November 7, 2019
by Mike Devlin
Bruce Cockburn is no different than other writers who make their living through music. Some new compositions sit around for years, such as Gifts, which was written in 1968 but didn’t appear on an album by Cockburn until 2011’s Small Source of Comfort. Others spend considerably less time on the shelf.
Making music is an interesting process for the 13-time Juno Award winner, who always seems to be flipping between the past and present, deeply adverse to the idea of stasis. He could have taken an easy route when making his latest recording, Crowing Ignites. He could have settled into an easy groove for his 26th studio album. But he chose to push forward into another phase of his career, one of the most illustrious in Canadian music. What emerged were 11 new instrumental compositions that find Cockburn still exploring the outer acres of his very capable, very esteemed guitar talents.
“Our original plan for this album was to make Speechless 2, because there’s a whole album left over from pieces we didn’t use,” Cockburn said of Crowing Ignites, the second instrumental album of his career after 2005’s Speechless. “We could have made a pretty nice album out of that, but I ended up with so much new stuff it took on its own life.”
The songs on Crowing Ignites say plenty, even though they don’t have words.
The new song Sweetness and Light was written on a particularly positive day, Cockburn said; the title simply reflected what he was feeling at the time. Easter was written on the holiday of the same name, while April in Memphis was written, on Martin Luther King Day, in reference to the anniversary of King’s death. Naming songs is never difficult, especially when lyrics are involved. But with an instrumental album, the task is more of an abstract exercise, he said with a laugh.
“There is an element of pointing at ideas or notions in the title-giving stage, but the music is just the music. The issue of ‘saying something’ comes into it not so much in the inventing of the music, because what I want to say is the music itself. But you have to give these pieces titles, otherwise you’re stuck with Opus Such and Such. I don’t care for that approach.”
Cockburn, 74, is ending a brief break from the road (spent at home in San Francisco, with his wife and daughter) with a string of dates to support Crowing Ignites. He’ll be joined for his nearly sold-out show at the Royal Theatre on Friday by his nephew, John Aaron Cockburn, on accordion and guitar. Cockburn enlists his full band when the shows call for sonic sophistication, but he’s enjoying the understated approach the duo set-up provides. “For this time period and the nature of the album — it’s basically just a bunch of solo guitar — it didn’t seem appropriate to celebrate that album with a band, particularly.”
Shows on his Canadian run won’t be heavily focused on the new album, and the new songs he is committed to doing will be presented in a redesigned manner, Cockburn said. “A piece called Blind Willie, for instance, where Colin Linden plays a great slide guitar part on the album, will be done by John Aaron on the accordion. They will have a different feel, but they give you the same kind of rootsy energy that the recorded version has.”
That Cockburn chose to make an album with no lyrics at a time when he could have said something powerful was a curious decision. Long outspoken, on topics ranging from Christianity and environmental disaster to war, many expected him to offer his eloquence on climates both political and personal. He never felt pressure to add his voice to chorus, however, which at this point in his career should go without saying. Of the songwriters working today, Cockburn — who recently offered his thoughts about the environment on False River, a song from 2017’s Bone on Bone — is as credentialled as anyone, and has nothing to prove in 2019.
“I haven’t felt motivated to add to the clamour,” he said. “Everybody who listens to me, or takes me seriously, knows what we’re dealing with here, and would agree with me on what I’d say about Donald Trump, et cetera. Donald Trump gets more attention than he deserves as it is, he doesn’t need help from me in that regard.
“It’s not like I’ve been silent on that stuff. People are wondering: ‘Why an instrumental album now?’ But I don’t think it’s a meaningful issue, that I did an instrumental album now. I could have done it at any time. It wasn’t a case of: ‘Jeez, I don’t want to talk about this now or talk about that now.’ There’s lots to talk about, but there’s also lots of talking going on, and nobody is really paying attention to what is being said.”
Credit: Times Colonist