TomCochraneIn the world of Canadian music icons, few names resonate as powerfully as Tom Cochrane. With a career spanning decades, this celebrated singer-songwriter has not only captivated audiences with his timeless melodies but has also dedicated himself to numerous humanitarian causes, leaving an indelible mark on both the music industry and the global community.

Cochrane’s commitment to giving back will be on full display this Friday, March 8th at The Chrysler Theatre in Windsor, Ontario. As part of YUNITY Bluesfest, a two-night event benefiting The Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation and Transition To Betterness, Cochrane will take the stage with his full band. Fans can expect to hear beloved hits like “Life Is a Highway” and “White Hot” alongside intimate acoustic performances and storytelling from the iconic Canadian performer. The show promises to be a powerful celebration of music and philanthropy.


Cochrane’s journey into the world of giving can be traced back to the early days of his success. “I think right from the beginning, as soon as you start to make a mark as a professional musician, there’s always the odd thing to do,” he reflects. “To me, these things choose you in a lot of cases and to be honest, it’s an easy thing to do to help people out a little.”

It was his involvement in the iconic “Tears Are Not Enough” project, a fundraiser in conjunction with “We Are The World” to aid the Ethiopian famine, that truly ignited Cochrane’s passion for humanitarian work. “I always wanted to be a journalist. I was a funny kid. Edward R. Murrow and Schlesinger and Walter Cronkite, a little bit later, Peter Jennings, some of those people became big heroes of mine. I thought there was nothing more noble than going to some of these war-torn places where there was famine and natural disasters and stuff, and putting yourself in danger’s way and reporting back the truth. After the Tears Are Not Enough project, I thought, here we are, we’re all a bunch of privileged musicians, and we’re all going to go back to our lives hustling for money and making records and we’re going to forget all about this,” he admits. “I decided, well, I’m not comfortable with that.”

However, it was a life-altering trip to Africa with World Vision that truly opened Cochrane’s eyes to the harsh realities faced by countless communities around the globe. “It was a real eye opener, and it was a cathartic experience. It was a disturbing experience, and it put a lot of scars on my psyche,” he recalls. “I came back probably with post-traumatic stress disorder. We were shot at. I saw people die for the first time in my life.”

This harrowing experience not only left an indelible mark on Cochrane’s psyche but also served as the inspiration for one of his most iconic and uplifting anthems, “Life Is a Highway.” Penned in the early hours of the morning after his return from Africa, the song became a “pep talk” to himself, a reminder to stay focused on the road ahead and spread goodwill wherever possible.

“I used to call myself a sonic journalist prior to that. And after that, it was like, I think those of us that make music are therapists. First and foremost, we’re therapists for ourselves, and then you hope that resonates with other people, and that song did,” Cochrane reflects.

Cochrane’s commitment to humanitarian causes has only deepened over the years, with his involvement in initiatives like the “Canada for Asia” fundraiser following the devastating 2005 tsunami. “I feel very proud about those efforts,” he says. “It’s not so hard lending your name to some of these things and helping out in whatever small way you can.”

Despite his numerous accolades and achievements, including being an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the recipient of eight Juno awards, Cochrane remains grounded in his approach to songwriting and performance. “I don’t look at it as a job. I look at the process as a job. The process of actually putting a band together, rehearsing the band, getting a crew and putting shows together, that’s all part of the profession, but the actual songwriting is more a part of your essence. It’s in your blood,” he explains.

At the core of Tom Cochrane’s songwriting lies a deep reverence for storytelling, a craft he honed by drawing inspiration from the folk legends he admired growing up, like Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. His approach is rooted in personal experiences, with the music serving as a vessel to bring those stories to life, as evidenced by his iconic hit “Life Is a Highway,” born from his harrowing journey to Africa.

“A very successful songwriter said to me, and it was very flattering, and I don’t know if it’s 100% true. He said, ‘Tom, I’m a craftsman. I sit down and I craft songs, and I’m very good at it and very successful at it,'” Cochrane recalls. “He said, ‘You’re an artist. You work from inspiration.’ I said, yeah, it’s pretty much true.”

Cochrane’s deep admiration for Lightfoot, one of his musical heroes, was on full display when he was honored to present the legendary singer-songwriter with an award, despite Lightfoot’s fragile health at the time. “I was very honored to be asked to present Gordon Lightfoot the singer songwriter award and he was very sick at the time. We didn’t even think he was going to show up. We weren’t even sure how bad it was and whether he was going to survive,” Cochrane recounts. “I finished doing the speech and I also sang Early Morning Rain. I was nervous enough singing that with Sylvia Tyson sitting there in front of me, much less when I looked side stage and there’s Gordon Lightfoot with a shit eating grin on his face.”

The moment was made even more poignant by Lightfoot’s unexpected appearance and the profound impact Cochrane’s words had on the ailing artist. “I’m glad I didn’t know he was there before I started that song, because I wouldn’t have been able to sing it. But he showed up to accept the award. The late Barry Harvey who was managing Gordon at the time said, ‘You know, Gordon, read your speech every day for the next six months.’ It was because I compared him to a Group of Seven painter. That’s the way he saw himself, as a painter. He even used to hang out at The Pilot in Yorkville in the early days, and that’s where all the Group of Seven used to hang out.”

Cochrane’s kinship with Lightfoot extended beyond their shared love for music, as both saw themselves as artists painting vivid landscapes with their lyrics. “Every time I go out on Gordon’s beloved Georgian Bay, one of his songs goes through my head. He really appreciated the fact that intuitively I understood where he was coming from, and that stuff means a lot to me, but I feel like that too,” Cochrane explains. “I feel a bit like I’m a painter, and to have somebody else come and say, oh, no, your paint needs more purple. I’m going to take a brush and I’m going to put some purple in it over here. I think Gordon would agree with me that’s not being a songwriter, that’s writing by committee. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it just isn’t the way I’ve done things. To me, it’s a very personal, spiritual process, but sometimes not.”

This unwavering commitment to authenticity has yielded a catalog of timeless songs that have resonated with audiences for decades. “I’ve written a lot of junk, too, but it’s never for lack of trying. And I’ve always tried to write songs that are timeless. And the songs we play now, like White Hot, Boy Inside The Man, Untouchable One, Life is a Highway, they stand the test of time.”

One of Cochrane’s personal favorites, the song “Napoleon Sheds His Skin” from Red Rider’s third studio album Neruda, exemplifies his ability to weave intricate narratives into his music. The inspiration behind this track is a fascinating tale that underscores Cochrane’s deep appreciation for literature and its power to spark creativity.

“I became fascinated with Pablo Neruda after picking up this book called The Captain’s Verses. He actually had changed his name for that. His name wasn’t Neruda. Neruda was another poet or playwright from Czechoslovakia, I believe, and he borrowed that name as a pseudonym or an alias. And he wrote this book of poems that, oh, my God, when I read his poems, they just hit me so hard, like a diamond bullet. His poetry, the passion of it, the way he would draw parallels between love and passion and nature. Very few poets achieved what he did.”

“The way it translated into English, I can’t even imagine reading it in Spanish and understanding it in Spanish. So, the album Neruda was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s writing. I didn’t borrow any of his work, but I read a lot when I’m going into a writing phase and was reading a lot of his poetry and the songs started tumbling out of me. Some of them I understood, some of them I didn’t. I understand what Napoleon was about and let’s just say it’s allegorical. It’s not about anybody specific.”

“It could be about Che Guevara, maybe, who knows? But the point is, it’s about how we get ourselves into positions in life, in struggles, in wars, in conflicts. And really, at the end of the day, we just want to get back to our family and our loved ones, and we all share that. And here’s where the story gets interesting, and I inspired a lot of people through that record. That’s one good thing you can do as a writer. A lot of people would write to me and say, wow, I didn’t know about Pablo Neruda and now I’m fascinated by him. Some people did their thesis on him in school. One man, for example, was my lawyer’s dad, who did a thesis on him and was so fascinated with Neruda and Latin American poetry in general.”

“He actually traveled to Chile and brought back this book and he gave it to Pat to give to me. It’s in Spanish, but it has beautiful pictures and it’s Pablo Neruda, Isla Negra, and that was his last residence south of Valparaiso. So I’m reading it, and I come across this section which says he collected figureheads from old boats in this beautiful house he had at the edge of the ocean which is now a museum there. A lot of them were four, five or six hundred years old figureheads from the front of ships. One of them captured my attention, and I started reading this, and I picked up Lord Cochrane, Thomas William Cochrane. That’s my name. Thomas William Cochrane.”

“I ended up calling a friend of mine at the time who understood Spanish. I said, “What is this?” I took a picture of it and I sent it to her, and she said, “Well, apparently, this is the figurehead of a ship of Thomas William Cochrane and Pablo Neruda wrote about him and revered him for helping Chile attain their freedom from Spain.”

This revelation shed light on Cochrane’s own familial ties to a historical figure who played a pivotal role in Chile’s independence struggle. “I knew that a distant relative was Lord Dundonald, and he became a sea admiral and Napoleon called him the Sea Wolf. I didn’t know any of this when I wrote this album. He was one of the original pirates, but back then, there were different categories of pirates. He was an admiral in the British navy and in certain situations, they would get a percentage of the bounty. If they conquered a bunch of Spanish ships, for instance, they got a percentage of the bounty. Long story short, he got defrocked. He went to Chile and headed up their navy and helped them win their independence. He was a hero of Pablo Neruda.”

The depth of Neruda’s admiration for Cochrane’s ancestor was further underscored by a poignant dedication. “Neruda’s last book is dedicated to Thomas William Cochrane, my relative. I had no idea there’s a statue in Valparaiso dedicated to Thomas William Cochrane, the Sea Wolf, in the middle of town. It’s one of those things that still gives me chills. There are forces here that are at work that we don’t know about.”

Tragically, Neruda’s life was cut short under mysterious circumstances shortly after completing this final work. “Shortly after Neruda wrote that last book of poetry, he was assassinated. He came home and he said, I think they’ve killed me. He’d gone to a cocktail party, and he came back and he said, I felt a prick in my side. Three days later he died of prostate cancer. You don’t die in three days of prostate cancer.”

While the song “Napoleon Sheds His Skin” may not directly reference these historical connections, Cochrane acknowledges its deeper thematic resonance. “This doesn’t really explain Napoleon Sheds His Skin other than, as I said, it’s a study of what we trade on, and that in the end, it’s about family and love.

In addition to his full-band performances, Cochrane often takes his music on the road in a more intimate setting, touring as an acoustic duo with his longtime friend and bandmate Bill Bell. Recently, the pair embarked on a unique journey, traveling by a seven-seater plane from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, to perform for the residents of the small town on the shores of Hudson Bay.

“It’s very intimate. I get to tell a lot of these stories. People are all ears, and they’re so open to hearing the genesis of songs. Bill and I just have free will, we jam, and we vamp on this stuff. Sometimes I go out and I’ll talk for three or four minutes before I start the first song, which a lot of times is Big League or sometimes Ocean Blue, but I find it very cathartic for me and Billy and the audience. We’re like clairvoyant when we work together. It’s a real kind of psychic connection, and he just knows where I’m going with it.”

For the upcoming show in Windsor, Cochrane promises a blend of both worlds. “I should make the point because I was asked by a couple of people that are coming to the show in Windsor if this is going to be a duo show or with a full band. This will be with a full band, although it may be a slightly longer show because I will want to do three or four acoustic songs in the middle.”

At the age of 70, when many musicians are winding down, Cochrane’s passion for his craft remains as fervent as ever. “30 years ago, you were still trying to figure it all out and trying to establish yourself. There was a certain urgency there. Obviously, you’re at the top of your game, which I still think we are. My golf game is definitely going downhill, but my singing is getting better all the time, so why not keep doing what you’re meant to do and what you love doing? My dear old dad said to me once, ‘Tote, you’re lucky you’re making a living at your hobby, so God’s smiling on you.’ So, I try to be appreciative of that every moment I step on stage, and I love doing it. So as long as there’s people in those seats and that want to come out and hear the music, I’ll keep doing it.

Tickets are available online.

As seen in the February 2024 issue:

Feel Free to Leave a Comment