Never has an album been so aptly named as Hard Won.
John Cody, described by Grammy Award winning producer Larry Klein as “Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Prince braided in with Charles Bukowski,” is an Ottawa-born, Montreal-based formidable songwriter, who spent a good portion of his artistic life living in Los Angeles and working with stars ranging from Joni Mitchell to Keith Urban.
He’s also a fighter: the completion of the 16-song, 79-minute Hard Won occurred not only while he was battling colon cancer, an umbilical hernia, auto-immune degenerative disease, Gilbert’s syndrome and diabetes, but his most devastating illness yet: larynx cancer. When doctors told Cody he had to have an operation to remove part of his larynx, his will and determination took over. He was bent on getting Hard Won completed despite any obstacles, pain and illness be damned. “I would pretty much endure anything in service of my music,” Cody declares. “Making music makes me so happy that I don’t let it get to me. I have so much love in my life that it behooves me not to let anyone down. Plus, look at all the amazing people that I get play with that also want to play with me.”
So the 16 songs that comprise the 75-minute Hard Won – 13 self-penned compositions, three covers that include Bob Dylan’s “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” the final live performance featuring John Cody, the singer – are the result of blood, sweat, tears and toil, joy and jubilation, fermented over the past 25-years of the Canadian singer and songwriter’s asymmetrical career.
There have been triumphs – Cody playing a big role as vocal arranger on Tom Cochrane’s mega-selling hit album Mad Mad World, its #1 smash “Life Is A Highway” and co-writing “The Secret Is To Know When To Stop,” as well as co-authoring “The Fundamental Things” from multiple Grammy-winner Bonnie Raitt’s million-selling album Fundamental and “Hold On” from Holly Cole’s certified gold Dark, Dear Heart. From 1998-2004, Cody also served as music director for the famed L.A. celebrity hangout Les Deux Cafés, performing with everyone ranging from Joni Mitchell, Grace Jones, and Boy George, and performing for Sting to Robbie Robertson and Prince. And there were tribulations: his three Canada-released albums – 1993’s Zelig Belmondo, 1996’s In Darkness Visible and 2012’s Painful Righteous Bliss – were critically acclaimed, but modest sellers.
Which brings us to Hard Won, a star-studded effort that is a mixture of new and vintage, recorded in 14 studios in three countries, and one that is produced by Cody, Dan (Danno) Marnien (Joni Mitchell) and Bill Bell (Jason Mraz) with Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell,) Blake Manning and Peter Fusco. “It’s an unconventional album made in an unconventional manner for unconventional times,” is how Cody, who plays 13 instruments, ranging from dulcimer to kalimba, summarizes it. And the guest stars? A partial list includes Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Warnes, with whom he duets on “Cheers (Thanks A Lot),” co-written with acclaimed actress Sharon Stone; rocker Tom Cochrane; singers Damnhait Doyle (who duets with Cody on “You You You”); Perla Batalla (Leonard Cohen, and featured on “I Am An Open Door”) and Kate Markowitz (James Taylor, and featured on “When Something Is Wrong With You”); saxaphonist Kamasi Washington (“It’s Not That Hard” and “Not Bound To Calm Down”) and pedal steel genius Greg Leisz (“Solidarity,” “Cut To The Bone,” and “I Am An Open Door”) and many others.
The album was also completed with a lot of outside generosity – from a public crowdfunding campaign to a generous donation from Slaight Music to a contract from ole (red dot,) which enabled Cody to spend just over a month in Los Angeles mixing the album with Dan Marnien.
Marnien, who doesn’t impress easily, has nothing but praise for Cody, whom he has worked with before. “It’s a real honour to be part of it,” says Marnien. “A lot of these songs I was familiar with. Some of them were reborn again, which was really nice, because I think they actually turned out better than before. Song for song, I just think it’s a great record -it might be one of his best. I think the writing is just fantastic, and his singing is up there.” Bill Bell, one of the album’s producers and one who helped Cody navigate his way through the final Toronto recordings, also feels that Hard Won yields some of Cody’s best work. “They’re very well-crafted songs that speak of heartache and longing and love, and John has a way with his lyrics to say something in a perspective that maybe you hadn’t thought of before,” Bell notes. “I really think he’s made a great record, and I’m really proud of him.” Frank Davies, who brokered Cody’s recording and publishing deals with ole and ole red dot, said Cody’s refusal to compromise artistically shines brightly on Hard Won.
“Faced with life-altering challenges that would strike right to the heart and soul of any music creator and performer’s life, John proved once again, as he has so frequently over the past 25 years with the adversities he’s faced, what he really is: a real ‘artist’ who fights for everything and anything that might threaten his craft, his raison d’être – much as a mother would a child,” said Davies. Topics in Hard Won cover the spectrum from being in love and the act of selflessness in honouring that love, dealing with sickness, the allure of fame, the stigma of mental illness and the tragedy of losing someone close.
The colours are both light and dark, and Cody says he “learned a huge lesson from Joni before I started my second record,” that prompted him to aim for balance, no matter how controversial.
“I remember Joni asking me, ‘what do you want to be, an artist or a craftsman?’ he recalls. “‘I’ll tell you what it’s like to be an artist. You can’t care what people think about your work, even after you’re dead, but I don’t believe in art only 14 people can appreciate either. And if you make yourself a hero in a song, you have to make yourself the anti-hero too.’
“That dramatically changed the way I chose to write songs. I realized that if you want to make music that resonates with people you can’t lie.”
Listen to Hard Won and you’ll find it resonates, all right. There’s enough reality in John Cody’s world to share with everyone, and the listener will be enriched for it. Cody is still fighting his various illnesses, and while he’s confident that he will be victorious in the end, he also views Hard Won as his final vocal record.
“It was about being able to make the last statement, being able to say, ‘this is my last song, my last record.’ A chance to say, ‘Thank you.’