Published Mar 18, 2020"A little strange that a guy would be that ambitious."
That's what the people of Orillia, ON thought when Gordon Lightfoot set out to Chicago to attend Wesley College of Music in the late 1950s. "I stayed there one year," he tells Exclaim!, sitting in the kitchen of his home in Toronto's tony Bridle Path neighbourhood. "It's a good thing I did, because I don't know what I would have done without it."
It's safe to say that Lightfoot's ambition paid off. Today, the 81-year-old singer-songwriter is a Canadian icon, revered by generations of fans, critics and fellow musicians. Over a recording career that's now entering its seventh decade, he's proven that success abroad does not require an artist to leave home. And he adds a few more to his deep cache of classic songs with the release of Solo, his 21st studio album, this month.
Solo arrives thanks to the discovery of a box of tapes in his home, the barebones tracks they contained dating back to the early 2000s. Lightfoot never got as sonically adventurous as peers like Joni Mitchell, but the arrangements are about as lo-fi as he's ever been.
He did try orchestrating the songs for his band, and attempted some rewrites, but ultimately decided "this stuff isn't going to sound any better than it does right now." He likens it to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska — just himself, an acoustic guitar and a few overdubs. "The part I like about is I can actually hear my left heel on one of the takes."
These are the first new songs Lightfoot has released in 16 years, a drought that was once unthinkable for an artist who has admitted that more than a few of his relationships in the 1970s disintegrated due to his workaholic (and alcoholic) tendencies. "I wrote under pressure, because I was under contract," he says. "It was 14 albums. I said, 'I'm not going to stop this until I've done my contract.' So I just kept writing and it took up a lot of time."
Lightfoot got sober in the early '80s. In recent years, he's spoken more openly about this period of his life and the consequences of his action. "It bothers me, because it involves the kids," he says of his relationship with his six children.
Lightfoot continues to perform with his band, many members of which have been with him for decades. "That's always been my strongest suit." He's had a number of health scares over the years including an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002 and a minor stroke in 2006, but it continues to be his professional priority: he has dates booked into the middle of 2021.
Though he practices regularly — in front of the television while watching sports — writing is no longer the priority it once was. "I was always committed to doing my own stuff, because that's the way it started, back at the beginning of the '60s when the folk revival began. I wanted to be like Bob Dylan," he says. Dylan and Lightfoot formed something of a mutual admiration society — they once shared a manager in Albert Grossman — and Dylan inducted Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986. "I've got family obligations that are staring me in the face," he says. "Now, I'm at an age where I'm not really thinking about like doing the next thing anymore."