Why are Canadian songwriters the best?

Published 12/1/2014

By David McPherson

There’s a line from a songwriter friend of mine that goes, “Most of my friends have all moved on/Dollar bills have replaced their songs.” When I think of Canadian songwriters, this line resonates because most, on the contrary, don’t give up. Sure, many take another job (or two) to supplement their income, but the majority continue to toil on the unpredictable road of a professional singer-songwriter, ditches and all. Why? As another songwriter told me recently, “There’s nothing else I know how to do.” And Canadians’ lives are much richer for the gifts they give via their words and music.

We’re familiar with the greats, all SOCAN members: Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Luc Plamondon, Gordon Lightfoot, Serge Fiori, Joni Mitchell, Robert Charlebois, Gord Downie, Bachman & Cummings, Ian & Sylvia, Cuddy & Keelor and more recently, City & Colour, Tegan & Sara, Louis-Jean Cormier, Drake, Julien Mineau, Serena Ryder, Shad and deadmau5, among others. And that’s just a handful of the songwriting talent that exists in our country. Many have won JUNOs, ADISQ and SOCAN Awards, some have been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, some have even earned the Order of Canada. And for every one, there are hundreds more writing great songs. Small wonder SOCAN has more than 120,000 members.

What makes their songs so good? The pride and passion they bring to their craft. Their ability to tell our country’s story, dissect our nation’s history, or tackle the eternal mysteries of the Canadian heart and soul. I see today’s song-crafting men and women playing at various Toronto venues every night of the week, testing their work on anyone who’ll listen. A good song can give strength in times of trouble, joy in times of despair, make you linger long on the lyrics and want to sing along. There are many such quintessentially Canadian anthems: Consider Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” Robert Charlebois’ “Un Gars Ben Ordinaire,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” to name a mere few.

It’s a cliché that Canadian songwriters are attuned to nature because of the wide open spaces of our nation, but the seed of that idea is true. Those spaces, our cities, and our harsh winters and hot summers all affect the national character, making for the kind of memorable metaphors that so many Canadians can relate to. Think of Joni Mitchell’s line, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” from “River,” the vastness of the country portrayed in Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” or the snow falling on the deep silent water of Lake Ontario in Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” Has anybody captured the essence of the frozen North better than Stan Rogers in “Northwest Passage”? Or the pleasures of life in a Canadian factory town better than Stompin’ Tom Connors in “Sudbury Saturday Night”? Or the vagaries of the road back from the big city to the small hometown than The Guess Who’s “Running Back to Saskatoon”?

Canadian songwriters don’t shy away from political and protest songs, either. The examples are endless. Buffy Sainte Marie’s anti-war song “Universal Soldier,” a hit for British singer-songwriter Donovan in the ‘60s; Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which captures some of the helplessness of political action; The Tragically Hip’s “Wheat Kings,” which tells the story of David Milgaard, falsely accused of rape and murder, then freed after 20 years in prison; and K’NAAN’s “Wavin’ Flag,” an anthem of hope and inspiration for oppressed peoples.

Artists from around the globe have recorded songs penned by our talented songwriters. For example, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most covered songs in history, having been recorded more than 300 times. Lightfoot’s songs – which have won 15 SOCAN Classics Awards, among countless other accomplishments – have been covered by Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan and Bob Dylan, who’s called Lightfoot one of his favourite songwriters. Homegrown songwriters have placed innumerable songs in countless popular TV shows and movies, too.

Canada’s songwriters have also written or co-written smash hits for others, in a wide variety of genres, and our songwriters’ success on the world stage continues to grow. Take Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart,” co-written by Marc Jordan and John Capek, chosen to open the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland; Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” co-written by Thomas “Tawgs” Salter; Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” co-written by Chantal Kreviazuk, who also co-wrote – along with fellow SOCAN members Adam Messinger, and Nasri Atweh of MAGIC! – “Feel This  Moment,” a worldwide dance smash by Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera. Proud SOCAN member Stephan Moccio co-wrote one of the most successful worldwide hit songs ever, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”

Judging by the collective of writers I’ve come to know – and sometimes interview as a freelance writer for various publications, including SOCAN’s Words + Music – there’s no reason to believe our influence will wane in the years to come. On the contrary, the number of SOCAN-member songwriters and composers who received royalties from outside of Canada doubled from 2007 to 2012.

Still need proof that Canadian songwriters are the best in the world? Go to your local live music venue tonight and hear one of them perform. Listen to the music. Absorb the words. And feel lucky that we live in a country brimming with the best songwriting talent in the world.

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About David McPherson

David is President and Chief Creative Officer of McPherson Communications — a Toronto-based writing and public relations consulting business. Ever since attending his first rock concert in 1989 (The Who) and buying his first LP (Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band), music has become “the elixir of his life.” With more than 17,000 songs on his iPod, and an ever-growing vintage vinyl collection, it’s a joy for him to discover new music; he loves sharing these discoveries with his wife and two children. A regular contributor to Words + MusicHamilton Magazine, and Penguin Eggs, over the years his writing on music has also appeared in the following publications: PastePerforming SongwriterAmerican SongwriterBluegrass UnlimitedExclaimCanadian Musician, and Chartattack.com. Before starting his own business, David spent 12 years as a senior communications consultant in the public sector, specializing in employee communications.


  1. Rhonda Pisanello

    Thank you for this insightful article with a lot of great points. There are so many classic, great singer-songwriters in Canada. One singer-songwriter that you may have overlooked, though, and I felt compelled to mention, is Mr. Ray Griff. To my understanding, he has close to 500 published songs in his lifetime, and close to 2,000 written in total, some of which have been recorded by not only himself, but by greats such as Dolly Parton, just to name one. Mr. Griff now resides in Calgary Alberta. 🙂

    1. David McPherson

      Thanks for your kind words Rhonda. Always difficult to capture everyone and as a writer and music lover I’m always looking for new songwriters to discover. I was not aware of Ray Griff. Thanks for bringing him to my attention. Maybe he’s a candidate for a future story for Words + Music. I’ll have to look him up. Best, Dave

  2. Magnus Rosen

    Several interesting thoughts and observations in your post, thank you.
    As you mention that you are always looking for new songwriters to discover, have you heard of Sarah MacDougall? I think she is wonderfully talented both as songwriter and artist. http://sarahmacdougall.com/about/

    She will soon release her 3rd album and has a crowd-funding campaign going on now at Pledgemusic, so why not join in and participate. : http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/sarahmacdougall/

  3. Neville Quinlan

    Hey David! Nice article. One quick note … I don’t think that Twags co-wrote You Raise Me Up (it was written by Brendan Graham and Rolf Lovland). I know that he has a bunch of Groban co-writes, but that is not one of them. I am watching you!


  4. Duncan Kirkland

    Hi David! My name is Duncan and I am presently working on recording music domestically. 16 analogually and 2 digitally with 2 recording studios installed in my installed on my computer which I am still learning how to use. I am, and have been musically talented for about 60 years now, honing my craft mainly by learning, singing and playing a lot of cover songs. right now, I am working with a lyricist by creating and recording music to his words, and I have a partly established band who are interested in performing and recording at least one or two of our songs. Is there anything that you can think of that might be helpful to me, or to any of us. Any help would be really appreciated.

    1. Howard Druckman

      We can help you with that question! Please call our SOCAN Info Centre at 1-866-307–6226, or e-mail members@socan.ca and we’ll be glad to assist you.

  5. Mikalyn Hay

    I am a young songwriter. Moving from Northern Ontario to Guelph when I was 6. I think we have great writers here in Canada – no doubt – because we love love love music and songs. We support the arts and we have impassioned teachers that inspire and motivate us. We have crazy diversity of opinion and culture and we embrace that. We have opportunity to chase dreams and write and share and we are encouraged to do so. And we have resources – from the age of ten I have been able to search online and find supportive writers and mentors in SAC and SOCAN and other groups to help me learn. This canadian resource (us) helps people like me learn the art and the craft. I cant wait to write and share music and thanks to everyone that is helping me on this journey – including the legend you reference above!!!

    Mikalyn Hay


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