An Interview with Bruce Cockburn – Mockingbird Magazine by BEN SELF
19 May 2022 – The following appears in the Success & Failure issue of The Mockingbird magazine.
Despite growing up in what he calls “a typical 1950s Canadian middle class household” in suburban Ottawa, Bruce Cockburn has done his share of wandering. He first became a star in the Canadian music scene in the early 1970s, winning the JUNO for Folksinger of the Year three years running. In 1974, he converted to Christianity and went on to release several albums with overtly religious themes. Among the best of these was In the Falling Dark (1976), which includes stirring songs of faith like “Lord of the Starfields” and “Festival of Friends.” While he never quite embraced the label of a “Christian” musician, and has often struggled with the legalism and reactionary politics of much organized religion, the push-and-pull of Christian faith has remained a central thread in Cockburn’s work and life.
Following the dissolution of his first marriage the in the late 70s, Cockburn made a conscious decision to “embrace human society” and moved to Toronto, Canada’s largest city. His musical style soon became heavier and grittier, and his lyrics darker and more politically-charged. He was also deeply impacted by his travels abroad, especially an intense Oxfam-led trip to Central America in 1983. These influences culminated in a “North-South trilogy” of albums that included the bracing hit Stealing Fire (1984), which featured two of his career’s biggest singles: “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
After an exhausting decade that ended in a period of writer’s block, Cockburn reinvented himself again in the 1990s, shifting back to more acoustic, introspective material. His output from the period included deeply meditative albums like The Charity of Night (1997), which captures the world-weary wisdom of middle-age in songs like “Pacing the Cage” and the final track “Strange Waters.” The latter, for example, functions like a grungy, latter-day psalm:
You’ve been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?
Now in his mid-seventies and settled in San Francisco, Cockburn is still asking the deep questions and watching for those “inexorable promptings” of the Spirit, or what he sometimes calls “Big Circumstance.” To the delight of his fans, he continues to tour and release new studio albums, including the soulful Bone On Bone (2017), for which he won his 13th JUNO award, and the rich instrumental album Crowing Ignites (2019). Below he shares about both his musical and his religious journeys, his complicated relationship to success, along with insights on the creative process, and much more.
Mockingbird: To get us started, I’d love to hear a bit about your musical origins. What kinds of things did you listen to growing up?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, the first music I remember being aware of was the stuff my dad used to play. When I was born, I think he thought that he would educate me, so he enrolled us in the record of the month club. Every month we got a nice classical album in the mail, and we’d have to sit and listen to it. Some of them got listened to only once, some of them more than once. But he kept them, and I was able to rediscover those records when I was older.
Anyway, later on I heard all the stuff that was on the radio at that time — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Bobby Darin — as well as the first rock-n-roll. It was listening to that first rock-n-roll when I first got really interested in music. I was a huge Elvis Presley fan.
M: Is that when you started getting into the guitar?
BC: Yeah. The explosion of rock-n-roll all started around 1956 or so, and I started playing guitar in 1959. My parents were initially concerned about the association of the guitar with rock-n-roll — and the association of rock-n-roll with leather jackets and switchblades — so they were worried. But they said, “Look, we’ll support your guitar lessons if you promise not to get a leather jacket and grow sideburns.” And it was easy to make that promise. Like, what the hell! I couldn’t even grow sideburns.
So I started taking guitar lessons, which exposed me to jazz and Les-Paul-style pop country guitar. Then I started studying composition on my own, and I eventually got more into folk music — country blues and ragtime, that kind of stuff. That period of anybody’s life tends to be so full. There’s this accumulation, this constantly shifting exposure to things, because you’re young, and you’re soaking it up like a sponge. By the time I got out of high school, I wasn’t good at anything, but I had a very well-rounded view of musical possibilities.
After that I went to music school in Boston for a year and a half, before dropping out. But I came out of that with an even broader view. By then it was the 60s, and we were listening to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. And jug band music. Anyway, all of that went into me and formed this big musical soup out of which, eventually, songs came.
M: When you first started playing in bands in the mid-60s, you were playing mostly psychedelic rock. But then your initial solo work from the early-to-mid 70s was totally different. It seemed to have a kind of earthiness and acoustic purity that, at least to me, evokes the wild spaces of eastern Canada. Does that resonate at all?
BC: Yeah, I’m glad you could hear that in the music. One of things that maybe distinguishes a lot of Canadian songwriting from American songwriting, say, or British songwriting, is that sense of space. I think you can hear it in Leonard Cohen, in Joni Mitchell, in Neil Young — it’s there even in his electric stuff, I think.
In the 70s, I was focused on the natural world and the spiritual doorway that that seems to represent. I loved the way in which one’s own spirit feels enlarged. You find yourself in a setting where human presence can be either ignored completely or just isn’t there. From my experience, the soul expands, seems to touch the spirit of the wilderness. And that was a big part of my childhood — spending summers in Algonquin Park, canoe-tripping, portaging over horrible mud patches, surrounded by that wild Precambrian shield landscape.
M: You had a conversion to Christianity around 1974, which of course showed up very prominently in your songwriting. But you once said something interesting about that time in your life: “I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian now that I’d made this move, and the first thing you try to do is to find what all the rules are, and then you try to obey them. That makes you kind of a fundamentalist… But in the end I was completely unsuccessful at being a fundamentalist.” What did you mean by that?
BC: When I first started thinking of myself as a Christian, I listened to the loudest Christians, the fundamentalists. I mean, I’d gone to a very bland United Church for a while growing up — the sort where you have to put on your scratchy gray flannels, you know — but that hadn’t made a big impression on me. So now here I was in the mid-70s, calling myself a Christian, and I thought: I’m supposed to figure out what that means, and how to be a Christian in the world. And the loudest voices were the ones on TV.
So I started listening to Ernest Angley and the Bakkers and these other TV evangelists, and I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I wasn’t successful. The version of Christianity that they were presenting was just ridiculous. It didn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny that I could bring to it, emotional or intellectual. And there were other voices that were a little more subtle but in the end weren’t much better.
I’d buy these books that were by highly-reputed Christian writers or whatever, and you’d get all this BS. There was this one guy who kept going on about how minor key music should be banned because it makes people depressed. I mean, give me a break! That has nothing to do with Jesus. Sounds more like Hitler.
So it didn’t take very long for me to lose interest in that stuff. But even a decade later, I would still occasionally watch the TV guys, thinking there might be something there — that maybe I’m supposed to watch this today, maybe there’s something in there for me. Because I do think that things work like that. Quite often the things we’re exposed to have some purpose to them — it’s what I called “Big Circumstance” later on — where it’s not random but it’s not exactly preordained, either. It’s like the whole cosmos is this kind of jigsaw flux and you’re in it, and you’re moving in it. I’m not even sure what it is. You could call it the “will of God,” but it might not be that simple.
But anyway, once in a while I would watch the TV evangelists. Actually, occasionally I still do, if I’m in a hotel somewhere, you know, and I turn on the TV and on comes one of these characters, I might listen to them to see if there’s anything there. Generally there isn’t, but once in a while there is. Once in a while something turns up that’s valuable.
At one point in the 70s or 80s, I saw a very skeptical — you could say cynical — Canadian TV journalist interview Mother Teresa, and it was unbelievably great. Mother Teresa burned off the screen. She just was so absolutely real and free of any kind of pretense. It was an impressive thing to witness. I don’t remember what she said, but the way she came across made a big impression. Those kinds of things happen.
In the end though, my flirtation with that stuff turned out to be just that. I realized, well, these televangelists don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they do, but they’re not really communicating the part that’s true about what they know. They’re communicating “send me money” and all kinds of other stuff. So through the 80s I still thought of myself as a Christian, but I was less and less inclined to go to church.
When I moved to Toronto at the end of the 70s, I never found a church that I felt at home in. And I found myself mostly among people who were not believers, because I’d decided it was time for me to embrace human society in a way that I had not previously done; and in the 80s, humanity replaced nature as my focus. I mean, I still had the connection to nature, but as a source of energy and an avenue of spiritual expression, people became more the scene for me.
I got involved in the kinds of supposedly “political” stuff people say I got involved in — and I wrote songs about those things. That shift was natural; it wasn’t planned. Moving to Toronto and embracing human society was a deliberate choice, but after that, everything just flowed.
M: For people who are new converts, I think there’s often this sense that you have to live up to some strict Christian standard and follow all the rules, which can be very self-defeating. Did you feel that way — like a failed Christian?
BC: I certainly did at times, and I still do, I think. Not severely. I’m sure other people have felt it worse. But I don’t pay nearly enough attention on a day-to-day basis to my relationship with God. I talk about it a fair amount, but I don’t do much about it. But then, once in a while, I do do something about it, and I’m reminded that it exists, and that it’s really happening. And it feels pretty darn good when that happens. But, interestingly, one of the first tests of that for me came when I got divorced. A lot of stuff on the Humans album (1980) is about that.
M: Like the song “Fascist Architecture”?
BC: Well, yeah, “Fascist Architecture” and “What About the Bond.” Those are kind of break up songs. But they’re also liberation songs. I was working through a bunch of unexamined assumptions. Like: we got married in the presence of God, made promises in the presence of God, and we were breaking those promises. What did that mean? Turned out God seemed more interested in us growing as people, and we hadn’t been doing that together. I think both of us have done a lot of growing since then.
M: Did you feel wracked with guilt, though?
BC: Yeah. But I think guilt is an excuse for not feeling like a failure. It’s easier to look at the guilt than at the failure — at what should I have done differently? Where do I go next? I mean, guilt is a kind of demonic implant that gets in the way of taking that next step with a clear mind. So I think guilt is to be resisted, unless of course you’re genuinely guilty of some heinous crime. That’s different. We’re talking about spiritual or emotional stuff here.
M: Does faith help with guilt and shame?
BC: It’s supposed to. I mean, Jesus kind of says that. Like, I’m here for you. You’re never going to get it right, but I did, so lean on me. That, to me, is something that a lot of the church — the body of Christ — doesn’t pay attention to. There’s so much shaming.
But the message of Jesus is like a hammock you can relax into. It’s love and forgiveness. And it’s not just the Christian part of the Bible that talks about that — the Old Testament talks about love and forbearance; it runs right through. But Jesus exemplifies it in so many ways and makes it so clear, yet people still miss the message.
M: In the late 70s and early 80s you had some breakthrough hits that garnered you acclaim well beyond Canada; at one point you even played on Saturday Night Live. What were the blessings and the curses that came with that kind of success?
BC: It came about in a strange way. “Wondering Where the Lions Are” was the first actual national hit I had in Canada, and it got a lot of airplay in the United States — it was on the Billboard charts, and that’s what we ended up doing on SNL. But the song that people remember more than that one was “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” which came around 4-5 years later. It wasn’t as big a hit, but that’s still the one that made a bigger impression, which is odd because that one isn’t really a typical Cockburn song at all. It was such an anomaly.
In the United States people didn’t know my history. I had a relationship with Canadian audiences, but I didn’t have that relationship with the American audience, and so I got labeled a “political” singer because of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” I mean, yeah okay, that political message is in there, but I don’t like to be categorized, and I don’t like pinning down things that don’t need to be pinned down. Early on in Canada, after my first three albums, I was getting typecast as a nature guy, and I resented that. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” did the same thing later on in a different direction. I don’t like being called a “Christian” singer, either, even though that’s true. But I don’t want my audience to only be Christians who only listen to Christian singers.
I’ve tried so hard not to have an image, and maybe I made more of it than I needed to. I didn’t want to be a “star,” because that’s a falsehood. It’s a public construct. I wanted to be me. So I went out of my way to avoid all sorts of things that I thought might lead to the creation of the “star” construct. And I was fairly successful at that, except that I got the image of being a guy who went out of his way to avoid having an image. So, that became its own kind of trap. And the lesson there was: well, you can’t avoid this. As soon as you stand up in public and do anything, that process begins. And the more you do, the more it happens.
But the success I had also came with a lot of perks. There was more money, more gigs, better traveling and working conditions. You know, all that stuff came to me, and because of the public visibility that went with that, I got invited to do lots of interesting things — like go to Nicaragua and Nepal and other places where stuff was going on that was meaningful to me. In some cases, it provided material for songs — I mean, that’s not why I went to those places, but it was a side effect of being there, and it certainly deepened my understanding of people and how people work and what we’re capable of, in all directions.
M: In the late 80s, if I’m not mistaken, you experienced a period of writer’s block. What do you think caused that?
BC: Burnout. That’s what I felt at the time. I went for about a year and a half where I didn’t write anything — I didn’t have any ideas, or any motivation. I had the desire to write but nothing making it happen. And for half of ’88 and all of ’89 I felt like that. And I thought, this has been a decade of such intense travel for me, and travel in some places where there’s a lot of pain, and even though it wasn’t my pain, you still soak up some of it. And I just felt like I needed a break.
But my actual first thought was, “Well, this is the end. I’ve got to think of something new to do, because there are no more songs coming.” I thought about enrolling in art school, because I’ve always liked graphic novels, and I had some drawing chops when I was a little kid. But then I decided that before I did anything too radical, I should just take a rest and step away from it all.
So I declared myself on sabbatical for the year 1990, and you know, my sabbatical hadn’t even started yet when I started writing songs again. For Christmas, my then-girlfriend and I and my older daughter — who was 14 then — we went to a dude ranch in Arizona. It was a magical experience in lots of ways, but sitting there I wrote “Child of the Wind.” And all it took for the creative process to start again was the declaration to myself that I was free from whatever encumbrances I thought I had. And it came back. And on I went.
I wrote the songs that are on Nothing but a Burning Light (1991) through that period. And I ended up having a lot of fun on my year off. Riding horses and shooting — that’s mostly what I did. But I did a lot of playing music for myself, too, with no ulterior motive.
M: I listened to a recent podcast you did with Les Stroud and one of the things you guys talked about was the nature of creativity. You said you felt like some of your creative impulses basically come from God — that God is involved in the process, always “stirring the pot.” In crafting songs, what is the relationship for you between grace and effort?
BC: Hmm. First the grace, then the effort. And the effort is more like translation, in a way; it’s analogous to that at least. It’s a question of taking that initial idea — which is a gift, I find — and then kind of wrestling it into something that makes sense musically and lyrically, and will be as compelling as it can be for whoever hears it.
M: It sounds like Jacob wrestling the angel of God in the night.
BC: Haha — a little bit like that. Except you come away with something that might be a win.
M: Not a busted hip.
BC: Yeah. It’s a little bit hard to articulate. But the feeling is in the heart. And the process varies from song to song. Some songs require much more labor and some songs not so much. Sometimes a single idea will trigger an immediate flow of associations that shape themselves into a song, and other times that single idea will have to sit around for a while before you find something to connect it to, to develop it.
And some of these things I don’t look at too hard — I don’t try to imagine what God might want from these things. In certain songs, it might seem obvious, but other songs are just songs. They’re reflective of my life in various ways, of various attitudes and so on.
M: That’s interesting. What happens if the song-writing process doesn’t go well?
BC: Even if I fail to get a good song out of what should have been a good idea, I don’t really see it as failure as much as just a blind trail, a false start. Because if it’s a real thing, it will come back around at some point.
I’ve never put much pressure on myself to produce. But I sometimes feel a visceral need to write. And when I don’t write for a long time, then I feel frustrated and kind of constipated, and it’s a great relief when stuff starts to come. For me, the control, and how “well” I do with a given idea, is all beside the point.
One other thing I notice in myself is a desire not to repeat myself. I don’t try to duplicate the songs that were “successful.” I am aware of certain things that I can put in a song that are going to make it more or less appealing to people, and those are creative choices to be made. But you see it all the time — certain artists who make one great record and then try to do the same record again, and it’s just not a good idea, you know?
M: In 2013, you started regularly attending a church again for the first time in several decades. How did that come about?
BC: It’s interesting, you know. It was one of those inexorable promptings. It was “Big Circumstance” at work. But it started with a tragedy. Sadly, a neighbor of ours that my wife was quite friendly with died in a house fire. That pushed her into looking for the meaning behind things like that, and looking in the direction of God for some understanding.
I have my own experiences and thoughts about that sort of thing, but you know we weren’t churchgoers then. I hadn’t thought of myself as a churchgoer for decades, and neither had she. But in the course of that search on her part, she discovered the San Francisco Lighthouse Church. And she kept inviting me to come with her — you know, like, “You gotta come check this out, the pastor’s really great, and there’s great music.”
M: Great music always helps.
BC: Yeah, but I resisted it for quite a while, and then I finally caved and went, and I just kept going after that. It was like, the minute I walked in I felt surrounded by love. And that’s something you don’t want to pass up.
M: For many people, these have been pretty dark and stressful times — with the pandemic, environmental crises, all kinds of intense political and social stuff. So in times like these, what gives you hope?
BC: Well, my relationship with God doesn’t depend on any of that stuff you mentioned. Of course, you can be distracted by external things of whatever sort, but really, if that relationship is where you’re focused, then the other stuff is tolerable in one way or another.
But, I mean, there’s still lots to worry about. We’re confronted with all sorts of precarious tipping points around us. We’ve got to be really careful where we step — as a culture, as individuals, even as a species. And it’s not clear to me that those steps are going to be taken the way they need to be. But that said, as individuals, we still have that relationship with the divine to keep us focused.
M: And free?
BC: Free! Yes. I mean, that’s real freedom. Never mind protesting about mask mandates or whatever. If you think your freedom is really about not wearing a mask, you’re already screwed.
M: Right. I love that line from one of the new songs you posted online recently: “Time takes its toll, but in my soul I’m on a roll.”
BC: I felt good about that line. But you know, it’s an old guy writing that song.
M: That’s true. Old and wise.