On an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving, Gordon Lightfoot is in an uncharacteristically reflective mood, sipping coffee and looking back on a career that has produced every kind of song imaginable: historical epics, romantic ballads, sea shanties, country ditties, folk-style protests and bluesy “toe-tappers,” to use Lightfoot’s quaint term for his uptempo numbers. Many became hits; many more are considered iconic, as quintessentially Canadian as a Group of Seven painting or Alice Munro short story. To say that he’s been prolific is like saying the CN Tower looms over Toronto.

Sitting in the kitchen of his sprawling home in North York’s exclusive Bridle Path neighborhood, the 75-year-old legend admits that these days his focus is strictly on touring and spending time with his family (a life-threatening abdominal aneurysm in 2002 kept him out of action for two years). The songwriting well hasn’t run entirely dry – his girlfriend, Kim Hasse, recently encouraged him to complete one unfinished song, “It Doesn’t Really Matter.” There are three or four others “on the back burner,” he admits, but to pull them together at this late stage, well, he feels there just isn’t time.

“It was a great run while I was doing it,” Lightfoot says about his compositional output, which resulted in an astonishing 294 published songs. “I was under contract for 33 years to record companies,” he says by way of explanation, adding “33 years” again for emphasis. “I had a band and a family, so I had a responsibility. When it was time to make the songs, I had to do that. Sometimes the pressure causes the job to get done, to keep things moving and make the next record.”

Uncommonly humble for a star of his magnitude, Lightfoot would  rather talk about his live show and rehearsing his band for the 65 to 80 North American dates he still proudly performs each year than his songwriting gifts. He’s more at ease discussing that, and his work ethic, good timing and good luck.

“Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work. You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced.”

He never fails to credit Ian and Sylvia – who recorded two of his earliest songs, “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” and introduced him to their manager, Albert Grossman – with his good fortune as a composer. And he often admits that he had absolutely no idea that his masterpieces “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would become hits.

But Lightfoot is undeniably gifted. The craft and beauty of his work, dating back to 1967’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” all the way up to 1998’s autobiographical classic “A Painter Passing Through,” has inspired artists from Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand to Bob Dylan and Judy Collins. Canadian songwriters have often covered his work, most notably on the 2003 compilation Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, which included Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Ron Sexsmith, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip.

The roots of his craft can be traced to the Westlake School of Modern Music in Los Angeles, where, at 18, the Orillia, Ont. native studied orchestration and music theory. Returning to Canada with composition and sight-reading skills, Lightfoot launched his music career in Toronto – but took day jobs as a bank teller and a backup singer, dancer and drummer (under the pseudonym Charles Sullivan) to make ends meet.

Lightfoot’s first commercially recorded and released composition, “This is My Song,” appeared on 1962’s Two Tones at the Village Corner, a live duo recording made with his then singing partner Terry Whelan, a high school friend. But within months he’d released a single of another original song, “(Remember Me) I’m the One,” credited to simply Gord Lightfoot. A pre-folk, middle-of-the-road pop recording, it reached No. 3 on Toronto’s CHUM radio station chart. “We were aiming in a different direction at the time,” he recalls.


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Talented and down-to-earth, Louis-Jean Cormier, the singer and guitarist for Karkwa, now has an audience all his own. Following a stellar performance at the most recent ADISQ Awards (when he received prizes for Best Songwriter, with lyricist Daniel Beaumont, Best Rock Album for Le treizième étage (The Thirteenth Floor), Show of the Year – Singer-Songwriter, and Critics’ Choice of the Year), the prolific artist takes a short break to reflect on the solo career he embarked on just over a year ago.

Booked into June 2014 according to his official website, Louis-Jean Cormier is a busy artist who, when we called him, sounded much more like a zen dad than a rock star, saying: “I’ve just made the kids’ beds and put the macaroni in the oven. I have the whole house to myself at the moment, which doesn’t happen very often.”

A little over a year ago, Cormier released Le Treizième étage, a début solo album that brought him more good luck than the proverbial thirteenth floor might be expected to have. Now that the dust has settled a bit, how does he feel today about his transition from group member to solo artist? “It’s like nothing really happened,” he answers, “because the actual transition period lasted from long before the release of my solo album until shortly thereafter. I’m well on my way.”

With his first entirely solo project, Cormier claims to have re-connected with himself as an artist. “I realized I’m a guy with ideas. In Karkwa, there were five of us making decisions… So I needed to prove to myself that I was able to make things happen by myself and not only by relying on my longstanding musical partners,” a test he passed with flying colours.

By getting more deeply in touch with his inner self, Cormier was able to re-connect with the anger caused and the consequences left by the recent “Maple Spring” of Quebec student protests. “I have a feeling that every artist who has created works in the wake of those events feels the exact same way. Thousands of people took to the streets – this was a true popular upheaval! My generation had not seen the likes of this very often compared to the previous one, who experienced the great protests of the 1960s and 1970s. I was impressed to see the likes of Michel Rivard, Richard Séguin and Yves Lambert joining us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed… Plus, I was still under the spell of Gaston Miron’s poetry in the wake of the Douze hommes rapaillés recording saga.”

Cormier’s legitimate indignation finds its expression in some angry guitar riffs as well as in statements like Daniel Beaumont’s striking line for the second Treizième étage single, which reads, “We’re playing solitaire all at the same time.” Such anger, Cormier contends, is timeless. “It reminds me of Gaston Miron’s response when someone accused him of not writing with a modern pen, and the poet shot back that ‘modernist’ was just another word for ‘bygone.’”

Miron’s influence on Cormier’s writing is palpable. Although the songwriter’s imagery is more direct while the meaning remains somewhat encrypted, his aim was to come into his own as a songwriter. “For me, it’s important that listeners be left free to come to their own interpretation of my lyrics. I was looking for clearer imagery. That’s why I turned to [Tricot Machine songwriter] Daniel Beaumont. To me, he is a great Quebec poet of everyday life.”

One of the new things Cormier had to get used to in his new role as a solo artist was the placement of his own voice at the front of the mix instead of having it tucked away as part of a collective rock sound. And, in the voice department, this very winter of 2014, Cormier will serve as a voice coach for the extremely popular Quebec reality show La Voix, hosted by Charles Lafortune. Is he looking forward to this new role?

“Well, they approached me twice before and I brushed it off. They tried again this time by telling me exactly what I needed to hear – that they expected me to stick to my guns and be the contrarian element of the program! They gave me free rein for my team’s repertoire, which means I can choose songs that are less popular while remaining great classics in my mind. It’s a platform that has nothing to do with my role as a music creator and appeals more to my producer side (Lisa LeBlanc, Douze hommes rapaillés, David Marin). The prospect of having contestants sing lyrics by Miron and Martin Léon totally pleases me. Using this type of TV show to paint a more accurate and realistic portrait of what’s going on in Quebec music is the role I cut for myself in this new venture.”


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Chinese-born Vancouver singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist Wanting Qu, who uses just her first name professionally, called her new sophomore album Say The Words; ironically, although the album debuted at No. 1 in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia, and is also out in North America, some of those words had to be changed for release in Asia because of cultural differences.

The first single released in Asia was the Mandarin-language ballad “Love Ocean,” while in North America it was the upbeat “STHU,” which stands for “shut the hell up,” and was inspired by cyber-bullying. That track replaces the word “shit” with “trash” for release in Asia. On the funky and fun English-language “Exit This Way,” the North American version includes the line “get the fuck out,” while the Chinese version doesn’t.

“With the lyrics, it’s very disrespectful to swear [in China], so we needed to create a clean version, but [doing] that is not dissimilar to what we do in North America,” says Terry McBride, who manages Wanting and releases her music on his label, Nettwerk Records.

“In North America, being confident in your work is a good thing… you toot your own horn. But in China, people take that as not being modest.”

Says Wanting herself, “In North America, being confident in your work is a good thing… you toot your own horn. If you believe in yourself, you tell the world how great your music is. But in China, people take that as not being modest, and modest is one of the ‘good’ traits.”

The rest of the songs on her new album are more tame: “My Little Friend” about Wanting’s cat; “Say The Words,” the childlike title song, with the lyrics “I will count to three/1 and 2 and 3/I love you”;  and “Time, My Friend,” about how time allows us to heal.

Wanting – who moved to Canada from Harbin, China in 2000, when she was 16 and couldn’t speak English – saw McBride speak in 2005 at a music industry workshop. Months later, she bounded up to him at a Sarah McLachlan concert and got his business card. But she wouldn’t use it until 2009, when she had some songs recorded.

“What I heard was heart,” says McBride, who signed her that year and released the Wanting EP in 2010 in mainland China. “It was authentic – and [they were] great songs.”


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