Gord Downie: Tragically Hip frontman, freestyling lyricist and Canadian troubadour

As the frontman for the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie's voice has provided the soundtrack for so many Canadians who came of age in the '90s, continuing to earn legions of fans as the group's sound evolved over 13 full-length studio albums.
Gord Downie, the Tragically Hip's lead singer and performer, is known not only for his quintessentially Canadian lyrics but also his energy on stage. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

As the frontman for the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie's voice has provided the soundtrack for so many Canadians who came of age in the '90s, continuing to earn legions of fans as the group's sound evolved over 13 full-length studio albums.

Downie, 52, has been diagnosed with a form of terminal brain cancer. The news came out early this morning. 

The Tragically Hip, formed by a group of high school buddies in Kingston, Ont., are seen here in 1988, a year before the band released its full-length album debut Up to Here. (Canadian Press)

He signed his first record deal in 1987, four years after he and some friends from his hometown of Kingston, Ont., formed a band out of high school.

They started out playing cover songs for the students at Queen's University. The group originally included a saxophone player who left after two years. 

Downie told CBC that his favourite of the Hip's songs is Courage. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

But the Hip — now Downie, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois — quickly vaulted into the Canadian consciousness.

According to band members, their name was inspired by a line from the 1981 movie Elephant Parts, a collection of comic and music videos produced by former Monkees member Michael Nesmith.

The Tragically Hip have won 14 Junos during their career. (Canadian Press)

The Tragically Hip debuted with a self-titled EP in 1987 and, two years later, released the full-length album Up to Here. The band's breakthrough was the 1992 album Fully Completely.

The group is among Canada's most celebrated musical acts: it has 14 Juno Awards, a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame, was honoured on a 2013 postage stamp and has played countless sold-out shows across the country over the years.

Canada Post featured the rockers on a stamp in the summer of 2013. (Canada Post/Canadian Press)

Though major success in the U.S. has been elusive, the Hip's music is considered quintessentially Canadian. Hit tracks include New Orleans is SinkingBlow at High DoughAhead by a Century, Bobcaygeon, Courage, At the Hundredth Meridian​Nautical Disaster and Wheat Kings.   

Known for his energetic stage presence, Gordon Downie performed in 2000 at a free Winnipeg concert to support children affected by wars. (Aaron Harris/AFP/Getty Images)

Downie told CBC he quit smoking in 2000 in order to improve his vocal range, to allow him to create new melodies and push the band in new directions musically. 

Subsequently, he released his first solo album, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001 as well as a companion book of poetry with the same title. 

Iconic Canadian jam: Gord Downie, left, of the Tragically Hip performed with Bruce Cockburn, centre, and Neil Young at the Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ont., in 2005. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

He loves hockey, especially the Boston Bruins, telling CBC in an earlier interview that one of his favourite childhood memories was celebrating the team's 1972 Stanley Cup victory with his brother. He would have been eight at the time.

That's influenced the direction of some of his songs; as the Tragically Hip's lyricist, he has explored some of the country's sports myths through music. 

Though his lyrics reference subjects, issues and cultural touchstones important to Canadians, Downie said in 2014 he hasn't written 'any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant ... That stuff doesn't interest me.' Downie is seen here at right performing at Live 8 with Dan Aykroyd. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

"I haven't written too many political lyrics. Conversely, nor have I written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant," Downie told The Canadian Press in 2014.

"That stuff doesn't interest me and I don't even know if I could write that if I tried, because I don't really feel it." 

In a scene from the documentary Al Purdy Was Here, the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie reads a poem by Purdy. (Purdy Pictures)

Downie is a father of four, but, after 30 years, he said his bandmates are a sort of family.

"The relationship I think about and that I talk about the most is my relationship to these guys."

The band will release its 13th studio album, Man Machine Poem, in June. (Canadian Press)

With files from the Canadian Press


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