To quote the title of one of the songs on his feverishly anticipated new record, Tom Cochrane is now “Back In The Game.” True, the Canadian rock icon has never stopped creating or performing, but Take It Home is his first album of new material since 2006’s No Stranger. Happily, Take It Home (to be released via Universal Music Canada on February 10, 2015) reveals an artist still at the top of his game, exploring new lyrical and sonic terrain while remaining grounded in the values that have made him one of Canada’s most beloved rock ‘n rollers ever.
Over the course of a long and illustrious career now spanning more than 40 years, the pride of Lynn Lake, Manitoba has covered more terrain than the Franklin expedition. From early beginnings as a folk-based singer/songwriter playing the coffeehouses of Toronto’s famed Yorkville scene in the early ’70s, Tom became the driving force in adventurous rockers Red Rider prior to achieving massive international success (over six million copies sold worldwide and diamond-sales status at home) with breakthrough 1991 album Mad Mad World and its anthemic hit “Life Is A Highway.”
Since then, he has continued to create potent new material while cementing his place in the hearts of Canadians through crowd-pleasing performances from coast to coast and his unwavering work on behalf of humanitarian causes and organizations. An Order of Canada recipient and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, Cochrane has won eight Juno awards and numerous other industry honours, including the 2013 Allan Waters Humanitarian Award and a Grammy nomination.
In recent years, Cochrane stepped off the music industry treadmill, but his creative itch never disappeared. “It gnaws at you when you haven’t created something for a while,” he explains. “I tried my hand at painting again, but I didn’t find it as satisfying as I used to. There were a number of reasons I wanted to make another record. First and foremost, if you’ve got wings you fly! You start to feel that voice, that muse, the urge to get something off your chest. That never goes away, it may just not be as intense at certain times.”
“There is a conditioned cycle that has been imprinted on me since I was about 26. You get out there, you read, you talk, you travel, you experience, you do this stuff that creates a life then you write about it and attempt to record it. Sometimes that is really painful, sometimes it is really joyful. There is drudgery to it. It’s like flying an aircraft in some senses, with moments of complete boredom and drudgery and moments of complete terror, then you bring the whole thing in for a safe landing!”
The aviation analogy is fitting for this son of a bush pilot (Tom is also a pilot, and was a proud honorary colonel for six years with the 409 squadron in Cold Lake Alberta). He has now touched down with a 12-song collection guaranteed to please loyal TC fans while potentially attracting many new ones to the fold. Sonically and lyrically, Take It Home manages to be both timeless and timely.
In an era in which way too many acts settle upon one easily described and digested sound, the stylistic eclecticism and emotional range Cochrane displays here is truly refreshing. As Tom notes, “there really is a broad panorama of songs on this record. They run the course.”
“It’s retrospective in a sense. The record runs the gamut from fire and brimstone with the Texas swing of ‘Back In The Game’ and ‘1st Time Around’ to the spiritual and gospel with ‘The Ones That I’ve Known,’ ‘Pink Time,’ and ‘A Prayer For Hope.’ There are references to my beloved Georgian Bay but mythical Bays as well and some of the stories harvested from it and other parts of Canada. There’s also a heavy nod of the cap to Austin and the deep south where many of my early musical influences come from…songs about being a rock and roll hobo,” he continues. “You don’t spend this much time travelling back and forth from down there without gathering dust on your boots and clothes then shaking it off in a song or two.”
The album title is appropriate, for in many ways Tom is returning to his roots here. “I see this record as a real retrospective on the essence of the troubadour,” he says. “From the bards of the middle ages into the blues guys like Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins into Woody Guthrie who inspired Dylan and Lightfoot as well as artists who inspired another generation. Look at Dylan and Willie Nelson, staying on the tour bus, moving to the next city to play for people. It’s like the boy inside the man, they’re going back to their youth. To me, some of the songs on this record explore that.”
Stylistically, Take It Home draws deeply from American roots music. “When I played these songs for Big Ben Richardson, a friend who lives in Austin and plays in Grady, he said ‘they’re all over the place, but there’s a real Southern feel tying them all together.’ I agree. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austin in recent years. I wrote ‘Back In The Game’ after my wife Kath and I went to Austin’s Continental Club when they had a swing dancing night. It has a blues meets Texas swing feel while ‘I Can’t Stay Here’ is more Tennessee. I’m exploring a lot of that as a Canadian who has absorbed plenty of this over the years. For instance, JJ Cale was a big influence on ‘Lunatic Fringe’ [the Red Rider tune that became a classic rock staple].”
Take It Home is the sound of an artist doing it all for the right reasons, following his muse wherever it leads, with no commercial imperatives in mind. “You start out doing this not because you want to be rich,” Tom reflects. “I have done real well in my career and life that way and I’m not doing it now because I want to be rich. You do it for the passion and let the chips fall where they may. I’m just pretty lucky to be doing this at this stage of the game. It’s still fun and I feel vital doing it.” This record is born not so much out of great pain or great elation but a little of both and some unfinished business and a few things that have been left unsaid or undone along the way.”
At the same time, there’s plenty of material here that can find a happy home on both country and rock radio. The country-rock party vibe of first single “Sunday Afternoon Hang” did just that, and upcoming second single “First Time Around,” “Diamonds,” or “Country Girls Never Get Old” are destined to follow suit.
For Cochrane, the process of making an album begins with one song. “For Take It Home, that song was ‘Pink Time’,” he recalls. “Two other songs on the record, ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Prayer For Hope,’ were written earlier, but ‘Pink Time’ started this particular phase. Then I started ‘First Time Around,’ a completely different type of song. They are like two bookends of the record.”
Those three songs take the listener from the heart-wrenching to the hedonistic. “Pink Time” is the poignant and tender story of a husband dealing with the ravages being wrought upon his wife by Alzheimer’s: “When the pink time comes, I’ll be right there by your side, down by the bay.” “First Time Around,” along with tunes like “Back In The Game,” “Sunday Afternoon Hang” and “Country Girls Never Get Old” put a much more upbeat spin on proceedings. “I wanted to have some fun and make this a rootsy record as well,” Tom explains.
Tom’s penchant for compassionate social commentary is also on vivid display here. As with “Life Is A Highway” nearly two decades earlier, “A Prayer For Hope” was spurred by a World Vision-backed trip to Africa. “I wrote that about six years ago, after an AIDS-specific visit to Kenya,” Cochrane recalls. “We met Margaret there, a mother dying of AIDS. We couldn’t do anything for her, other than pray. She had a child named Hope and a caregiver from WV called Mercy, an incredible human being.” The encounter is captured in stark clarity in the song: “Margaret sits by the hill and stares at her children, wonders what they’ll do when she’s gone.”
On the powerful ballad (and album closer) “The Ones That I’ve Known,” Tom pays homage to “the ones that gave so much for freedom,” specifically two inspirational figures, civil rights heroine Rosa Parks and Terry Fox. The profile in courage exemplified by Fox had a direct impact on Tom via one memorable encounter. “Seeing him on the last day he ran was such a powerful experience,” he explains. “Red Rider were driving non-stop from Winnipeg to Toronto. We hadn’t seen a hotel room in three nights and I was contemplating quitting. In the middle of nowhere, near Thunder Bay, the traffic stops. I see this kid running by on one leg, his face looking really pasty, and you can’t tell if its tears or rain running down his face. I’m thinking ‘how tough do I have it? Here is this kid giving his all to save lives and bring attention to cancer.”
This ability to tell personal stories that have a universal resonance is a trademark of the troubadour, and this is a talent Tom Cochrane has always displayed.
On Take It Home, Tom and co-producer/longtime creative collaborator Bill Bell (Jimmy Rankin, Justin Nozuka and also Jason Mraz’s music director for a spell) have skilfully merged a roadhouse rough and ready feel and a high-fidelity production sound. “Take It Home goes back to the scene of the crime so to speak. I wanted to pay homage to many of my early southern influences like JJ Cale, The Band, Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart. Their ghosts are ever present on the record,” Tom explains. “I wanted the album to be really raw. Parts of it aren’t, but the essence of it is really raw. I didn’t want the parts to sound refined in any shape or form. Billy’s job is to add just the right amount of slickness here and there.”
Take It Home was recorded in a variety of different settings. Some tracks were laid down in elite Toronto studio Metalworks and Los Angeles studios Glenwood Place Studio and Soleil Studio, with other recording, overdubbing and mixing taking place at Cochrane’s home studio, Laya Stone, in Parry Sound, Ontario. The result is a highly pleasing aural mix of the rustic and the refined.
In keeping with the rootsy vibe of many of the new songs, Tom plays banjo, mandolin, ukelele and harmonica, as well as a range of guitars and keyboards. He’s assisted by a cast of A-list players that includes drummers Davide Direnzo (Jacksoul), Gary Craig (Bruce Cockburn) and the legendary Jim Keltner ( JJ Cale, Traveling Wilburys, John Lennon), bassists John Dymond (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), Ken “Spider” Sinnaeve (Streetheart), James “Hutch” Hutchison (Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt), and Jeff Jones (Red Rider), and guitarists Bill Bell and Kenny Greer (Red Rider). The outstanding steel, ukelele and mandolin playing of Greer is a crucial component in the sound of the record. The strong backing vocals of Beverley Knight, Danielle Bourjeaurd, Tareya Green and Andrew Cole are also employed judiciously on Take It Home.
Still passionate about performance, Tom is already thinking about which of the new tunes will best fit a set list already challenged by the amount of great material from which he can draw. “I wanted to make sure there’s at least there or four songs off the album that’ll stand the test of time and we can pull off live. Either to make people tap their feet and dance or have ones that hit home. I think I’ll be playing ‘The Ones That I’ve Known’ and ‘Pink Time’ quite a few years from now. ‘Back in The Game’ is lots of fun, and I see it as one you can pull out when things are getting pensive.”
Like a big freight train winding its way north then west in the early mist of a Canadian summer morning, Take It Home has a power to it that is as compelling as it is haunting.