Sunday 30 September 2012

Gordon Lightfoot Interview

Folk hero Gordon Lightfoot enjoying his artistic freedom

13 September 2012

This is the life of a 73-year-old folk music icon in the 21st century:

He doesn't have a recording contract and doesn't want one; it would just drag him down.

He tours regularly, bringing his remarkable body of work that spans decades to adoring audiences.

And his rehearsals involve digging around in his catalog of material, doing artistic archeology to find deep cuts and obscurities that deserve a full-band live treatment.

Gordon Lightfoot isn't complaining. With songs such as "Sundown," "Early Morning Rain," "If You Could Read My Mind," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to stand on, he's far more interested in touring the world, exploring his music in front of audiences, and generally enjoying himself.

Slogging away in a studio is of no interest.

In a telephone interview from his Toronto home the day before beginning rehearsals for the tour that brings him to Toledo's Stranahan Theater on Tuesday night, Lightfoot reminisced about the early '60s and playing in folk clubs.

"I liked playing live as much then as I do now and I really love it right now because I don't have any recording obligations at all," he said, noting that he was under contract for 30-plus years until about 2000. "I've got a free shot right now and we're looking for hidden gold in the repertoire."

The native of Canada was at the forefront of the folk music movement that included Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, and even Bob Dylan (who is a big fan of Lightfoot and has long complimented his music.) Lightfoot began playing at a young age, studied music theory, and from his teen years on worked in the music industry, both behind the scenes and as a performer.

He moved to England in 1963 and hosted a television show, all the while writing songs that didn't please him. Finally he penned "Early Morning Rain," which Lightfoot calls his "first good song" and which was later covered by Elvis Presley. Suddenly he had elevated his work to a new level.

"You cross over that threshold. I'd probably written 25 to 30 songs up to that point and I wouldn't have given you a nickel for any one of them. In fact, I threw most of them out," he said.

At that point he started a run in which he placed numerous songs in the Canadian top 40 and scored some U.S. hits when his work was covered by other artists such as Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and the Kingston Trio.

Beginning in 1966 he began cranking out albums, recording an average of one a year until about 1983 when he began to slow down. Over his career, Lightfoot has released 21 discs.

"Sundown" topped the U.S. charts in 1974 and the song -- with its loping bass line and intoxicating melody -- is instantly recognizable to anyone who listened to the radio in the early '70s.

"It's probably the beat and the message and it's kind of dark and mysterious, you know?" Lightfoot said of the song. "It has ghosts walking through it."

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was released in 1976 and the classic tale of the ship that sank the year before in Lake Superior reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts. To this day, the songwriter will alter the lyrics to account for new information that emerges about the storied disaster. He said in Wisconsin there is a committee of widows of sailors on the ship with whom he consults to try and ensure that it is accurate.

Lightfoot, who has suffered a few serious health scares over the years, is perhaps best known for his finely wrought love songs and music that can be highly personal and that personifies the notion of a "sensitive singer/songwriter."

He said there are times when he is performing that the stories behind the songs can become almost overwhelming, but that only increases the passion of his delivery.

"It becomes more intense sometimes. When I sing 'If You Could Read My Mind' I think about my first wife because she was such a wonderful person. And you know you think about that and [the fact that] the song was written right at about the time the marriage broke up."

Lightfoot said he is planning to work lesser-known material into his shows to challenge the musicians and "take a whack at" songs that perhaps didn't get enough attention the first time around. Hard core fans will recognize some of the titles -- "Cold on the Shoulder," "Drifters," "Wild Strawberries," "Go-Go Round," "Fading Away," "Drink Your Glasses Empty," and "Race Among the Ruins" -- and some may turn up Tuesday night if he and the band are comfortable with them.

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