I'm bugging Gordon Lightfoot about why he's no longer writing songs. "Maybe it's because I'm lazy," he says, getting up off his chair. "I don't know what it is. I just thought having done 20 albums, it's enough."
We're in the troubadour's sanctuary, a small study just off the foyer of his Bridle Path mansion in Toronto – a modest mansion, as these things go. The house is modern, but this room (equipped with amplifiers, vintage acoustic guitars, a ratty old open briefcase and a couple of analog recorders) is all worn in and dark wood.
Picking up a vintage 12-string Gibson, Lightfoot – gaunt, grey and diminishing, but in good spirits at age 78 – sits back down and starts softly strumming the chords to his "new" song, Plans of My Own. It's a recently unearthed leftover from a recording session at Hamilton's Grant Avenue Studio in 1996.
"It's kind of a moody thing," he says about the song. "And it's a weird one to play." Though he's murmuring the words to himself in a phlegm-crusted whisper, the lyrics about a musician's touring life can be made out. Lightfoot, who still gives concerts regularly, sings about having no time to rest, getting on through the night and "I will travel anywhere to be right where you are."
Lightfoot says the song was never quite finished and that's because he hadn't gotten the lyrics to a point where they were "memorizable." Written two decades ago, the song represents the Orillia, Ont.-born folk-pop icon's first new music since 2004's Harmony album. That's a long dry spell, even for a legacy act.
A few years ago, Lightfoot and the poetic musician Gord Downie took part in an onstage dialogue, taped for radio, about songwriting and inspiration. Why are songs written, Downie wanted to know. Lightfoot's reply? "The contract," he said. "You sign a contract. You have to do it, pay bills. You have to do it."
You have to do it until you don't, and Lightfoot no longer does. Lightfoot has his royalties from past recordings and his touring income is not insignificant. (He has four concerts this week at Massey Hall in Toronto.)
The great singer-songwriters are reaching advanced ages now. Some keep writing – Leonard Cohen worked till he dropped – while others slow down or even stop. Joni Mitchell, currently recovering from a brain aneurysm, last released an album in 2007. That record, Shine, was her first disc of new songs in nine years.
Neil Young, on the other hand, is prolific – too prolific, critics would argue – at the age of 71. "There's no reason not to continue," Young recently told Uncut magazine, "because I can still see where I'm going. Can't see it clearly, but I know it's out there."
One of the reasons Lightfoot gives for his creative inactivity is his home life. "I have an extended family," explains the Sundown singer, who now shares a house with third wife, Kim. "I have grandchildren, and I want to pay attention to them."
The demands of a songwriter shouldn't be underplayed; with the exception of Coldplay and Mumford and Sons, the days of sky-gazing bards with quill pens in the meadow are long over. Cohen, in his underwear at New York's Royalton Hotel, agonizing over which of his 80 verses to cut from Hallelujah, might be an extreme example of the diligence required, but a singer-songwriter's life is a tough one to balance.
In the 2012 documentary Pacing the Cage, Bruce Cockburn told a story about his first daughter coming into the room where he was working. With her toy plastic guitar, she began playing along with him. He told her to leave him alone. "I regret that," Cockburn says in the film. "I will die regretting that."
Asked about the life of a recording artist and songwriter, Lightfoot's long-time booking agent, Bernie Fieldler, spoke of the anxiety that came with Lightfoot's grind. "Gordon was under the gun from Warner and his contract," says Fieldler, who managed Dan Hill and many other songwriters. "It was incredible pressure and when the contract was done, after 20 or so albums, it was a great weight lifted from him."
Lightfoot says he always has a handful of songs kicking around, but with no pressure to finish them, they stay unfinished. In the old days, he bought a condo or rented a bachelor apartment for the sole purpose of songwriting. He didn't live in them, nor did he furnish them. And now? "I don't want the isolation that comes with writing songs and making albums."
On the subject, Lightfoot mentions one of his peers. "You, know, I'd love to hear something from Jerry Jeff Walker, but he hasn't done anything in years either." Which is true enough. Walker, the Texan who wrote the classic Mr. Bojangles, last released an album (Moon Child) in 2009. "I don't know what I'd talk about in life any more," Walker said, when reached by The Globe and Mail. "When you go to write, you think 'I've written something in that area already.'"
As with Lightfoot, Walker, who is 74, has bits and pieces of songs but no deadline to finish and record them. "I'll have a verse and a chorus, but no drive to get them done."
It's not that Walker and Lightfoot have no professional responsibilities. Lightfoot has a crew and a band that his live performances support. The long-time smoker says he has a "touch of lung disease," but that otherwise he's healthy. So he continues, playing old songs at 70 or 80 shows a year, to an audience glad to hear him sing, even if his soothing baritone is as long-gone as his songwriter's muse. "We'll work while the sun shines," he is fond of saying.
Lightfoot, like Walker and other performers of his generation, is at home on the stage and eager to please. How does that old Walker hit go? "I knew a man Bojangles, and he'd dance for you in worn-out shoes." That sounds about right.
Gordon Lightfoot plays Toronto's Massey Hall, Nov. 23 to 26 (masseyhall.com).