This interview with Gordon Lightfoot appeared in the Free Press on Oct. 28, 1974, just as his fame was beginning to skyrocket.
Gordon Lightfoot couldn’t help but grin when the first returns for his Warner Bros.-Reprise “Sundown” album came in.
The title song and “Carefree Highway” from the album were being played everywhere, AM and FM, middle-of-the-road and rock. Lightfoot had to grin because that’s the gold ring in the music industry merry-go-round: the album that gives the artist independence for the rest of his life.
The album is selling so well — more than 2 million copies that at the moment Reprise is holding up release of Lightfoot’s next album because it figures “Sundown” will sell 400,000 and 500,000 more copies before the end of the year.
The new album, originally scheduled for release in November will now be released in February. Lightfoot’s current concert tour, which includes two shows here at the Masonic this weekend, should hike his record sales even more.
“The ‘Sundown” album is my crowning achievement,” the 35-year-old Canadian said. “It’s the first time in my career that I have independence. And independence to me is where I can now work at my own pace and do some of the things in life I’ve wanted to do.
“I’ve been working on deadlines, it seems, all my recording life. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded my first one that got anywhere, ‘For Loving Me.’ I went with United Artists and established a good track record with them. I did five albums in less than five years.
His favorite songs
“I’m not an act that just sits around and waits for inspiration to hit. Making record albums takes a lot of work and a lot of sweat. To borrow a phrase, 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.
“Writing takes application of your talents. A lot of people think songs pop off the top of your head while you’re walking down the street, but that is not the case. Ideas may come this way, but not songs.
“An idea will come to me while I’m driving down the highway. That’s where ‘Carefree Highway’ started. Or while you are tuning your guitar before a concert. You run through a lot of chord progressions and ideas for new progressions come to you. A melody may pop into your head but it won’t pop onto a record. That takes hard work.”
“My first hit for Warner’s, ‘If You Could Read My Mind,’ started me toward the independence that has come with ‘Sundown.’ That ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ is probably my favorite of the hundreds of songs I’ve written. It comes off best on the stage.
“My favorite song I’ve done wasn’t my original. It was Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes.’ I was hanging out with Phil and was learning the song before he finished it.
“I would now like to spend more time with each album, each song, and I would also like to get a sailing yacht. Not for competitive sailing, I’m a cruiser. But that’s going to take a lot of time. I’ve got to study navigation and things like that.”
Lightfoot’s sudden hotness as a recording artist would indicate there may be a swing back to softer melodies and meaningful lyrics.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “anything is possible in the music business. “The high-powered rock-and-roll band is still very much in vogue. But people seem to be less hard-core about it than they used to be.
After an artist hits with a super album such as “Sundown,” there emerges great pressure to make the next one a topper. Lightfoot doesn’t exhibit that industry syndrome.
“I’ve got a dozen songs already recorded,” he said, “and within the next two months I’ll probably come up with a couple more to replace some of the things in the next album now. I never just sit down and try to write a hit. I try to make it mellow. That’s all.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 1974: Gordon Lightfoot talks songwriting, sailing and his favorite tunes