By Phil Kloer – Atlanta Journal-Constitution
6 June 2023 – Bruce Cockburn, the Canadian singer-songwriter who has known decades of success and accolades without ever quite becoming a household name, is 78 years old and on a roll. Just ask him.
In “On a Roll,” the opening track on his new album “O Sun O Moon,” Cockburn (pronounced CO Burn), sings “Time takes its toll/ but in my mind/ I’m on a roll.”
“There are issues that didn’t used to be there. Arthritic fingers take a little more babying and fussing with to get them to work than used to be the case,” he explains, regarding the “time takes its toll” lyric.
“I don’t have the energy I had when I was younger, there’s no doubt about it.
“And yet I feel like I have a better understanding of my relationship with God,” he continues, on a roll as it were. “I also feel like everything is lighter. There are real things to worry about in the world. But the way in which we concern ourselves changes over time. The things that used to be a great source of stress now are more like shaking your head and saying ‘Well, there you go.’”
Cockburn launched his musical career in 1970, and of his more than 30 albums, 22 are Canadian gold or platinum. A member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, he is best known for his songs “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1979) and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984). His music flits from folk to pop to jazz to indigenous influences, and his lyrics range from love songs to Christian allegories to impassioned songs about political prisoners and climate change.
Cockburn’s current tour, in which he plays solo without a backup band, brings him and opener Dar Williams (another singer-songwriter, herself frequently a headliner at mid-sized venues) to Variety Playhouse June 18. Cockburn’s scheduled 2020 Atlanta concert was scrapped because of the pandemic, so the last time he played here was 2018.
Asked in a recent telephone interview why he is touring solo this time, he chuckles and chooses honesty. “I get to take home more of the money,” he says. “That’s not the only reason for doing it this way, but it counts.
“The solo experience tends to be a little bit more emotional for me,” he elaborates. “There is an exchange of personal energy between all of us in the room.”
In his eighth decade, his lyrics are pared down, but with plenty of wisdom embedded. “What will go wrong will go wrong/ What will go right will go right/ Push come to shove/ It’s all about love,” he writes in a love song to his wife, M.J.
“Orders,” one of the stronger new songs, is a take on the Golden Rule in which he lists all the people he is ordered by God to love, no matter how hard it is, including “the one we think we’re better than.”
“It took a lot of time to write that one. I don’t remember what triggered the idea. I wrote pages and pages and pages listing all the possible people we have to bite the bullet and love. Then it was whittling it down to a manageable size.”
But the biggest recurring theme is mortality.
“The whole album’s about death pretty much,” he says. “But I even feel lighter about that. Not about tragedy or pain or people dying when they shouldn’t. That’s all real and not something you can take lightly. It’s tragic when it’s a school shooting, but when its someone who has had a full life. … You have a life; you have to leave it at some point.”
He says he is comfortable pondering his own mortality. “When the moment comes, I’m probably going to be panic stricken like everyone else.” Again with the chuckle.
“But contemplating it from where I’m currently looking, it’s not that scary. It’s gonna be what it is. I have some concerns about what I’m going to encounter afterward. It could be what I imagine, or it could be nothing. But as that horizon gets closer, it just feels natural.
“My relationship with the divine is front and center in my life,” he continues. My fear, if there is a fear, is that I will come face to face with God and not recognize Him.” He drops another chuckle into the conversation. “I hope to get past that.”