writing, in high school I said when’s it going to start getting to the point where everything’s going to start sounding the same? And it never got to that. They’re all different. And different in so many ways.
On ‘Dreamdrift’ and ‘Why Not Give it a Try’ you actually whistle.
Well, I’m already thinking about the orchestration I’m going to do when I’m doing the tune, you see.
Speaking of ‘Dreamdrift’: is the drifter one of your characters?
Oh yeah—my mind is always adrift! My mind is always on the bloody road. I’ve been in the business for a long time, and I’m always thinking forward to the next tour.
Do you know what to do with yourself when you’re not on the road?
Oh yeah. I was out there so much, and enjoyed it so much doing it that I really don’t miss it that much. Because I know how well we did it. There’s lots of stuff to do here. There’s family. We’re still running the business. All the boys are ready to roll, as soon as some of our venues begin to open. And they will. And we’ll go back!
When you go back to the road will you play songs off this record?
Oh yeah, I’ll get a couple of tunes offa there. Several of them actually would work well in front of a crowd; I know that right now. But I’m not going to be out there flogging it as a solo tour. I’m going to have my full retinue with me when we do go back on tour. We’re all going. Everybody’s going.
Is there still a place for the power of the song? Do you still feel that?
Oh jeez I can hardly wait! I can hardly wait to get out there one more time. I like the sound of my band. I like our choice of material. I have faith in my songs.
What is it that gives you that faith?
It goes all the way back as far as I can remember—how it felt when I was singing myself to sleep. At like five years of age. I remember how that felt. And I still feel that way today, when I play.