Sharing stories with Tom Cochrane

By Adam Freill

The highway of Tom Cochrane’s life has taken him all over the world, including to the stretch of highway officially named in his honour, but his musical journey started with his first guitar at the age of 11.

“I think I was like a lot of kids at that time,” he said during a recent interview from his Toronto home. “Initially, when I started out, it was innocent. We loved The Beatles, like everybody else, and the whole British Invasion sparked intense interest.”

Of course, the ’60s were an era of social change, and that change took hold of the aspiring musician, especially in the years following John Kennedy’s assassination and America’s official entry into the Vietnam War. Says Cochrane, “That was a bit of the end of the innocence.”

In his teens, he found the music of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and others as he started to play at local drop-in centres, coffee houses and pubs, which fostered both his singing and his song writing.

“Songs weren’t simple pop songs,” he recalls. “You saw that there was some real meat on the bones with people like Dylan’s work, and Leonard Cohen, of course, and Neil Young.”

That’s when the self-confessed closet poetry writer and sonic journalist started to entertain thoughts that his music could become his career.


Finding his voice


With the folk scene in full swing, the coffee houses and drop-in centres of Toronto were magnets to young, talented musicians who were all vying for attention, so what helped Cochrane stand out?

“The big thing was always having a signature,” he says. “I was never the best singer; I was never the best guitar player; but I had something unique to offer. “I think that’s the most important thing in business, or when developing your passion or vocation: you have to have an individual signature and voice.”

While imitation can start someone down a path, he says that failing to develop beyond simply being a carbon copy usually doesn’t lead to much success.

“A lot of the kids that I grew up with who were better musicians had trouble because they would sound too much like the people they were covering, the people they were copying,” says Cochrane. “Even though I might try to cover a Beatles song, or a Crosby, Stills and Nash song, or The Band – we just loved The Band – it would always come out uniquely.”

Being quick on his feet while on stage helped, too.

“In my early teens, when we used to play covers at drop-in centres, I would sometimes forget the words, so I would make up my own right on the spot,” he says. “It was frustrating for a time, because you want to duplicate those songs that you are covering precisely, but it would always come out in my own voice, with my own spin on how it should sound. I realized, as I moved along, that this was one of the great advantages that I had as an artist.”


Give it to me straight


“We need our people who mentor us,” says Cochrane. “My great friend Deane Cameron was always a believer and supportive, although he would dole out the tough love pretty good. But you need that.”

Being surrounded by people who only tell you what they think you want to hear can actually put roadblocks in your path. Growth happens when people who care offer honest, constructive criticism.

“You have to have people who are objective and honest,” he says. “That’s really what true support and friendship is, if it is done in the right spirit – it needs to be done out of a real passionate desire to see you do well. We need that.”


Making it look easy


A hallmark of a professional is that they make the hard stuff look easy, but it can take years to hone one’s craft, be that on stage or in the trades.

“Easy is a product of talent, plus perseverance, plus dedication,” says Cochrane. “And I would say that perseverance and dedication are bigger parts than talent.”


Becoming a sonic journalist


In his teens, Cochrane found journalism intriguing, and even considered it as a career option, so it should come with little surprise that some of his biggest hits have a story or message within them.

“I often call myself a sonic journalist,” he says. “I really did think that there was nothing more noble than going to a war-torn country and putting yourself on the front lines, in danger, and reporting back the truth. Journalism is very important.”

Working blue-collar jobs like driving a cab and working the loading docks at Sears so that he could make ends meet between music gigs inspired some of the stories that would influence his song writing.

“I started to gather and collect stories as they were told to me by people,” he says. “I worked a lot of those jobs, and I am grateful that I did because they gave me a real perspective on life and what people go through.

“Some of them are really distinct stories, like Big League, that you know is going to be a song – one where you sit down with your guitar and the whole song evolves on the spot, musically, lyrically, everything. Basically, 90 per cent of the song was done within 15 to 20 minutes because the story was percolating there.

Big League is telling a story, and it is a story that cuts very close to home for most Canadians and even before the Humboldt tragedy which hit us all so deeply and collectively as a nation, it just resonated with us. It is powerful.”