A Conversation With Tom Cochrane
If life is indeed a highway, then Tom Cochrane is the quintessential road warrior – an artist who has racked up significant amounts of mileage in an award-winning career spanning nearly five decades. From his early solo days to more than a decade with Red Rider and onto his internationally successful solo career, Cochrane has remained a fan favourite from coast to coast. As one of a handful of Canadian artists to have a diamond certified album in Canada (the classic Mad Mad World), Cochrane has written and delivered an exceptional catalogue of rock radio classics with songs like “Life Is A Highway,” “Big League,” “No Regrets,” "Boy Inside The Man," "Victory Day," and “Lunatic Fringe, in the process earning countless awards and becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Cochrane took time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com in promotion of his upcoming gig at Niagara’s newest and best venue, the OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino.
GoBe: In conducting the usual research for the interview it’s impressive to see all the awards you’re racked up through your career. You got all those Junos, the inductions into the various Canadian Hall of Fames, the Order of Canada, various doctorates and acknowledgements, but where does having a stretch of Highway 391 near your hometown of Lynn Lake, Manitoba named Tom Cochrane's Life is a Highway rank?
TOM: (laughs) It’s one of those honours. That stretch of road will be there a long time, so anyone that ever uses it will, number one, remember me and the song, I guess. But they’ll also remember that I’m a resident from up there. I’m kind of proud of the unique history of land in Northern Manitoba. Even though I grew up and spent a lot of my formative years in the west end of Toronto in Etobicoke, I always consider myself a prairie-slash-Lake boy son of a bush pilot. To me it’s just part of my DNA. It’s a pretty cool honour and pretty different. It just shows the nature of how that song has impacted so many people.
GoBe: I interviewed 54.40s Neil Osborne and he mentioned how the Hootie and the Blowfish cover of “I Go Blind” paid for the construction of his studio. Did you reap any similar unexpected benefits from the many covers of “Life Is A Highway” by artists like Chris LeDoux and Rascal Flatts?
TOM: That’s what Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts says, that it helped pay for a house in Austin Texas. Same sort of thing. I was lucky enough to have a hit with it twice, of course my version and Rascal Flatts’ version. And also let’s not forget Chris LeDoux who had kind of a mid-level country hit with it. He was sort of the American version of Stompin’ Tom Connors, a rodeo rider turned singer, God rest his soul. The song is just one of those songs that keeps giving and has a life of its own. I’ve been very blessed to have written it. A song like that changes people’s lives. People come up to me and say this song got me through this or helped me through that. You just realize that you are a steward for people’s emotions and a steward of these songs that actually enhance people’s emotions and their lifestyle and their world. It’s kind of a trust if you know what I mean.
GoBe: I’m glad you mentioned the emotional aspect of the impact of song. You don’t reach your level of success without writing good songs and you’re catalogue is rich with hits laced with emotion. As a fan myself, there's one of your songs that evokes such strong imagery hat I can’t listen to it, and that’s the song “Big League.” Its imagery is too real and emotional. Are there songs in your catalogue that still trigger an emotional response in you when you hear them or play them?
TOM: Yea, that would definitely be one of those songs that would top that particular list. To me as a songwriter, if you can touch on an experience that is distinctly Canadian, wherever you might be from, but then that song resonates with people in other places, then I think you’ve achieved something special as a songwriter. And that song does that. It touches on the Canadian experience on so many levels, but also the experience of being a parent, and investing so much weight and love into your children. And also the way sports kind of pulls on our sense of community whether it’s hockey or baseball or soccer. I know the guy that started my first website was from Manchester, and he related that song to his dad taking him to soccer practices. I think that song really resonates with a lot of people. It’s top of my list for that. There are a couple others too but that one’s right up there.
GoBe: It’s been 48 years since your first solo release, 44 years since the first Red Rider single. In any other profession you might be happily retired and golfing more than youi already do. The Rolling Stones have a new record coming out. As a 70-year-old musician yourself, do you curse them for raising the ceiling on retirement age for musicians?
TOM: (laughing) No, because like my dad said to me once, ‘man, you’re so lucky, you make a living at your hobby.’ Well, no one quits their hobby, you know what I’m saying? To me, I feel more motivated to play now than ever. Do I have to? No, not really from a practical standpoint. But it’s wonderful to be able to do it and to touch people’s lives. You feel valid and you feel legitimized in your existence, and you feel needed. My goodness, just the very nature of remembering all those words to show my cognitive abilities are not declining in any way is reason enough to keep going.
GoBe: I think that’s an underappreciated skill for artists like you who have such an expansive catalogue to remember.
TOM: Did you see that shot of Mitch McConnell with Mick Jagger? Here’s Mick doing sex drugs and rock and roll for 81 years or whatever and here’s Mitch, in the senate for 81 years. Mitch McConnell definitely looks a lot older than Mick. I thought that was rather funny.
GoBe: How did you spend your COVID sabbatical? Most musicians I speak too either took it as an opportunity to rest and recharge or to channel their energy into creating whatever artistic endeavors that appealed to them. What did you focus on during the downtime?
TOM: It was unfortunate for me. I thought that would be the case. I found that I had a tremendous case of writer’s block through COVID. I have really grown to depend on the energy I get from audiences. Essentially, records really started as promotional devices for live performance. Then all of a sudden it burgeoned into this incredible juggernaut of a business selling records. Now we’re back to the way it was, where records don’t sell, it's streaming, radio is still important. I’m still a big believer in terrestrial radio and I think the numbers are bearing that out to a certain degree. It’s just a matter of you do what you do and you keep feeling vindicated and valued. Hopefully I’ll have a record out by the end of next year. But the COVID, it was very odd. I thought I’d be a little more productive than I was. I worked on my piano playing a lot, working on a lot of my chops, but not necessarily writing as much as I should have. It’s time to get another record out.
Gobe: As a young musician, you probably had dream and goals. Looking at your career now, have you surpassed those dreams and goals? Or has it all unfolded the way you thought it might?
TOM: Well yes. I remember starting out, it was just pop songs. You just want to be in a band. You want to impress the girls and all that stuff. Then Dylan came along and I realized that songwriting could be a lot more than just simple pop songs or Beatlemania. Not to disparage the Beatles’ work, because they got most of us into it the beginning – them, the Stones, and The Byrds for me. I started going in that direction, but I really didn’t think I’d still be doing it at 70. I didn’t think I’d be alive at 70 knock on wood. I’ve been very privileged to be able to continue to keep doing it and defying Father Time a little bit. Shoot, Willie’s still doing it at 90. It’s one of those wonderful blessings to be able to make music and have an audience. You don’t have to hang it up. Now, do I want to be doing those tours? Before we’d be out there making music and you almost didn’t want it to be a hit record because you’re not going home. You have to go back on the road with Jefferson Starship or you’re going out on the road with J. Geils or ZZ Top. Sometimes you’d be marking the days on the roof of your bunk on the bus. You’d have a calendar and be checking the days off and saying ‘I get to go home in a week for a week’ and all of a sudden you get to the last two days of the tour and you get a call from management and they go, ‘nope, you gotta turn around and go back down to Georgia to pick up with Jefferson Starship.’ And that would happen a lot, and you’d go through a little depression because you’d be on the road for months and months and months on end. Now it’s sort of manageable. I did 50 shows last year. I’ll probably be closer to 40 this year. That’s a manageable amount of shows to play.
GoBe: You’re coming to Niagara Falls to play the beautiful OLG Stage. If the intel I have is correct you’re living not too far from Niagara Falls? Is there any romanticism in playing there, do you play tourist or is it a quick in and out?
TOM: I’ve got a place in Toronto. I’m out west a lot. I’m out in Kelowna right now. I’ll be flying back tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of friends down there. I’m staying an extra day to golf with some buddies at Cherry Hill. That’s going to be fun, seeing a couple guys I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve had a lot of fun down there. I was just down there a few weeks ago at Lookout Point. I love it down there.
GoBe: Final question. Any thoughts on the passing of another iconic Canadian singer/songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot? I know it’s been a while. Any recollections of Gord?
TOM: I mean, Gordie was Gordie. I had a special relationship with him. I wouldn’t say we’d call up and talk to each other. But last time we saw each other he came to Mariposa and the road manager said, ‘hey would you come over to say hi to Gordie,’ because Gordie put Mariposa on the map. ‘He picked Jimmy Buffet and you to see this year.’ This was four summers ago, the summer before COVID. I was very verklempt, because I had presented him a special Award of Merit from SOCAN at the Hall of Fame and did the speeches for him. I was always very very honoured that Gordie wanted me to do that. I compared him to a Group of Seven painter, and that’s what he thought of himself as, like a Group of Seven painter. And I said every time i go out on Georgian Bay, Gordon Lightfoot’s beloved Georgian Bay, a Gordon Lightfoot song goes through my head. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, a gentleman. I cried twice when celebrities have died. One was Leonard Cohen, and one was Gordon. Leonard was a wonderful human being as well, He represented the Buddhist ideals to the highest order. But Gordon Lightfoot, he’s missed. I loved the guy.
TOM COCHRANE plays the OLG STAGE at FALLSVIEW CASINO September 30th at 9pm. To purchase tickets, visit: https://fallsviewcasinoresort.com/events-and-promotions/schedule-of-events/tom-cochrane.html
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