Folk legend Gordon Lightfoot kicks off the second leg of his 2014 Canadian tour with two dates on the Island, Oct. 21 at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre and Oct. 23 at Victoria’s Royal Theatre. The tour is a culmination of five decades of touring for Lightfoot, throughout a career that has seen 15 Juno Awards, five Grammy nominations, one rapidly spread death rumour and Top 10 classics such as If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. We caught up with Lightfoot while he prepared for the tour from his home in Toronto.
Natalie North: Tell me a little about this latest tour.
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, we will not miss any of the standards. Around that, we will build a show of really choice things, other work that has appeared on albums, really popular songs – that maybe never got to the Top 10, but were well-known album material.
NN: Are you still songwriting?
GL: Yeah, I can do a little bit, but I don’t have any thoughts of doing another album. My album obligations were all under contract. I was under contract for 33 years. When those contracts were honoured, I decided to back off.
NN: When you were first experiencing your rise in the ‘60s and ‘70s, getting recognized while hugely popular artists (Elvis, Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, Johnny Cash) are covering your work, what did you find most exciting or fulfilling at the time?
GL: It was thrilling with Ian & Sylvia. They were very important artists during the folk revival and they were connected to a management company in New York City…They knew Peter, Paul and Mary and passed a couple of tunes off to them. Peter, Paul and Mary had hits with a couple of my songs thanks to Ian & Sylvia. At that point, I was offered a management contract and that was an exciting time, because it became work…Over the next five years, I wrote five albums under that contract. I didn’t have any hit singles, but lots and lots of cover recordings. I’ve gotta tell you, I never heard one I didn’t like. I would just be honoured when people would ask me. I was just happy it was happening and I had a very young family at the time. It was a pretty exciting time for us.
NN: Do you remember any kind of long-term career hopes, or did you stay focused on each project as it came?
GL: I was looking way down the road, through all the time, to when I’d be sitting here talking to you this evening. I’m 75 years of age. When I was 30 years old and just starting to climb up the totem pole I was thinking: ‘What the heck am I going to do? Will I still be able to do this when I’m 75?’ That was my goal. How long can it last? Is there going to be a pitfall? I produced material: 20 original albums when all was said and done. The goal was always: how long can I do this?
NN: How hard is it for you now, closer to the end of a long career, to look back on your life through those albums? Does ageing bother you at all?
GL: We want to keep the quality up. How well can we do this? I ask that every time we go out on stage. I ask myself, how well can I do this tonight? If I’ve prepared and I’ve got all my instruments tuned and I’m ready to go on stage, and I know what I want to sing before I go out there, I think I do a pretty good job.
NN: Is there anything really left for you to improve on, any musical challenges you’d like to start working on?
GL: I certainly have no intentions of stopping. It would have to be some kind of a health issue. I was right out for two years. I couldn’t perform. Getting back from that, I said I’m just going to keep going now… All the musicians (13 in his entourage), none of us are getting any younger. We’ve gotta be careful, stay prepared. We improve more, become more into it. It’s a privilege just to be there. It really is at this point in time for me, so I just do the best job I possibly could each time I walk out there.
NN: Would you encourage young musicians to join the industry today?
GL: It’s a crapshoot. I’m sorry to say, there really isn’t any better way to describe it. You never can be sure…Right away though, I’d say if you can write songs, you’re ahead of the pack. Like Neil Young says, ‘Look inside yourself.’
NN: Did you ever feel like you shared too much?
GL: Well, there’s none that’s all that controversial, really. Boy meets girl. It is what it is. I write a whole lot of other kinds of songs as well: travel or whatever, but it boils down that love songs are always present.
NN: Are you happy?
GL: Yeah, I am. I really like to stay busy. That keeps me happy. I’m glad I can stay busy.
For show details or to purchase tickets, visit rmts.bc.ca, or porttheatre.com.
*This interview has been edited for length.