Published Mar 23, 2020Few Canadian musicians — or musicians, period — are as revered as Gordon Lightfoot. Across a career that's entering its seventh decade, Lightfoot has influenced generations of artists. Now 81, he continues to tour regularly, but even he is surprised to be releasing his 21st album of original material, the barebones Solo, after discovering a collection of 20-year-old demos in his house. "I'm at an age where I'm not really thinking about doing the next thing anymore," he says, sitting in the kitchen of his tony Bridle Path house. "But one thing I do prepare for is performing, because that's always been my strongest suit. I like to do that. I always have."
What are you up to?
We're going to be touring all this year and staying prepared for that, which is keeping in shape and eating properly and all that really boring stuff. I believe it's about eight trips this year coming up, and each one is ten to 12 shows. Just staying prepared to do those dates, and looking after family matters, will eat up all the time. I wasn't figuring on going on vacation.
What are your current fixations?
I like seeing movies. I used to read a lot of books and for many years, I wouldn't miss a theatrical movie. But lately, I've been backing away from that a little bit. I would like to go more. I keep track of what's going on; I'm talking going on overall in the world. What a busy time it is right now.
Why do you live where you do?
I'm not here by choice, but here I am. For many years, I lived in a large house in Rosedale. But my relationship, my second marriage and my two additional children from that brought me to this particular environment.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Nothing I can think of.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I played in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the famous trumpet player Miles Davis, and he and I shared a bill. I'll never forget that. At that time, I had an album high on the charts and Miles Davis was the opening act for the afternoon. Well, I'll tell you, that was really a treat, meeting him and listening to him play.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Lows were emotional trauma brought on by personal relationships, and the highs were having records doing really well and having all my kids doing well, because I have six children and I'm really interested in what they're doing. When they're happy, I'm happy. That is not always the case, but the happier they are, the happier I feel.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I remember what a music teacher said one time when I was in grade four: "You sounded like a little frog on the radio." But nobody said ever said anything, I don't recall other than maybe a record producer might have said, "Well, I don't think I like that particular song." But nothing really bothersome at all.
What should everyone shut up about?
People shouldn't have to shut up about anything! That's my answer.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I'm selfish. But then I'm running a company, I have to act like an executive officer, you know? There are people involved, people with families and people who have been working with me for years, like the people in my band, people who help me around my office. So I kind of have to be selfish on their behalf. We're all into making a living out of it. We've been hanging in such a long time. We know that none of us is getting any younger. Things can happen, an emergency can occur. One time, I was laid-up for 28 months, but that was back in 2002. I have to be selfish about how I protect and run my business, I have to be self-centred and take care of what has to be taken care of.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Church and a workout. I go to a club to work out. There's no traffic Sundays. I don't always go to church; I'm actually agnostic, but I go quite often. I go because I started when I was a child. at the behest of my mother, Jessica and my father, Gordon, Sr. got me going to church and of course, singing and taking piano lessons. So I still show up and I enjoy going. I go to one of the local churches and I perform on Christmas Eve every year. I've been doing it for about 40 years.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Don't get a swelled head. My dad always told me that.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
I have a lost some people out of my band, but I've never had bad feelings about any of my musicians. They usually had their own reasons. I get along well with all of my people. Maybe it's because I'm in charge. But do I respect these guys, I tell you. My wife travels with the show too. She's been doing it for a good six, seven years. She's a good worker and she really knows what she's doing. Kim, she used to be in the film business in L.A. She did that for about 18 years before she met me and we got married.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I love Canada. I've traveled all over the North in various canoe expeditions. Fortunately, I was fell in with a group of people about 30 years ago who were into canoe trips. I got into it and over a period of about 15 years I did ten trips. I've done a lot of the major rivers in Northern Canada — the Coppermine, the Back River, the Nahanni, the Churchill. I feel very fortunate about being born in Canada. Never really wanted to leave. The opportunity was presented to me on two or three different occasions. Should I move down there? I said, no, it's not necessary. My management, of course, was based in New York originally. So I had an advantage there, because they were able to arrange my work and my recording deals down there. It was my songwriting that got me in the door.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Probably it was Nat King Cole. I liked jazz music in high school. Of course, there were two sides of the coin, it was Elvis too, you know. We were doing Elvis Presley imitations in high school. Eventually, he recorded two of my songs. We went to Graceland one time. My band and my wife went to Graceland. I could feel the vibes. I was really honoured — he did "Early Morning Rain" and "For Lovin' Me," a song I hate, because I felt that was a low blow to my first wife. I really hadn't meant to write it. Poetic license took over and it was not a flattering song.
What was your most memorable day job?
I was working in a laundry and dry cleaning plant as a driver, working for my dad. He ran a plant and there were summer jobs available. I said I wanted to earn a wage. I was 14. "Okay, here's a job. Get in there."
How do you spoil yourself?
I like to watch sports on TV and practice guitar while I'm doing it.
Kim: "He spoils everyone else."
Gordon: "Yeah, I like that."
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I'd still be working out. I would still be working, running my businesses, going into the office. Maybe I wouldn't be touring anymore, but so far, we're booked into the middle of 2021. So, I guess we're not going to be hanging up our shields yet. But something can always happen. It's always the unforeseen.
What do you fear most?
I fear that someone's going to get into a health issue.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Those days have subsided [laughs]. Look at the age, you know?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Ozzy! Ozzy Osbourne and the wife, at the Air Canada Centre. We were taken backstage. They were both there and she had the blue hair and everything. I met them with the whole family. I've introduced all my kids to Bob Dylan more than once. But that one sort of stuck in my mind. We saw his show that night. I was overwhelmed. The talk that they do onstage, it was something else.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
That would probably be my daughter Meredith. She likes salad, or whatever is being served when she gets here. She'll be here tomorrow. She lives in Montreal. She played last night at a place in the West End. She's a performer — Meredith Moon.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
They never even had to think about it. First, I stayed in school, from start to finish, all the way through high school. And all through that whole time, I was always involved in some kind of a musical project. I made my first recording in grade four for a Parent's Day event. It was "The Lord's Prayer." They played it on a Parent's Day through the intercom system. The next thing I knew, I was invited to sing on the radio. So, I did that. That's when the next day the music teacher told me I sounded like a little frog. I went to music school to study notation right after school, not knowing where I really was headed yet. I went to a school in the States because I read about it in a Downbeat magazine. We went there, a friend and myself, we both enrolled. It was called Wesley College Music. In Orillia, people thought it was a little strange that a guy would be that ambitious. I stayed there one year and it's a good thing I did, because I don't know what I would have done without it.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
It's on [my album] East of Midnight and it's called "A Passing Ship."