A Conversation with Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot

Celebrated music legend Gordon Lightfoot talked about his career and his Carefree Highway Tour in this special edition of “A Conversation.” (Photo courtesy of Gordon Lightfoot)

By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com

Legendary singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot is celebrating his 50 years in the music industry.

He has released 19 studio albums, two live albums and 46 singles! In addition, he has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, received 16 Juno Awards and five ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards.  Countless artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Olivia Newton-John have covered some of his classics.

To commemorate this milestone, Mr. Lightfoot is traveling across North America on the Carefree Highway Tour.

In this special edition of A Conversation, Mr. Lightfoot opened up about his songwriting process, his favorite covers and the upcoming chapter of the Carefree Highway Tour.

Jacob Elyachar: What have been some of the biggest lessons that you learned during your 50 years in the Recording Industry?

Gordon Lightfoot: I guess the biggest lesson that I learned was “if you don’t go, you don’t get.” What it means is that if you do not sit down at the table or at the piano and write songs, you are not going to be successful.

JE: Speaking of songs…of all the songs that you have written, what are some of your personal favorites? Why are they your favorites?

GL: If You Could Read My Mind” is a dear favorite of mine because it stood the test of time.  There’s “Carefree Highway,” which was written when I was in Arizona.  I was driving between Flagstaff and Phoenix, I saw the Carefree Highway sign and I said: “That would make a great title for a song.” Another favorite of mine is “Sundown” because it raises the spirits of the crowd during a show.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a wonderful song to play and is about an event that took place in Lake Superior where lives were lost in 1975. The incident would have probably been forgotten forever, if I did not write a folk song about the event.  The song became popular and it has great resonance in a concert hall or amphitheater. The song also has a huge impact on the audience.

JE: Let’s talk about the Carefree Highway Tour. What can your fans expect for the tour?

GL: My band and I will be doing seven legs this year. The second leg will start in March when we go down to the Midwest and stop in Kansas City, Columbia, Wichita, Cedar Rapids and Madison. Sometimes tours would last for two-and-a-half weeks and we might have 12 shows at that time.  We will finish off the entire tour with a hometown performance in Toronto in November. Between the dates, we will prepare for the shows. My band and I take touring very seriously and we always look at it from a professional’s point of view.

JE: Of the songs you play while you are on tour, which songs are more meaningful to you? Why?

GL: I love performing the ethereal material. One of my favorites is “Rainy Day People” and we do a shorter version of the song during my concerts.  In fact, I shortened a lot of my material, in order to get them all in.  “Rainy Day People” always has a magical affect when we do it.  We always use the song as a sign-off to end the show after doing a powerful closer: “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” “Rainy Day People” works as an encore because it is a ballad.  At some of my shows, I end the night with a ballad like “Song for a Winter’s Night.” It goes over great the audience, because it puts them in a great mood.

JE: Could you please describe your songwriting process to my readers?

GL: I start off by finding titles through newspapers and magazine. Once, I found a title, I started to work on a melody and carry on from there.  Sometimes I started composing a melody of chords, I tried to find words in my mind, and so it created a marriage between the words and the melody.  With a little bit of luck and if you carried on doing it for a while, I would have a song in one or two hours.

Once an idea or point of view emerges, a title might come with it.  After I created the title, I laid down the melody and the chords. If you are going to write songs, you need to know a little about music.  Musicians have to know chord symbols and time values, but you need to let your imagination run wild.

JE: Countless artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton-John have covered your songbook. Do you have any particular favorites? How do you react when an artist covers your songs?

GL: Let me put it this way, I never heard a cover recording that I did not like!  (Laughs) I am always deeply honored when someone covers one of my songs. Peter, Paul and Mary, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, George Hamilton IV, Judy Collins and Liza Minnelli are a part of a huge list of artists that covered my songs during the 1960s and leading up to 1975.

Once I established myself as an artist, the recordings begin to drop off for a little bit. When I was at United Artists, I made five albums between 1966 and 1970s, where we could not transform them into singles. During that time, people were listening to my material and there were a lot of cover recordings at that time and it worked well. It was only after I arrived with my own singles that the covers fell off. I did not worry about that. Bob Dylan did a good job with “Early Morning Rain.”

JE: How has the recording industry changed since you made your debut 50 years ago? In your opinion, did it change for the better? For the worse? Why?

GL: It has changed for the better in the musical point-of-view.  I am not going to go negative about the changes in musical styles. The quality of new and professional recordings is in a class by itself. It is in the songwriting, talent, song, and arrangements and in the vocal performance. These young artists are capable of putting forward this incredible professional-level material in their songwriting and finding producers who would finish these songs.  These talents would be recognized in the quality of the recording and they will generally become more sophisticated.

JE: A lot of legendary artists such as Tony Bennett, Paul Anka and the late Ray Charles released “Duets”-styled records over the past decade. If you had the opportunity to release a “Duets”-styled record, which artists would you like to collaborate with?

GL: The opportunity has arisen several different times throughout my career. Most of the time, I have stayed away from it. The closest I have ever come to recording a duet was with the wonderful Anne Murray. People were always trying to get Anne and I work together. However, both of us wanted to be our own entities and we thought that…in a way, we would be selling out to do it…because, it was an obvious thing to do at the time.  Anne and I talked on the phone one day and we agreed that we would each do our own thing.  She has recorded my work and has done wonderful work doing duets with Glen Campbell.  Besides Anne, I had been asked to do duets with other people too, but I had shied away from it because I thought that it was not important for me to do.  But, if I was going to make another album…I would run my own ship, use my own musicians, write my own songs and record my own basic tracks.

JE: If you had the chance to meet with aspiring musicians who want a career in the recording industry, what pieces of advice would you share with them?

GL: Sit down at the table and try to write some songs! (Laughs) Make a demo and try to find a band. I worked as a solo artist for the first three years of my career, but like I said earlier in this interview: “If you don’t go, you don’t get.”  They have to go for it.  It is great to not only perform, but also write great songs as well.  Once you write your songs and record a demo, try to give it people who are interested in your material and try to put it up on YouTube.

To learn more about Gordon Lightfoot, visit his website: http://www.lightfoot.ca/

You can also connect with him on Facebook & Twitter.   

 

 

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