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Tom Cochrane on the privilege of making art and the danger of fear

Tom Cochrane, pictured in August, 2014, is celebrating the 25th anniversary re-release of his Mad Mad World album.

Dustin Rabin

Life is a highway, and Tom Cochrane is in it for the long haul. The Juno-winning White Hot rocker, who's celebrating the 25th anniversary re-release of his Mad Mad World album, recently had a stretch of highway named after him in his home province of Manitoba. The Globe and Mail spoke with the singer-songwriter in a downtown Toronto office, about the lunatic fringe, about kitchen parties and about the roads he wants to ride all night long.

On my way over here to interview you, I bumped into a musician-friend of mine, Paul Reddick, who told me he played with you at a Christmas party, with drummer Gary Craig and guitarist Colin Linden. He told me your songs, even on acoustic guitar, made him want to yell and pump his fist in the air.

[Laughs.] That's so cool of him to say. Thank him for me, would you? That night left a huge impression on me. I wasn't expecting to play, but those guys do it as a natural thing over the course of the evening. Colin brings a small amp. Instruments come out. It's like a Newfoundland kitchen party. It was magical. I thought, "This is how I've got to record the next record."

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Colin Linden's a busy guy, but I'm sure he'd find some time in his calendar to work with you.

It's the first time we really played together. I sat next to him, and when you do that it's funny how you pick up on the nuances of someone's playing. I said to Colin, "I bet you love Ry Cooder." He said: "He's the best. He's my guy." But all those guys I played with that night, Johnny Diamond on bass and Gary Craig and Colin, they're great. It all sounded so honest.

I think what my friend was speaking about was the sense of uplift and triumph in your music. Something such as Life Is a Highway. But other songs – Mad Mad World and Lunatic Fringe come to mind – are darker. And those songs ring true more than ever.

History repeats itself. As soon as people feel scared or threatened, they're likely to swing one way or the other. Fear is the real enemy. But some people, you're never going to get through to them. You recognize that this person or that person is a demagogue, because you've seen it before. Sometimes when I play Lunatic Fringe, I'll tell people that freedom and democracy aren't just birthrights. They're things you have to be vigilant about.

Tell me about White Hot, which you recorded with Red Rider.

It's about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and what he traded on for success. Perhaps it wasn't what he bargained for, I don't know. He gave up writing poetry to go to Africa and run guns. For some reason he went to this dark side and didn't come back out. I find that a fascinating study. Maybe it's a warning.

A warning to yourself?

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Sure. I want to be able to call myself a professional and I want to survive to make the next record. There's that dance you always do, between what's art and what's going to affect the public enough that it's going to allow you the privilege to carry on to do your craft.

Is the dance easier at this point in your career? You have a loyal audience.

I do. And that's shocked me. There's a cycle to making a record. You write it, you produce it, you release it, you promote it, you tour it. Then you're out of work. You get this idea in your mind that you might not get to make the next record. You always hope you have those one or two songs that tweak the audience's fascination enough to allow you the privilege to continue.

You've got a national tour coming in the spring. The privilege and the road continues, right?

[Long pause.] This has been weird, actually. Celebrating my 25th anniversary is all well and good. The songs are like postcards and snapshots of people's lives. And I can appreciate that I'm closer to the end than I am the beginning. That's pretty obvious. But as an artist, you always want to be doing something new. I have to think ahead.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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