April 3, 2017 –
Every song has a story.
Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn came home to Ottawa Sunday to host what’s dubbed the “jewel of the Junos” at the National Arts Centre, bringing together established stars and up-and-comers to explore what he called the “mystery” of the craft.
“Nice to have an excuse to be back in Ottawa,” the capital-born Cockburn, 71, told the sold-out crowd at Southam Hall, which greeted him with a standing ovation before he’d sung a note.
With him for the 2017 Juno Songwriters’ Circle were nominees including Chantal Kreviazuk, Colin Linden and Wintersleep’s Paul Murphy plus the powerful singer-songwriter Donovan Woods, Acadian newcomer Lisa LeBlanc and 21-year-old R&B phenom Daniel Caesar.
“I don’t get here often enough,” Cockburn said, adding that he’d decided to perform some “old ones.”
Cockburn reached back into his catalogue to play hits like Lovers in a Dangerous Time, inspired by the “innocent and lovely” fumblings towards romance of his then pre-teen daughter, now a mother of four, amid the Cold War, AIDS crisis and environmental degradation of the 1980s.
He launched into the beautiful, menacing first bars of If I Had a Rocket Launcher after explaining its inspiration was hearing the first-hand accounts of Guatemalan refugees who’d fled savage attacks, the song’s helpless rage amplified by Linden’s haunting slide guitar.
Another classic song and Cockburn hit was born in Ottawa. It was the late 1970s and Cockburn’s cousin, then a Canadian spy, told him over a dinner in Hull that amid the skirmishes of China and Russia, they could all wake up tomorrow to the end of the world.
“This is a guy who knew what he was talking about — it kind of spoiled dessert,” Cockburn said.
But the next day,”Ottawa was still here,” and as he drove along the Queensway, Cockburn began Wondering Where the Lions Are, which became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and so familiar to his fans much of the NAC crowd sang along word for word.
Kreviazuk, nominated for Adult Contemporary Album of the Year, explained at the benefit for MusiCounts, which aims to make sure every kid gets music education, that she’d used songwriting to “find my joy and solace” since her childhood in Manitoba.
“Before there’s a song, there’s nothing,” she said, sitting at the piano before launching into her 1997 hit Surrounded. Inspired by a friend who committed suicide when they were teenagers, she said it both helped her find her life’s work and memorializes him every time she plays it.
Another song was a complete change of pace – an acoustic version of Feel This Moment, co-written by Kreviazuk and recorded by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera.
“Don’t let people tell you what to say,” was Kreviazuk’s advice to aspiring songwriters.
Lisa LeBlanc, a 26-year-old Acadian transplanted to Montreal, had clearly already taken that advice, bringing down the house with Ti-Gars, a take on her Cajun cousins’ ballads about lost love transformed into a catchy complaint about a dude stealing her car.
Then she pulled out her banjo for You Look Like Trouble (But I Guess I Do Too) which turns the romantic ballad on its head.
“My heart’s always traveled with me in my suitcase,” she sang. “And I guess I don’t wanna see it ending up in yours.”
Murphy explained that he found the band’s smash hit Amerika in the pages of a collection by 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman that echoed the themes of an otherwise “terrible” short story he’d written himself.
“It stirred something in me,” Murphy said, before launching into the song, which juxtaposes a lament for a lost country with the entreaty to “fix me in your twilight eyes so we can make a moment last.”
Big-voiced Woods, a Sarnia native who was nominated for Songwriter of the Year and has had his work recorded by the likes of Tim McGraw, had the crowd in silence for a beat before thunderous applause for What Kind of Love is That?
He got a standing ovation when he closed the show with the poignant Next Year, inspired by all the things in life we put off until it might be too late – like his narrator’s impromptu trip to the Grand Canyon with a dying father.
“There ain’t no next year,” he sang. “Another day down, another week gone, you’re always just talking about tomorrow — you can’t beg, steal or borrow or make time.”
Woods explained that he goes down to Nashville to write songs with the kind of “famous guys” who live on private islands.
“They have to bring people down to remind them what it’s like to have problems,” he quipped. “I pack my problems.”