Inspired by Bob Dylan and Ian Tyson, Lightfoot soon switched gears and began writing the more poetic, folk-flavored material that made him famous. “Early Morning Rain” came about when he thought back to his poor, homesick student days in Los Angeles, watching big 707s taking off at the airport.

Lightfoot drew from advice he received from Harold Moon, then head of BMI Canada, one of the forerunners of SOCAN, who told him that songs are a good marriage between lyric and melody. “Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work,” says Lightfoot, matter-of-factly. “You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced that has some kind of poetic drift to it, and put it into a lyric. And you try to do that in different ways with each song.”

Along with writing to deadlines brought on by recording contracts, Lightfoot has delivered some of his most memorable songs from commissions. “Steel Rail Blues” was one of several numbers he wrote for a Canadian National Railway film. When the CBC asked him to write a song about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he researched the subject by reading a book by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the railroad’s chief engineer. The result was his now classic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” for which he wrote the slow middle part first and then wrote the start and end portions around it.

“When I was in the bush, the last thing I thought about was songwriting. All I thought about was making 20 miles a day.”

Curiously, although many of Lightfoot’s songs are closely associated with the Canadian landscape, few have been written in those settings. His 10 marathon canoe trips across northern Canada, which he started making during the 1970s (he made his last one in 1986), have produced only a few geographically specific songs, including “Whispers of the North” and “Canary Yellow Canoe.”

“When I was in the bush, the last thing I thought about was songwriting,” Lightfoot explains. “All I thought about was making 20 miles a day. You can’t take a guitar or anything. With all the rapids and big lakes to paddle through, it’s very challenging.”

Yet to compose, Lightfoot requires total isolation – something he says has been hard on his marriages and family. One solution he found in the past was to write in empty houses, taking advantage of homes that real estate agents he knew were trying to sell. That’s how “If You Could Read My Mind” came about. “It was one of those fast ones,” he recalls. “It happened in an afternoon in an empty house. I had a desk and a chair, a pad of paper and my guitar. I just had to go for it.” Lightfoot wrote “Sundown,” his popular song about infidelity and jealousy, when he was alone in a farmhouse outside of Toronto and his girlfriend was partying at a city nightclub without him.

At Lightfoot’s current home, his office is filled with dark floor-to-ceiling bookcases that hold notebooks of every set he’s ever played. A stickler for detail, Lightfoot lists the date, venue and running times as well as tape recordings of all shows. A cassette player serves to record song ideas, while a yellow legal pad on a music stand contains lyrics, chords and annotations for various compositions. From his vast body of work, he draws from 50 songs for his concert repertoire.

“We rotate them in our live show,” Lightfoot explains. “It’s like rotating pitchers in a baseball game. I have to keep changing it up to keep it fresh, but you can’t lose your standards either. that includes the ballads, all the ethereal stuff, plus the toe-tappers, of course.”

He adds, “There’s a feeling that takes place [at concerts] that keeps me moving. It’s what makes me want to continue.  As long as we stay organized and healthy, we can keep going.”

Publisher: Moose Music, Early Morning Music
Selected Discography:
Lightfoot! (1966), Sundown (1974), East of Midnight (1986), Waiting for You (1993), Harmony (2004)
CAPAC Member 1970-1990. SOCAN member since 1991.

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.”

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.”