Interview: Lennie Gallant

Considered one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, East Coast native Lennie Gallant returns to Peterborough this month, thanks to the folks at Folk Under the Clock. He is the recipient of an Order of Canada, a multiple award winning songwriter, a staunch supporter of Maritime music and now he can add playwright to his CV as his stage show “Abegweit” continues to play for sold out shows in PEI. I spoke with Lennie by phone from his pad overlooking Halifax Harbour. We talked about the world, song-writing, his Order of Canada and whether he’s inspired to write when a bird flies by….

Mb: Hey Lennie, how’s your day so far?
Lennie: It’s good. It’s a beautiful sunny day here. It’s cold, but it’s nice. Nice clear sky.
Mb: So what’s up for the rest of the day?
Lennie: I’m doing a little bit of writing this morning actually. I’m over-looking the Halifax harbour and trying to find a bit of inspiration here.
Mb: Are you finding it?
Lennie: I got started on something.
Mb: What else inspires you? Do you get an idea and then rush to the guitar or do you sit down, look out the window and as a bird flies by, you think “Maybe I’ll write a song about a bird.”
Lennie: I don’t get too much inspiration from the birds, I’m afraid. It would be nice if a little bird would tell you something now and then but… (laughs) I get inspired by all kinds of things. It’s hard to say. Could be something I’ve read or over-heard. I might go to see a film, read a really interesting novel, part of a conversation I might over-hear or take part in… it’s really hard to say what’s going to trigger something inside of you that ends up in a song. I think the key is, when it is there, to grab it and run with it cause if you try to shelve it and think “I’ll come back to it later” you’re never going to feel quite the same. It can be a tricky thing, especially if you’re not in a place or a time that’s conducive to sitting down and writing. I find, if you can go with that moment and how you’re feeling in that moment, that’s the best thing to do for sure.
Mb: Do you want to write a song that’s about you or one that’s about what’s going on in the world?
Lennie: I usually don’t plan in advance as to whether it’s going to be something more personal or universal.
Mb: What’s it tend to be?
Lennie: I’ve never really sat down and taken a tally of how many songs are in either direction, but I like to think I’ve covered both. Sometimes the songs are more… I think I’ve written more social conscious stuff in the past, although it’s kind of swinging around again, given now what’s happening in the world.
Mb: And what do you think about what’s happening in the world?
Lennie: I think we’re suddenly waking up to understand that maybe we’ve taken a little too much for granted, and that we really have to be on guard and watching out for freedom and justice, and watching out for each other a lot more. For many people I think it’s been easy to ignore because it wasn’t on our doorstep, but it is on our doorstep now. It’s become much more real and pertinent for many people on this continent.
Mb: What do you think about what’s happening in Canada with “Trudeaumania?” Are you a fan?
Lennie: Well, given where we came from, I was very happy to see him get in. I think the honeymoon is certainly over and people are expecting… many people are expecting different things. So he’s trying to walk a very thin line trying to retain his principals yet uphold promises. It’s a very tricky situation. I still believe he’s going to do some good things.
Mb: Speaking of where we came from, you received the Order of Canada, during Harper’s reign.
Lennie: Oh god, I don’t think Harper had anything to do with it! (laughs)
Mb: How did receiving that feel?
Lennie: It came out of left field. It was an amazing surprise.
Mb: Did you just get a phone call?
Lennie: No, the envelope came in the mail looking very official. I was wondering whether it was a subpoena or something! (laughs) It was quite a shock actually. It was a huge honour and I felt a little unworthy of it.
Mb: Yeah? Why’s is that?
Lennie: There’s so many incredible people who have given so much in so many different areas…
Mb: You didn’t feel like you were one of them?
Lennie: I know of a great number of people who are more deserving than I, of such things. At the same time, I figured my folks would probably kill me if I was ever to turn it down for that reason, so… it was a tremendous honor and the people I met when I went there were very deserving and I was humbled to be in their presence, I’ll tell you that!
Mb: Good “after party?”
Lennie: It was real nice dinner and I flew my folks up to be part of it. It was a real thrill. It was a really nice evening. Adrienne Clarkson was Governor General at the time. She spoke really well and she made everyone feel comfortable. She made it very folksy and down home, and all Canadian food and wine… the whole thing was very inspiring and I felt extremely proud to be a Canadian and to be there. It was fantastic!
Mb: I also noticed in your bio, over 30 artists have recorded your songs. Talk about a great Canadian export!
Lennie: It’s pretty good to have other people doing your stuff, especially when they do a great job of it. I never get tired of hearing other versions of my work. I think I get as much kick out of hearing what someone does with my songs as when I’m able to record them myself.
Mb: Any personal favourites? What’s the one you put on at the dinner party and ask “Have you heard this version?”
Lennie: (laughs) Well, I don’t play my own music at dinner parties, believe me! It gives me indigestion. (laughs) It’s like when I go to a restaurant and the owner will think it’s a good idea to put on one of my albums. I have to walk over and say “Look, I’m really happy you’re playing my music, but would you mind not playing it while I’m here?” (laughs)
Mb: I mean, Jimmy Buffet has covered you! That’s huge!
Lennie: That was fabulous! And I ended up singing a duet with him when he played in Toronto. When he played the Molson Centre he called me up on stage and we sat on the surfboard together and we sang that song that he recorded of mine. [ed: Mademoiselle] So that was pretty cool. He ended up coming down to Halifax later, so we had a little lobster party and sang a few others. That was pretty cool that he did that.
Mb: Do you ever write intentionally for other artists?
Lennie: I spent some time down in Nashville. I was going down to Nashville 3 or 4 times a year and writing with various people down there. Sometimes it was for me and sometimes we were just trying to write a great song. Most of the time we hardly ever would say “Ok, let’s write a song for ‘so and so.'” We’d just try to come up with a great song and then afterwards we’d look at the song and wonder “Who’d be an interesting person to record this?” It was interesting. I had a few songs on hold with some pretty interesting people, but I didn’t really strike gold down there. It’s a pretty crazy market to be part of. So most of the time I think I was just writing for the sake of writing and ended up recording a couple of them myself. For the most part, I think the songs I’m most drawn to were the ones I’ve written alone.
Mb: 11 albums later, it’s obvious you like to write and record your songs….
Lennie: I do. I enjoy being in the studio and seeing a song come to life. When you’re really in the zone and you’re writing and you know it’s a good song I don’t think there’s anything that quite compares to it, except for recording a song and seeing the colours other people contribute, or that just being in the studio will contribute. That can be incredibly exciting. That’s why I’m in this career I think. For those moments when you see those things happening… the magic. I think there’s three great moments. One when you’re writing it and you see it happening, and when you’re recording it and that’s all happening and then when you’re playing it for an audience and you know they’re connecting with it. That’s the holy trinity of song writing for me.