Lightfoot flies Solo
Songwriting legend strips his sound down for a new album that, like his recent biography, is a little too revealing for some
“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 Highwway 401 and it’s obvious that, at 81,wthe fire f still rages in the Orillia-born trouba- dour’s belly.
He’s not interested in the slightest in slowing down.
Lightfoot is itching to get back on the road with his four-piece band — especially after a leg injury he suffered tripping over a bench at a Toronto gym (he has worked out religiously since the ’90s). He was to resume touring in Iowa on March 25 — assuming it isn’t postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak — with dates at Casino Rama on April 18 and a Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo on
June 3, his closest shows to Toronto. “This thing, I was laid up for four months,” he says about the leg, mentioning that he’s still being treated for it eight months later.
“We had to cancel and postpone everything. We fought our way through that. It happened to me twice, once for 28 months and once for just four months.
But it 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” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is referring to is his recovery from a near-fatal abdominal aneurysm in 2002. It is also the era from which his newest and 21st studio album, “Solo,” out on Friday, sources its material.
“I actually found about half of this stuff by accident,” Lightfootrecalls. “It was a group of demos we did back in the year 2000.
“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 didn’t use all of what was on our demo selection, which had18 tunes on it, which we had recorded about 1998.”
But what’s intriguing about “Solo” is that it’s much different from the rest of his catalogue. The intimate album contains 10 songs that feature his voice, his guitar, some whistling and, occasionally, 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 says.
For the meticulous perfectionist, five of them passed 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 reasons. “Because, at that time, there were still no health issues and I was at the peak of my ability when I did that stuff.”
Lightfoot took three or four months to decide. What settled it was recalling Bruce Springsteen’s bare-bones 1982 album, “Nebraska.”
“He and Bob Dylan are probably my two biggest influences. There are many other people — many, many more — but those were the two that would spring to mind most quickly, although 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.’ ”
As for the subject matter of songs such as “Oh So Sweet, “E-Motion,” “Better Off” and “Just a Little Bit,” Lightfoot doesn’t dwell on the details but admits some of them 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 licence, I suppose,” he says.
“There are a few personal things about it. Poetic licence 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.
“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 … are finding (their) 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? ”
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 says, laughing. Any fallout? “I had some reactions from close range … from two or three different areas, from people who are very close to me. People that I care about,” he admits.
“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.’ ” He chuckles. “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 brood 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 says. “I have an extended family and when that’s the case, you’ve got to pay more attention … 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 No. 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.”