The Acoustic Storm Interviews
With a 40-year track record, Gordon Lightfoot is one of acoustic-rock’s most heralded singer-songwriters. He survived a nearly-fatal abdominal aneurysm five years ago, and recently returned to the concert stage. We spoke with Gordon Lightfoot by phone from his home in Toronto on March 12, 2007.
ACOUSTIC STORM: It’s nice to have you back playing music, and we’re certainly glad that your health has returned.
LIGHTFOOT: It began in 2002 and 28 months later I was back on stage again.
ACOUSTIC STORM: That’s amazing, and from what I understand, you were actually in a coma?
LIGHTFOOT: Well, that could very well have been a drug-induced coma, but I was out for six weeks at the start. It was a burst artery in the mid-section of the body, usually fatal but I got through it. I think it was all the prayers I got from so many people.
ACOUSTIC STORM: And we’re grateful for your recovery. Well, let’s trace back to the early days. When did you know you wanted to make music your career?
LIGHTFOOT: My parents were big Bing Crosby fans, we had all the Bing Crosby Christmas records, and I heard him on the radio. Finally, one day when I was 8 years old, and my mother told me that Bing Crosby made his living that way, I said ‘that’s it, that’s for me. I think I’d like to become a singer too, just like him.’
ACOUSTIC STORM: At what point did you realize you had a real talent?
LIGHTFOOT: When they started hiring me to sing at weddings about the time I was 12. I was in the church choir and got to do all the weddings because I was the soloist. At the end of the services, the minister would slip us an envelope with a very small stipend inside. So I was actually being paid to sing at these various weddings around the area I grew up in, Orillia Ontario, which is about 80 miles north of Toronto. That’s where I am right now and where I’ve lived my whole life and conducted my whole career from here.
My orchestra are all here in the city and my crew.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Some other Canadian artists who have done well, such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell made California their home. Yet you’ve stayed in Canada.
LIGHTFOOT: Well, my management contract was with a New York office and it was only an hour’s flight from Toronto to New York. The others you mentioned, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, their management situation was out in Los Angeles, which took five hours to fly out there. I guess they decided they wanted to do away with all those extra airplane fares and all those hours up in the sky (laughs). It was just very practical for me to stay here.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What attracted you to the folk genre?
LIGHTFOOT: Well, I got into that here in Toronto. Toronto is a fairly active community in the arts. So when the folk revival got going around 1957 and lasted for about six years it was a popular medium, there was work available. I played guitar and started playing in the coffeehouses. One thing lead to another and lead to eventual success. I guess it was very good practice, I can tell you that much.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You first gained attention as the guy who wrote hit songs for Peter Paul & Mary, like “For Lovin Me” and “Early Morning Rain.”
LIGHTFOOT: That was 1965. The Beatles had already been around at that time. The folk revival had disappeared. It disappeared as soon as the Beatles came along. Now I don’t say that with any animosity to the Beatles because it had to happen. So the folk thing just died a very swift death at that point (laughs). But a lot of people succeeded in that area and some very famous people who are performing right up to this very day, like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
ACOUSTIC STORM: And ironically, The Beatles incorporated folk into their music like “Rubber Soul.”
LIGHTFOOT: Oh yeah, they did all kinds of wonderful stuff…inexhaustible and unstoppable. Their music may last in the same way that Mozart’s music has lasted and Beethoven’s music has lasted.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Who were some of the artists that you looked to for inspiration when you were making your way into the music world?
LIGHTFOOT: There were quite a few people who inspired me. There were the two Bobs. Bob Gibson was a major figure in the folk revival and he was a tremendous inspiration for me, and really taught me a lot about writing and style. He didn’t set the world on fire with hit singles, but he had many albums and a spectacular live album that he did with Bob Kent at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. The other Bob was Bob Dylan who of course, to this day I believe must have made 55 or 56 original albums, which is absolutely amazing. Before that, there was Pete Seeger of course, who was a big influence to all of us. Also the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio was a tremendous influence on me because for a while I worked with another guy as a folk duo. It got to the point that I was influenced by Ian & Sylvia, and by even Ramblin’ jack Elliot, Bob Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker and Tim Hardin, just to name a few. It was all out there if you wanted to listen, and I listened a lot.
I was under contract by that point in 1965. I had already assembled two sidemen to accompany me. I was writing under pressure, and I kept doing that until about 1993 when I did my very last album for Warners. I did 14 albums for Warner Records. Before that I did five for United Artists.
I finished one when I was in the hospital, five years ago. It was one of the first things I did when I woke up after I came out of that coma you were talking about earlier. I knew we had vocal and guitar tracks stashed away somewhere. I sent the guys to find the tracks and they orchestrated it for me. I spent about a year of time working on that and never even thought about my (medical) condition. I was so happy, I floated through my recoveries and just thought about working on my project. It was very fortuitous that I had that material available to me. I had recorded some of it a year earlier as practice material, and just before I got sick we were just about ready to go into the studio to make the album and I got sick. But it came out not bad and I had it released on a small label up here in Toronto called Linus Entertainment. They have Ron Sexton and a few other fairly well-known acts and groups. It’s a nice little package. I probably could have sent it out to Warner Brothers again and they probably would have been happy to release it for me, but I knew it really wasn’t up to scratch because of the way it was done. The songs were good, but it probably wouldn’t be air-worthy.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Still, it sounds like the project was good for you on several levels.
LIGHTFOOT: I’ve been blessed many times that way, I don’t know why. But it was very nice to have something to preoccupy my thoughts. I was never getting out of bed (laughs). I was in there three and a half months the first time I went into (the hospital), and I was in there three times altogether over a 19-month period. And it was getting out of that, that I started working on the material. I never left the bed, I had them bring the stuff in and play the CD’s for me at night, to see if I like the way it was being recorded. I would listen to it in the hospital, and some of the parts I didn’t like and I’d get them to do it over again. I had five or six people working on this on the outside, and I was in the hospital quarterbacking the whole operation (laughs). It could have been a very depressing time, I suppose.