Lightfoot Comes Alive
It's No Hoax - as He Approaches 80, Gordon Lightfoot is Very Much Alive and Well
In 2010, word quickly spread that Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was dead. The internet hoax went viral and fans began to post the prerequisite flood of thoughts and prayers for his family and associates. The outpouring was genuine and fortunately for music fans, the news was¬†fake.
With a recording career that began in 1966, Lightfoot has had a long and prolific career with a canon of 220 songs, including his biggest hits "Sundown," "Early Morning Rain," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." At this point in his career, he certainly doesn't have to endure the strain of interviews, fans, travel and performing but beginning this month the affable musician has 75 shows scheduled for 2018.
INsite spoke with Lightfoot in his studio near Toronto as he prepped one of his guitars in anticipation of the new tour. He arrives in Atlanta later this month for a return engagement at Symphony Hall.
You are the first artist I've talked to who survived the dreaded online death hoax. But you did have an actual health scare a few years ago.
Yeah, in 2002. The situation there was I had an aortal aneurism. It put me out of business for two and a half years. I was out cold for the first six weeks.
But you sprang back with a burst of creativity and completed an album in the¬†process.
I had a series of vocal and guitar tracks that I'd recorded about a year before I went down. Eighteen selections were sitting in the vault. They were meant as demos so my band could learn the songs. Then I was in the hospital for three and a half months, just the first time. During that time I was thinking, 'What am I gonna do about my band, how can I run my business and what about my family if I can't work?' For about six months, I wasn't sure if I could ever get back to it or not. But then I thought about those demos. I got the guys in the band together and we found which takes were salvageable. The guys started working on it while I was still in the hospital. That became my last album [Harmony, released in 2004]. So that could have been my rebirth right there - to come back from an illness and be able to make an album at the same time. The guys would bring the stuff to me in the hospital at night so I could listen to it.
What do you think of it in retrospect?
I would have liked to do the whole thing from scratch, as we'd planned. I can't say I was totally knocked out with it but we did it independently. I did 20 original albums altogether, five of them were for United Artists and fourteen were for Reprise. I'm actually quite surprised and pleased that I'm able to carry on at this¬†age.
Your career has spanned generations. Do you feel the folk troubadour's charge to be a social commentator, or are you more comfortable with the more personal approach?
During the Vietnam war, a lot of people were looking at that time head on and directly, but I was looking at it more from the periphery. I'd see the soldiers at the airports and it was a very sad time. I have a song we do a lot called "Drink Your Glasses Dry," which could mean a number of things now that there's a possibility of draft again.
That's one thing I've always admired about your writing is that you paint a very broad swath of social commentary, presented from a very personal place and a decidedly Canadian perspective.
Yeah, with relationships and the environment, too. I'm a Canadian and I watch and I learn from my neighbors and try to keep it all going in a general direction. It's emotionally charged because of what's behind it - in my case, so many marriages, so many kids (laughs).
You're working on your 12-string at the moment. Do you still enjoy the preparations that come with a new tour? You don't have to play live anymore, but you obviously love to do the work.
I'll be doing my 80th birthday show in November in my hometown in Orillia, which is north of here. Yeah, we're doing well in terms of the orchestra. With wear and tear, and some of the adversities of gettin' older the vocal loses a little bit of its brilliance as the years go by. But it's strong, it's in tune and the five-piece band is really tight now. The folk-rock genre, as you know, is great fun to do. But to get ready for it involves exercise - as boring as that may sound. It involves practicing the instruments every day.
You mentioned your upcoming 80th birthday. How does it feel to still be an active guitarist at this point in your life?
Well in 2010, I had a trans-hysteric attack in my right arm. Golly, all of a sudden, I couldn't play! But it gradually came back. I started playing and practicing a lot more and it started working its way back. It came back about 98 percent. In doing so, I perfected some of the technical things I'd been working on all these years, like getting perfect intonation of the instruments, that's what we strive for.
Symphony Hall is a perfect place to execute those intonations; the room sounds great. It's like your beloved Massey Hall in many ways.
Oh yeah, it's one of our favorite venues. Concert halls and the reconditioned theaters we play all across America - I've tried to think about all the great old theaters across America and it must be 150 to 200. It's great for us, we get out a lot of volume but not too much. We've worked on it so much we just try to do the best job we can do everytime.
With 220 songs to pick from, it must be difficult to plan a two-hour show.
Of the 220, there are about 38 or so we've got it boiled down to, the ones that work well for me and the audience. Then there are about 12 or 14 that must be done and the rest of the material has to be rotated around that, so we have three different shows to set up and that's part of the homework. I have all of that figured out before we leave. And then there's the exercise and just taking it all seriously. It's all part of the plan, part of my routine now. I still run my own errands and I don't find any of it boring because it's getting through one more day of being prepared for getting out on that stage. It's not work when it all sounds good.
The casual observer doesn't realize the 8 o'clock show involves a full day of work.
Yeah and with travel and all that, we don't arrive by magic. We do soundcheck and work on the intonations. I don't ever feel it's perfect until about a half-hour before we go on stage. I keep working at it. Even at supper, I'm thinking about the tunings because I have two 12-string guitars.
That's a lot of work in itself.
It is and I have two six-string guitars and I do all of my own tuning. We don't have the luxury of a tuning crew. I use one of my six-strings to warm up my right hand in the afternoon.
Then you get on stage and perform those songs, some of which elicit a number of deep emotions. But for you, do you continue to feel the moments that may have inspired those songs - or have they become an act of performance at this¬†point?
I get a lot of visuals of past occurrences in my personal life from the roller-coaster ride, yeah. I think about the dips and dives. But I really like to turn things positive, even on the darker stuff like relationships and unrequited love and all that business.
How do you feel your songwriting has evolved over the years?
It's a very isolated thing when you're songwriting and you're under contract to do an album; you're working on it most of the time. It's like you're writing a book. You ignore your family, the ones you love. I was between marriages for 19 years and wrote eight or nine¬†albums.
Will there be a new album soon?
Well I doubt it. I'll be 80 in November. Now it's about what I'd traded for responsibility and that basically is my family - my wife, six kids and five grandchildren and two ex-wives. Once the obligations are behind a person, which now all of mine are, you can work on things just for fun.
Gordon Lightfoot will play on February 26 at 8pm at Symphony Hall. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.