“I Don’t Want to Stop”: Bruce Cockburn, 78, on Touring, Family and Why Older People Should Go to Concerts


Bruce Cockburn  photo by Nathan Denette

May 23, 2024 – Bruce Cockburn has been touring regularly since releasing his 27th studio album, O Sun O Moon, last year, and the legendary 78-year-old Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t want to stop. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to,” he notes during a recent phone interview.

The outspoken political and environmental activist, known for such hits as Wondering Where the Lions Are, Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If a Tree Falls kicks off a run of 10 Canadian dates on May 24 in Lindsay, Ont. In November, he’ll head out on another U.S. leg.

The Ottawa native, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and 12-year-old daughter – he has a grown daughter from his first marriage – has been releasing albums since his 1970 self-titled debut. Along the way, he has amassed 22 gold and platinum records, including a 1993 holiday album, Christmas, that went 6x platinum, not to mention a myriad of other accolades and recognition.

With that sort of resumé, he’s been inducted into Canada’s top halls: the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canada’s Walk of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was invested a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983 and promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003, and presented with Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 1998. He also has 13 Juno Awards, the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He was even featured on a postage stamp.

Bruce Cockburn - Walk of Fame - Hometown Star
Bruce Cockburn Walk of Fame Hometown Star

This summer, he will receive yet another academic award, this time an Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree on June 14 from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. and, on July 7, will be inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame during the fabled folk music festival in Orillia.

But before that, Bruce Cockburn spoke with Zoomer about life on the road in your 70s, why older people shouldn’t dismiss the live concert experience, what Mick Jagger does on tour that he doesn’t, and why he won’t retire.

KAREN BLISS: Mick Jagger posts photos of himself on his Instagram during tours, where he visits local sites and even the occasional bar. Do you find time to do that when touring?

BRUCE COCKBURN: I was more like that in the 70s, when the pace of the work was much lower. You could do a cross-Canada tour, and it would be 12 shows, especially the early half of the 70s, we just drove ourselves around. So you could play Winnipeg and then take a month to get to Saskatoon. Winnipeg would pay for your life during that month, so back then, there was all kinds of time for exploring and having adventures. But at this point, to make it economically feasible, we have to work pretty steadily. That, combined with age [laughs]. I don’t have the energy to go wandering around now. I have to save it all for the show. But by doing that, I’m able to do the shows the way I think I should.

KB: In other careers, people often work in order to retire. In the music business, there are so many artists still touring in their 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s a fascinating art form and job because creatively, it’s solitary, but you need to share it to connect.

BC: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. But, it’s also a factor that the people who are working toward retirement are probably expecting a pension. We ain’t [laughs]. We’re not getting that. Musicians, athletes, anybody remotely connected to entertainment, unless you become rich enough that it doesn’t matter – which some people do, of course – there’s an incentive to keep working because you keep getting paid.

But you’re right about what you said, though. Nonetheless, I don’t want to stop. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I guess, technically I could, but my family and I would have to make some different plans. But I just see myself going until I drop, incapacitated, which could happen easily. I mean, at this this point in anyone’s life, you don’t know what body part’s going to give out [laughs]. Then I’m going to be retiring.

KB: Are you meeting fans on this round that tell you stories about what your music has meant to them?

BC: I haven’t been doing that so much lately, but before COVID I was going out to the merch table and signing stuff. I had a lot of conversations. I did that for years. But COVID put an end to that. When we started having shows again after COVID, after the shutdown, it seemed too risky to be shaking all these hands. And then, I just never got back into it. I do slightly miss that – not enough to start doing it again at the moment – but it was nice to hear some of the stories … Sometimes people had really touching stories of how the music had affected them or sometimes people were just so enthusiastic that it made you feel happy to meet them.

KB: I’m sure there are a lot of Zoomer readers who don’t go to concerts anymore. What would you say to them in terms of that connection you get from experiencing live music?

BC: If you like listening to music in the comfort of your living room, that’s fine. And if you have a good sound system, it can be a rich musical experience. But it’s not the same as being in a room full of people, sharing the time and space through the music. There’s a sense of community that develops. It includes me and the audience. It’s one of the things that makes me want to keep doing it, that feeling of everybody coming together, in effect, celebrating our existence. And I think people should give themselves a chance to experience that, if they can. I mean, some of us old folks don’t get out so much and it’s just hard work to do it. So there’s a reason why we don’t go out. But if it sounds appealing at all, it’s worth the effort.

KB: You have a young daughter. Does she appreciate what you do?

BC: Yeah, she does. She likes coming to my shows. She’s 12. She’s been coming to my concerts since she was two months old. So she’s very familiar with what a show is like backstage, front stage – the whole scene.

KB: When she does come on the road with you, I guess that’s an opportunity for you to do things in cities that you wouldn’t normally do, like find a great ice cream shop or check out a waterpark?

BC: No, we have a friend named Celia Shacklett, who is a children’s entertainer that lives in St. Louis. Celia and I have been friends since the late ’80s. She’s a free spirit and a freelancer. When we first started to bring [my daughter] on the road when was a baby, we got Celia to come along and help with her. So Iona grew up with our friend Celia. And when Iona comes on the road, one of the attractions is we try to get Celia to come on the road too and they get to hang out. I mean, Iona doesn’t need that kind of looking after now, but they’re such close friends so they go to libraries, they go to museums, they go to the toy stores, whatever’s around. But I don’t get to do that because my days are filled.

KB: You’ve got the soundcheck, press, sleep.

BC: Exactly.

KB: In two years, you will be turning 80. Do you have a plan of how you want to celebrate?

BC: Yeah, my wife’s gonna turn 50 and I’m gonna turn 80 within a couple months of each other. So I don’t know, we’re gonna cook up something.

Visit Bruce Cockburn’s website for tour dates and information.



Bruce Cockburn: A Career in Review and the Future Sound of Music

By Karen Bliss

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bruce Cockburn—inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017—has written hundreds of songs spanning 27 studio albums over a 50-plus year career, amassing 22 gold and platinum records, including 6x platinum for his 1993 Christmas album. His self-titled debut album came out in 1970, on the label his long-time manager Bernie Finkelstein’s created, True North Records.

An outspoken political activist and humanitarian with a firm stance against warmongering and environmental decay, the Ottawa native is known for such hits as “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “If a Tree Falls.” Still writing songs that are relevant and true, at 78-years-old he is still a workhorse. Last year, he dropped the stellar album, O Sun O Moon—produced by Colin Linden—and has since been touring extensively in Canada, the U.S. and overseas.

In between show dates, he will pick up another Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree on June 14 from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and on July 7 will be inducted into Mariposa Hall of Fame during the folk music festival in Orillia.

He has already been inducted into Canada’s top halls: the aforementioned CSHF, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (aired during the JUNO Awards) and Canada’s Walk of Fame. He was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983 and promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003. Later in 1998, he was presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. Bruce has also earned 13 JUNO Awards, the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He was even featured on a postage stamp in 2011.

Cockburn, who lives in San Francisco, talked with the CSHF during his recent U.S. leg. He starts a run of Canadian dates on May 24.

You have toured everywhere. When you put together a tour these days, do you try to include places you’ve never been or space them out so you can visit a museum or a place you enjoy?
[laughs]. It’s not very romantic. Basically, Bernie calls the booking. Where can we do it that’s practical and that we haven’t been to most recently? That’s the main concern when you’re looking at a geographical area. Sometimes, it comes out of a promoter making an offer somewhere, like if we got a good offer to play a festival in England, then we would try to find other shows in England to put around it. But, for touring around North America, right now we’re booking for next March and putting on a tour on the West Coast.

What do you remember most fondly about the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, the same year as Neil Young, at Massey Hall?
I remember most of it. I think William Prince and Elisapie doing “Stolen Land” was a wonderful thing. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s introduction of me was fantastic. I was so touched by that. She just said great stuff. It was smart and right on the money, as far as I was concerned. So, that’s what I remember most.

And I also remember being slightly shocked by the fact that Neil came with Daryl Hannah, his current partner. I had met Daryl back in the ’80s when she and Jackson Browne were together. I went to an event at their house in L.A. Daryl Hannah, all these years later looked exactly the same as she did when I met her the first time, which was like, “How did you do that?” You know, we know how it gets done by some people [laughs].

She has very good genes, that’s for sure.
Having seen her in the movies, like Kill Bill, where she actually does look older in those movies. But there at Massey Hall, she looked exactly the same as when she answered the door when I went to their house. And, it was kind of like, “What are you, a vampire?” But Neil, of course, I don’t know him well, but we’ve been acquainted for a long, long time and he and I both look our ages. But Daryl didn’t. Those are memorable moments.

You said something at the induction about your long-time manager Bernie: “In a world increasingly defined by its fakery, we together have pulled off the greatest trick ever—we spread truth.” Do you remember writing that in your speech?
Yeah, vaguely, yeah.

Do you remember what you meant by that? The “we spread truth” part?
Bernie’s a businessman; I’m an artist and the relationship we have is symbiotic. Bernie still manages me because he loves the music. And he’s proud of it. I do it because I love the music. I like getting paid, of course. But I don’t do it for the money. I’d be doing it if I weren’t getting paid.

Okay, it sounds a little grandiose, put it this way: I want my songs to be truthful. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fictional. It’s the same way you can put truth in a novel.

You can put truth in any kind of song, but they need to have an emotional truth. And, when facts are cited, like I said, it can be distorted in a fictionalized way, but, in general, I’m trying to tell some kind of truth. I’m trying to tell my spiritual truth, trying to leave a record of my journey through life that may be of use to someone, or may not, but if I don’t put it out there, it won’t be of use to anybody.

So that’s why I do this. And, to me, it’s all about truth in the biggest sense with a capital “T.” I might exaggerate something or diminish something else, for the benefit of making a song entertaining and interesting, but it has to come from a real place inside me. And that’s what I have to share. Without that, there’d be no point in doing it. Without that, I would be doing it for the money. And so that’s why I called it “truth.”

Working with Bernie this long, that is rare in business. Is there something you can point to that has been the key to how you have been able to work together all these years, through all life’s ups and downs?
Well, I think the point one is it’s always worked. So, why mess was a good thing? But, also, like any relationship, it’s required patience and tolerance and forbearance, on both our parts, and the ability to step back the frustrations that come with dealing with anybody over time. So far, we’ve been able to do that. We’ll probably be able to continue.

Would you consider selling your catalogue the way a lot of your peers have been doing? Gives you cash in the bank and songs are complicated for your estate, your family.
I did do that. When I became a legal resident of the U.S., for tax reasons, it didn’t make sense. The advice I got from my accountant was don’t own a corporation in Canada and live in the United States. So I sold it. That’s going back now at least 12 years.

You were ahead of what’s turned into a trend with legacy songwriters. Neil, Dylan, Springsteen, so many.
Those guys are doing it because they get so much money. And yes, it simplifies their estate dealings, I guess. But, for me, it was a practical decision that I would have preferred not to do, actually, because I like the idea of having control over what happens to the songs. But, at the same time, and it’s not a total picture, because I have a publishing company that owns the songs that I’ve written since a deal was made.

So, there’ll still be those considerations when I croak, family will have to deal with, but you can’t avoid it anyway unless your economic life is so simple. But, for most of us, it isn’t because of the tax department [laughs]. It’s always complicated. There’s always stuff like that to deal with that you have to try to head off. I mean, we think about that stuff and have tried to make plans that won’t be too difficult to deal with.

As an activist and largely a socio-political songwriter, we have seen young people protesting for tighter gun control, women’s rights, and recently setting up pro-Palestinian encampments at universities, and yet popular music, the songs topping the charts, doesn’t reflect that. Do you think young people’s interest in substantive issues might start seeping into music?
I don’t have much of a sense of what college-age people are listening to. But we’ve seen all this before. In the ’60s, when the Vietnam War was on, especially in the States—there were protests in Canada, too, not necessarily against the war, it was just a thing that people did in fashion, in a way, to have these kinds of events. I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness of it by calling it a fashion, but these things kind of seem to go in waves or phases. And back then, people were killed at demonstrations because they called out the troops, and the troops did what troops do. This is that pendulum swinging back that way again, with different kinds of provocation and different circumstances and slightly different cause, although not radically different, but still the result of U.S. involvement in other people’s affairs.

It will be interesting to see if that starts getting reflected in music.
I think it will. I mean, it’s always been there in rap music. Rap music is hugely popular. Not all rappers do it, but lots of them do take on issues in their music in their material.

So, even if it’s passing references, along with the boasting and whatever else, there’s frequently commentary on whatever’s going on around them. That’s basically what we’re talking about with respect to the demonstrations. So, I’ve got a feeling that it will show up, that we’ll probably see more of it before it’s over.

At this point, it’s hard to know how people respond. I’m not in touch with that. If I were to be a songwriter now, starting out, I’d probably be sitting in my bedroom, looking at my computer and figuring out what to do with that and writing songs.


Waiting for That Gift: A conversation on inspiration with singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn

May 2, 2024

Bruce Cockburn 2023 - photo Keebler
Photo of Bruce Cockburn by Daniel Keebler

Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian guitar player, songwriter, and activist who has traveled the world as a “musical correspondent” to document tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit. With a list of accolades and awards about a mile long, he is renowned and respected for his “cinematic” style of songwriting. He has released more than 35 albums over the course of his career spanning 50+ years.

The last time Bruce Cockburn came to St. Louis in October 2018, he sold out the joint. In the intervening years, he’s added two more original albums to his catalog, including his most recent work, O Sun O Moon, released in 2023, in which he continues sharing observations of the human experience: relationships, spirituality, politics, and wonder. He returns to Delmar Hall on May 7.

We had the honor of speaking with Bruce Cockburn from his Canadian home as he returned from the European leg of his 2024 international tour.

The Arts STL: Well, I’m so glad to have this opportunity. I was introduced to your music a very long time ago by my then-boyfriend, who’s now my husband. We were like 13 at the time, and he made me a mixtape that included a lot of music he got from his father. Songs like “Hoop Dancer” and “Rose Above the Sky” and “Tokyo” were some of the first songs of yours that I got introduced to, by my husband’s little 13-year-old poetic soul, which just melted my heart and has been with me ever since. So to have this opportunity was something I absolutely could not pass up. Thank you so much for making the time! Thanks for continuing to make all this amazing music over the years! And thanks for coming to St. Louis next month.

Bruce Cockburn: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. And you guys were ahead of the curve in the US. With those particular albums and songs and whatnot. Things were just starting to get rolling in the US at that point.

Can I ask, are those songs that I could ever anticipate hearing on tour?

BC: Actually, “The Rose Above the Sky” I have actually done a little bit lately. Not in every show. It’s one that, for me, I always have the dilemma, when I’m planning a show, knowing that there’s only so many long, slow songs you can put in. You know, you gotta have some energy in the show, too. So, that one kind of just got ignored for a long time, and I didn’t think about it too much. Then, when people started asking for it, and [it] came up in conversation so many times recently, that I started learning to do it again.

How does it feel to revisit those songs you haven’t played or had those words coming out of your mouth in so many years?

BC: It kind of varies. On the one hand, it’s interesting to revisit the songs like, ‘Does it still mean the same thing? What did I mean by that?’ A song like that—all the songs, really, take me back to where I was when I wrote them. Kind of like looking at a photo album of old photographs. So, I have mixed feelings about it generally. Because it’s a song that has pain in it. That’s there. It’s also fun to kind of go back and figure out how to do the damn thing. There’s a lot of guitar parts I don’t think I’d be able to figure out, having forgotten what they were. I guess, given enough time, I might be able to, but some of them were fairly complicated. That one wasn’t too bad, but some of them are quite challenging.

Would you ever consider having a pinch guitar player? We recently saw Elvis Costello and there were a couple of times where he said, “You know what, I want to play this song, we’ve got the full band, so I’m gonna let somebody else take over the guitar work on this, because it’s just not as familiar to me anymore.”

BC: No, I’ve never done that. I have occasionally reworked guitar parts. There were songs, some of the stuff from the mid-‘80s, where the bands were big and the guitar parts were shrunken, to accommodate all the different instruments—to figure out solo versions of those songs. A song like “See How I Miss You” or “World of Wonders,” those I had to invent new guitar parts for, because the original ones were designed to be part of a big band.

In other cases more recently, because I’ve got arthritic hands, I’ve had to rework the guitar parts in some quite familiar songs that I have played a lot, just because it’s become too difficult to play them properly. I mean, I can kind of hack my way through “Pacing the Cage,” for instance. I’ve just now relearned that, or reworked it, rather. Because I hadn’t forgotten the song, but the original way of playing it was not available to me anymore. There’s a few songs like that, that I’ve had to rework. And that’s also fun, actually, because it’s kind of a challenging exercise: how do I get the same feel and keep the same relationship between the guitar and the melody, and do it a different way?

What are the important pieces to keep? What is essential?

BC: Exactly. The guitar parts are essentially, except for some of those ones in the ‘80s, they’re basically compositions that are designed to go with those lyrics and that melody. It’s not quite like writing a whole song to come up with a different guitar part, but it’s a little bit in that direction. Trying to keep the same sense of what the composition is, and play it a different way, can be a little tricky. But that said, it’s been working with a few songs that I’ve had to do that with. Most of the stuff is not a problem because, you know, they do what I want them to do. But with some it has presented that issue.

What has been your response or your reaction to cover songs? Or other versions? Does it feel like they capture the same pieces that are important to you? Or maybe pick up on a different piece that wasn’t your emphasis but was more critical in their interpretation?

BC: Yeah, once in a while, it seems like somebody actually got the song. Most of the time, it doesn’t really seem like that to me. I mean, I respect the fact that everybody is going to do their own take on the songs. That’s what they should do. But sometimes it feels to me like they didn’t really understand what it was that they were doing, what the song was.

Other times, it works great. When Jimmy Buffett died, my wife started playing a whole bunch of Jimmy Buffett stuff, including five songs of mine that he did. And there’s a duet with Nancy Griffith of a song called “Someone I Used to Love,” another slow song, that I do too many of in a show. They did a beautiful version of it that really captures exactly what it should be. And yet, it’s clearly them doing it. Judy Collins did “Pacing the Cage,” and that worked great. Other people… sometimes… you know, it might be an age thing, maybe I’m not sure. I just thought of this, because the two examples I gave are both mature people looking at songs from a perspective of having had a life. And some of the younger artists that record the songs, I’m not sure that they actually know what they’re about. But that’s a sweeping generalization. And it’s probably unfair to a whole lot of people. There are many, many recordings of my songs that I haven’t heard, too. So, nobody should think I’m picking on them in particular.

That must be exciting to hear so many different versions and perspectives reflected back to you.

BC: There was a Toronto guitar player, Michael Occhipinti, [who] recorded a whole album of my stuff, and it was completely deconstructed and made into jazz, and it’s really good. And it was really interesting to hear that take. There’s no lyrics, it’s just the music, but the version of “Where the Lions Are” is pretty amazing. And who would have guessed that you could take it in that direction? Certainly not me. So, there’s that side of it, too. It’s not a question of how much they mess with the song. Unless they don’t mess with it in a respectful way, or, rather, unless they mess with it in a way that isn’t respectful, or it just doesn’t sound like it gets it.

I’m gonna have to look for that. That sounds amazing. Do you have any role models or any folks that you’ve looked to for the way they’ve advanced their career or approached their music over time? Like, “That’s the way to do it. They did it right. That’s how I want to do it.”

BC: No, I don’t think of it that way. There’s been many people who’ve influenced what I do over the years, dozens at least, but some major ones back when I was getting started and just trying to understand what music was all about… There were guitar players: Wes Montgomery and Gabor Szabó. There were old blues guys: Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Brownie McGhee. There was Bob Dylan and other songwriters in the ‘60s. That was an era when a lot of us got beyond the limitations of pop music in terms of our understanding of what you can do with a song. Dylan in particular, but others too, who were exemplary. Gordon Lightfoot would be another one. People who were writing beautiful songs that were more than ‘baby I want to …’ There’s nothing wrong with that kind of song, but it’s –

It’s a different kind of song.

BC: I mean, I cut my teeth on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, And that’s pretty much all they play, pretty much all they were saying, was, you know, getting or trying to get laid or wishing they were getting laid. That was fine. It was exciting as a 12- and 13-year-old. But the discovery that you can write songs that actually said stuff was eye opening. Some of my friends, when I connected to the folk world, in my latter teens, I hooked up with people who have been aware of this kind of stuff all along, they’ve listened to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and all these people I had never heard. So for me, hearing and discovering those kinds of songs, but then right away, along came Bob Dylan—I didn’t think of myself as a songwriter, I just related to it really well. At the time, I was just a guitar player. And that’s all I aspired to be. I went to music school to learn jazz composition, to write music for big bands. That’s what I thought I was going to be doing. And then I got seduced by songwriting and went that way.

I read this quote of yours somewhere: “My job is to try and trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper.” Is that your transition from just the instrumental piece to capturing the words as well as the music?

BC: Very much so. I didn’t understand what I was doing, at first. I thought, “I’m listening to these people that are writing these great songs, maybe I can do it, too.” And the first song I remember writing was very derivative of early Lightfoot. Fingerpicking, nature imagery, and I don’t even remember any details of it now, but that’s what it was then. And then I was heavily influenced by blues and listened to a lot of blues. Not so much Chicago stuff, but the old country stuff, and jug band music and all that. Those were the roots.

And rock and roll. I was playing in rock and roll bands as I was doing gigs in the folk scene, solo or with friends. With hindsight, the second half of the ‘60s was all about learning how to write songs. And I wrote a lot of songs that I pray no one will ever hear during that period. But by the end of it, I had a body of stuff that I thought was worthwhile. And I liked it better when I played those songs myself than when I played them with any of the bands I’d been in. So, that that’s what went into my first album and half of the second one.

So, speaking of the blues, I just stumbled upon this video of you meeting Ali Farka Touré. What an amazing experience that must have been. I know travel is very important to you and your music. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about travel and why it’s so important for, for that job, to track the spirit of things? Or for just being a human in general?

BC: Well, I’m not sure travel is required. But it’s been part of my life just because I like doing it, and because I’ve been given the opportunity for interesting kinds of travel on many occasions now.

The trip to Mali wasn’t about songwriting; it was about desertification and making a TV documentary about that, and how that particular group of people there were dealing with it. But because I play music, and because I have listened to some music from there, we thought it’d be cool in the process of the film, if they tried to put me together with some Mali musicians. Toumani Diabaté, the duet I do with him is better than the thing with Ali Farka Touré. It came out really, really well. But the Ali Farka Touré thing was just happenstance. We went to Timbuktu, and we were planning to stay overnight. We were on our way to our ultimate destination, further southwest of there, but we thought we’d go through Timbuktu and see it because we’re so close. So we had a hotel there, and the hotels are not like staying at a Holiday Inn. There were a whole bunch of Americans there. Two guys had this radio show called Afro Pop—I don’t know how popular it was, but it was syndicated. I don’t know if it was on NPR, but it was that kind of show, where they just looked at music from all over Africa. And they had organized the tour. So, there was like a dozen Americans, also at this hotel, and Ali Farka Touré was going to play for them that night.

I had met him at a festival in Canada, some years before, which he reminded me of, actually. I knew about him, but I didn’t remember that I’d actually met anybody. “Oh, Bruce!” and he shows up wearing a purple three-piece suit and a purple Fedora, which is like—you don’t dress like that Timbuktu. You could, you can, and of course he does. But everybody else is looking pretty poor and traditional with turbans and robes and whatever, so there he is doing this. And he invited me to sit in with him. That’s what you saw. It was fun. That whole trip was super interesting. But also, if you’re gonna look for the video of that, the film was called, River of Sand, I think you can get to it from my website. It’s got that in it, and the duet with Toumani Diabaté, and an older guy whose name escapes me at the moment, an older guy that played an instrument called an ngoni, a precursor to the banjo. That’s pretty cool, too. So there’s that music and then the film itself is—if you’re interested in the topic, it’s interesting.

Absolutely. So, it was the issue that drove the trip, and this was kind of serendipitous.

BC: That’s been the case with most of the more exotic travels that I’ve taken. It’s never been about going looking for songs. It’s always been about what people are doing in certain kinds of situations. In Nepal, the two trips in Nepal were under the auspices of a Canadian NGO that does development work there. And the two trips in Mozambique—one was about feeding people displaced by the civil war that was going on, and the other was about the landmine issue after the war was over. People can’t go back to farming because there’s landmines all over the place.

I’ve done lots of traveling just for my own amusement, too, but that’s more like being a tourist and less likely to produce the interesting song content than some of these other trips.

Do you feel like those travels influence your sound as well as your ideas and your activism?

BC: I think the Mali trip did. There’s a couple of songs that relate to that on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. In some of the songs on that you can hear a little bit of that West African influence in the guitar playing. Maybe, or I imagine it’s there, it is certainly there in the lyrics to the song. Central America didn’t really influence me much musically. They have great music there, and the same with Mozambique. That had less effect on me than the stuff I was seeing apart from music.

No marimba solos after your Guatemala visits?

No, I mean, I like marimba. There’s no video of it, but I did jam with a band of some Guatemalan refugees, in the same setting in which “Rocket Launcher” came from. These refugees had carried the marimba from their village when they fled what they fled from, which was horrendous stuff. Everybody carried a piece of it, and they put it back together when they could settle in this makeshift refugee camp. And because we showed up with guitars, they pulled out the marimba. These guys put on their good shirts.

And, the way they play, two to three people play the same instrument. One guy plays bass parts. One guy plays chords. And the other guy plays the melody. It’s like having a giant piano with three people playing it. It was really interesting. And little kids all danced around. It was very poignant actually, because the situation they were in was horrible. But they were partying when they had a chance.

That says so much, that that was a priority in that horrible journey. That was a priority, to bring that instrument.

BC: I was amazed by that. It says something really good about those people, the degree to which they had their crap together. They were organized. They had absolutely no food, they had no prospects, but they were keeping their organization together and keeping the families together and maintaining their dignity. It was kind of heartbreaking.

I imagine you’ve probably seen a lot of heartbreaking things in the places you’ve been and the issues you’ve dug into and tried to be supportive of, or tried to be part of bringing light to those issues. Do you consider yourself an optimist? An idealist? How do you do that?

BC: [laughs] I don’t think in very optimistic terms, but I can’t shake the feeling that things are alright. I’m not in Ukraine right now. I’ve never been a victim of those things myself. I’ve been up close with some victims, and I certainly heard terrible stories from those people. And of course, you don’t have to look hard to find terrible stories in the news. But I just can’t shake the feeling that something’s going to be alright. But it doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny because when you look around, it just feels like everything’s going straight down the tubes.

You know there are some bittersweet comments on your new album as well. I’m going to read you another quote I found—“Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread the light, at whatever level you can do it.” You still seem to be effective at spreading that light despite it all.

BC: Well, that’s not my light. It’s the light that I receive. I think the point of being alive is to spread it, so I’m grateful when a song is given to me that does that. In a way, it’s an ongoing theme for me. It didn’t start out as a conscious thing, but it’s what seemed like it was worth writing songs about. Even when the songs are expressions of my own or someone else’s pain, it’s all in the context. The worst example of that would be “You’ve Never Seen Everything,” where the whole song is a catalog of completely horrible things, and the chorus is going, ‘Even though if you’re looking at all this stuff, you haven’t seen everything. There’s good stuff, too. The light is there too.’ I probably won’t write too many songs that go that far in that direction. But it’s there. It’s what life is all about, so it should be in the song.

Did you say ‘when the song is ‘given to me’?

BC: Yeah. I don’t go looking for them. I try to maintain an attitude of receptivity, but the ideas come when they come, and I feel like they’re gifts. Intention goes into it once there’s an idea, once something starts to feel like it’s going to be a song, then I work on it consciously. But otherwise, it’s a matter of waiting for that gift.

Do you feel like you need to train yourself to come from a place of positivity with all these things that you’ve seen and experienced?

BC: Well when I went to Iraq, for instance, I went hoping I would get a song. I didn’t. I did end up with a song, but it’s a little forced. It wasn’t as much of a gift as it was me pushing the issue, too, because I really wanted to have a song about being in Baghdad. There’s been a few other occasions where I’ve done that. It never works as well as when I just wait for it and let it happen. I’m not sure I would have got a song if I hadn’t pushed it, and so, whatever, it all comes out in the wash.

But with the trip to Afghanistan, I didn’t expect to get the song out of that, but I did. “Each One Lost” came out of that trip, and that was a gift, totally. It was a painful one, because the occasion that inspired it was a sad occasion. But the gift was there, regardless of that. And it isn’t always fun. I mean, “Rocket Launcher” was not fun. It wasn’t fun to write, it wasn’t fun to hear the stories or be in the situation that set it up. It’s never fun to sing it. But it seems necessary. If you’re a journalist, you’re someplace close to report on a situation, and you’re not going to just report on the things that feel good. You’re going to report on what you see. And for me that’s the same thing.

Does it take effort to find that place of love to anchor those things in? It seems like that would be a challenge in those situations.

BC: Sometimes it is. I think as time has gone on, it’s become less difficult. Central America was the first time I’d been in a war zone, and it was… it was pretty shocking. I didn’t see action or anything like that. I didn’t stumble over dead bodies or whatever, but I was among people who did do that. In an atmosphere where violence could unfold anytime, the feelings run pretty intensely in situations like that. All kinds of feelings—the good ones, too. Because love really comes to the surface in a situation where all the people you’re sitting with may or may not be alive tomorrow. I mean, that could be true anytime, anywhere. We don’t know who’s gonna die when. But in a war zone, that’s really front and center.

There’s this sense of kind of … camaraderie is not quite the right word, but it’s something like that. That’s too light a word. But there’s a sense of shared experience people are willing to extend to each other. In those situations, of course, those aren’t the people that are about to shoot anybody. That can be negative, too, because that same sense of us as a group can be directed in a hostile way towards someone else. Sitting in Managua, the war wasn’t right there—the war was off in the countryside—but there was just this warmth that was readily available, because the big concerns were the appropriate ones: life and death, and how we get along. People were thinking less about their—this is supposition, I didn’t ask anybody what they were thinking about—but it seemed as if people were thinking less about their immediate concerns and more about the fact that we’re all alive in the same place at the same time. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘This is how journalists get to be war junkies.’ Because it’s exciting. This warmth, this ease of forming—not deep friendships, because you don’t know these people. But the sense of being chummy with people and everybody accepts whatever—it’s an attractive feeling that it could be addictive if you did enough of it.

Sure. Well, and that fragility is really apparent in those situations. Aside from being a war junkie, how do you keep that feeling with you, when you’re not in those situations of imminent danger?

BC: That’s a good question. For clarity, I don’t think I’m a war junkie, although I certainly I had those experiences.

But I’m sure they’re out there.

BC: There’s an attraction to that stuff, but it’s also tempered by fear. Am I going to go into a situation where I’m actually gonna get shot at? I prefer not to do that. It was always a possibility, but a fairly remote one, in the circumstances in which I’ve done that kind of travel. Maybe not remote, but lower on the scale of probability. I wouldn’t seek out that situation particularly, unless there was some real compelling reason. But something just inherently risky and that’s all it is? I’m not that kind of person. I’m not an adrenaline junkie like that.

But how do I maintain that? Over time? Again, if you experience that enough, and you live through enough stuff … I guess it matters that I’ve held that in front of me as a desirable part of life like that. If you don’t think about it, maybe it doesn’t work the same way. I don’t feel like I have goals, but I recognize that there’s a way to live and a way not to live. Practicing that over time eventually gets you to a place where you can be more open to that kind of stuff. That doesn’t rule out the ability to get angry at things that make us angry. But the anger is less inclined to take over than it might have been when I was younger.

That is one of the gifts of time and perspective, isn’t it? So along those lines, thinking of one of the more recent songs “To Keep the World We Know,” I was curious: what about the world we know do we want to keep and what do we want to let go? What do we have to let go? Do we want to keep the world we know?

BC: [laughs] The point of phrasing it that way is that, we’re confronted with more than a possibility of finding ourselves in a world we don’t recognize. And what are you gonna do with that? And not in a good way. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to find ourselves going through the pearly gates and walking on the streets of gold. What do we do with that? It’s going to be that life has become extremely difficult for most of us. And then what? So? That’s what I’m thinking in that song. There’s lots about the status quo that is not worth keeping, but it’s hard to know how to get rid of that without getting rid of the good stuff, too. So, with the complicated prey-slash-predator creatures that we are, it’s hard to step away from that.

Sometimes this is a good thing and maybe sometimes it’s not—separating the art from the artist, trying to separate the musician from their life or their politics. Sometimes that’s a goal. Sometimes we want to be able to appreciate someone’s art or music without thinking too much about the person and their feelings and their political views and perspectives. But I think in your case, that’s probably not the goal. Do you find that it’s hard for some folks in your audience to separate those two? Or maybe they try to and it’s not really comfortable for you?

BC: I don’t think about it much one way or the other. I think there’s a tendency for people who are at a certain distance to conflate the art with the artists. It happens with anybody that stands up in front of the public—they become larger than life and people read more into what they say that might actually be there. Or the image they project—sometimes the image is intentional, sometimes it’s just what people put on you.

That happens to me, to some extent, but in general the songs come out of my brain, my life and experience and feelings. And I try to have them be truthful. That said, there’s a lot about me that doesn’t go into songs, certain truths that I don’t think I really want to share with people. So you’ve got to allow for that.

If you think about Bach, nobody cares what his politics were. He just wrote all this beautiful music. I don’t know anything about his political views, if he had any. I think in the era in which he lived, if you were too loud in expressing political views that were not compatible with the authority around you, there’d be a terrible price for that. That would be true in Putin’s Russia. It appears to be, anyway. So you step away from politics. In the Stalinist period, in Russia, there was great music composed, too, where you really, really couldn’t take any chances. If you listened to Bertolt Brecht, you know, because of the content of what he wrote, what his political attitude was. But there it’s explicitly part of his art. That happens with people too, but I don’t know. I think if you live long enough, and work for over a long enough period, you’re gonna go through phases of understanding and phases of interest, and just be drawn into different areas: I’ve done a whole bunch of that, and now I want to do something else. That is going to affect how people perceive you and may not be directly related to what’s going on in your physical life at any one moment.

Yeah, and I’m thinking specifically of the spirituality aspect of your music and the political aspect that maybe for some people don’t line up in the same way that they do for you. I think that’s a challenge for folks sometimes. I know they’re part and parcel in your view, and in the music that you write and the messages you share, which I think is wonderful, but I think that probably is challenging for folks sometimes, who think, “I’m absolutely on board with this piece, and I just can’t quite reconcile with my own worldview.”

BC: The people who only associate me with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” are divided into camps, basically. There’s the ones who think that’s cool, and the ones who hate it. I hear from both, and I’m aware of both, but that’s one song out of 300-odd songs that I’ve written. It came from a specific time and place in my life and in the lives of the people that I was with at the time. If I went to Central America now, I might write a song that had as much of a sense of outrage as that song does. But it wouldn’t be the same song, and it wouldn’t say the same thing.

The same would be true if you’re listening to “Wondering Where the Lines Are.” It’s a cute song, it may even be a good song, unless you actually listen to the verses. It’s as much about death as all the rest of my songs. It’s light. And it would be too bad if people thought that was the only kind of song I wrote. The same thing is true with “Rocket Launcher.’” There’s a whole lot of other stuff there, if you’re interested enough to pursue it. Don’t judge me by that one song. But I don’t take it back, either. I was there. That’s what I felt. It was the ease with which I felt that outrage that I wanted to share with my peers, who don’t experience stuff like that, or had not at the time. ‘Don’t judge people for taking up arms, if you don’t know what they’re faced with,’ was the undertone of that. I’m not suggesting that taking up arms is a desirable move to make. I think there are times when you can’t avoid it. That was what I wanted to share with people. I’m not a pacifist, because I think there are those occasions. But I think that peace is better than war, and love is better than hate. Most of what I have sung, and maybe will continue [to sing], tries to say that.

I’m thinking also of songs like “Call It Democracy,” which is one of my husband’s favorites. It came to him pretty early in life and was pretty influential in the way that he thought about and viewed things on a global scale. I don’t know if you would take any of that back, either, but it still seems to me a very powerful and still very pertinent commentary.

BC: I wouldn’t take it back. I think there’s more to the world than what that song says, but I think what it talks about is real. And it hasn’t gotten any better. Specific details change from time to time, but clearly it’s the economics of The Forever War, more or less. We didn’t think of it in that language when I wrote it, but it was the beginning of globalization, and I was seeing and hearing about the effects of it from the people who are being directly affected by it. I put that in the song, because you go to any place that was—whether it was Nicaragua, or Jamaica, or anywhere in Africa, or, you know, in a whole lot of other places—you can see the dark side of all that stuff, of the way we live. People who live there see it, too. They know exactly what the cause and effect is. Some of them have something to gain from it. Their leaders often have a vested interest in making deals with the developed world. But the benefit of those deals doesn’t go to the people. It goes to the actual signatories to the deal. That is a situation that is to the benefit of the corporate world. That hasn’t changed. So no, I don’t take it back or anything. I sing it once in a while, and people like it.

You can certainly disagree with any of these statements. I mean, people have different points of view. People who are among the ones that gain from the stuff… I mean, part of the point of “Call It Democracy,” of airing that kind of thought is, in North America and Europe, we’re all beneficiaries of this unfair system. And we should know that. You don’t have to go out and change anything. We might like it. But you should know where your stuff comes from. I still feel that way. But I don’t feel like I have to keep writing that song, though. There’s other things that jump up—some joyful and some not—that also need to be written about.

And that’s all part of being that witness, right? Of being that correspondent, sharing that experience and documenting and putting it out for better or worse? It’s still an experience that was very real for the folks that you were with.

BC: Yes. And for me, yes.

I have one more question for you: I’m looking at a very long, incredibly long list of awards you have received: Juno Awards, certified platinum records, Hall of Fame entries. What recognition has meant the most to you?

BC: Certainly not the music business awards. They’re all very nice, and the way I was appreciated by a number of people—that’s very gratifying. But it doesn’t go very deep. The Order of Canada, I think it’s probably the most meaningful way to be recognized. The honorary degrees are—I have a bunch of those now, and I’m about to get another one—those occasions are sometimes kind of fake. You know, you have a convocation, you gotta get somebody to speak at it. Sometimes there’s a deeper sense that the honor being bestowed is heartfelt. I got an honorary law degree in the same year, the same spring that my wife was graduating from law school. That was, that was pretty cute.


BC: Because she had slaved for three years to get this piece of paper, and I got one handed to me. But I got a doctorate in theology, that actually really meant something. Coming from Queen’s University in Ontario. That’s a couple of examples of probably the two things that actually did mean the most, of all those awards.

The Order of Canada Award—that’s a lifetime achievement award?

BC: It’s not exactly that. It comes from the government. There’s a committee that decides this year who should be included. They can induct a certain fixed number of people each year. They look around the Canadian scene for who’s contributed to the benefit of Canada. To be included that way—there are now several hundred people in the Order of Canada, maybe even 1000. It’s not business related—it has nothing to do with how many records I sold and stuff like that. I mean, indirectly, it does, because if I hadn’t, if nobody ever paid attention to me, I probably wouldn’t have been on the radar.

But to have it be seen as a contribution to the country is meaningful to me in a way that being feted for being a star of some kind is not. When I started, I thought being a star would be the worst possible outcome. A star quote, unquote. Just that term was offensive to me, because it seemed to me that anybody who’s seen as a star is not seen as a person. And I didn’t want to go there. I tried so hard not to have the kind of star image for the first few years I was doing this. But you can’t escape it. People are going to invest you with this larger-than-life thing, no matter what, if they pay attention to you. So, I gave up on that notion. But it’s so much more meaningful to be recognized for something beyond that.

Sure. Well, for someone who’s so focused on storytelling and sharing and contributing and giving back, I can see how that would be an outstanding moment of recognition.

BC: Yeah, it was cool. | Courtney Dowdall





Bruce Cockburn - photo Shannon Stevens

In May 2023, Bruce Cockburn – the highly prolific Canadian singer-songwriter active as a performing and recording artist since the 1960s – released his 38th studio album, O Sun O Moon. Then, not long after that, he began an extensive tour in support of the album that – extending to nearly 50 dates so far – has continued into the present year.

Between late April and early July this year, Cockburn will be logging nearly 25 new shows of his soul-stirring live performances in the U.S. and Canada. And since those dates only cover a clutch of cities in the Southwest U.S. and in Ontario, it’s reassuring for those of us most mindful of the passage of time that the now-78-year-old artist is charting out another run of North American shows for late fall.

Practically on the eve of this next run of dates that begins on April 24, in San Luis Obispo, CA, Grateful Web was most fortunate to have a personal conversation with Dr. Cockburn about the record and upcoming tour. (This took place on April 9, coincidentally the day after the great 2024 North American total eclipse.) This highly-awarded songwriter and performer – and, in fact, a holder of three honorary doctoral degrees in music – touched upon some his personal creative processes, his way of looking at the world and even a bit of the mysteries of existence – all ingredients in the making of O Sun O Moon.

When I attended one of Cockburn’s shows last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, still early on the 2023 tour, O Sun O Moon was certainly the main entree of songs on the menu that night. Yet, there was a good number of recognizable, fan-favorite songs and a few surprises on offer. Over the year since the album’s release and beginning of the tour, faithful fans of the master musical storyteller and guitarist have had a chance to become more deeply familiar with the new album. And – to my ears and mind at least – it may very well become as cherished as any of his most classic collections.

Although I was introduced to Cockburn’s music in the later 1970s, not long after his first few albums had been released, I’ve admittedly drifted in and out through different stages of his career. While I was off following other genres and more rock-oriented artists, I’d keep my ear cocked for what ‘progressive’ folk artists such as he and British folk-rock pioneer Richard Thompson would be up to next, even if l didn’t always listen to every album in depth. Initially more of an solo acoustic folk songwriter, he pursued a more obvious electric route with backing bands in the ‘80s, and in the MTV era even reached beyond his core audience with videos for such electrified rock activism songs as “Call It Democracy” and “If a Tree Falls”. Of course, some of that period drew me back. Yet, I’ve surely missed a good many things, so even now I feel as if I’m still catching up with Cockburn.

With my incomplete knowledge of Cockburn’s entire body of work, I’ve tended to gravitate toward his more rock-oriented releases, and a personal favorite is his 2002, You’ve Never Seen Everything. This album deftly balances ballads against some modern-rock grooves such as the rap-spiel opener “Tried and Tested”. And while there are moments of sweetness and light in the folk-style songs, there are more experimental moments, too, like the album’s title track – a chilling, nine-minute, film-noir-soundscape with spoken-word narration that takes the listener on a journey through a dark night of the soul. I also tend to listen more for his instrumentals and expressive, jazz-flavored guitar performances than for his lyrical songs, so I’ve also been highly impressed with his all-instrumental albums, 2005’s Speechless and 2019’s Crowing Ignites, which are both journeys of their own.

Recorded in Nashville with Cockburn’s go-to producer Colin Linden, O Sun O Moon seemingly reshuffles the deck on listener expectations – and mine. It’s an album of sublimely crafted acoustic songs, rich in musical textures, air, and light that never once leave one wishing for more electrical current. Through alternating modes of quandary, gravity, celebration, sardonic humor and emotional resolve, his poetic and minimalist lyrics explore questions of life and mortality, love and forgiveness, and our place in the world.

So, yes, personal themes abound on the album, such as making the best of the time one has left in life (“On a Roll”), the spirituality in everyday life (“Into the Now”) and looking ahead to the next adventure (“When You Arrive” – a joyous New Orleans’ waltz that not only serves as the album’s grand finale but is also a rousing live sing-along.)

In any case, the longtime social and political activist also hasn’t shied away from contemporary issues but allows them a space of their own on the album. One such song is the percolating, roots-y, climate-change tune, “To Keep the World We Know”, which he co-wrote with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark. And in the probing song about coming to terms with our fellow man and woman titled “Orders”, the perennial humanitarian seemingly answers the biggest question of all – “Why are we here?” – with unflinching directness.

Front and center, of course, is Cockburn’s warm and knowing but not-always-sweet voice, swathed in musical textures that range from soothing and inspirational to ones with more spit and grit. In fact, you might think that his song “King of Bolero” is a fair impression of Tom Waits. His guitar playing is also exemplary, although it never draws undue attention to itself. And both his vocals and instrumentation are kept good company with a fine ensemble of guest vocalists and musicians. Among these are Gary Craig, Sarah Jarosz, Jenny Scheinman, Buddy Miller, Susan Aglukark, Shawn Colvin and Jim Hoke.

O Sun O Moon is a satisfying emotional experience, from start to finish, and if you’re a longtime fan of this veteran songwriter, then you have very likely already moved it upward – if not all the way to the top – on your personal list of favorite Cockburn albums. If you happen to be still largely uninitiated to his musical universe, then this album – with its Zen-like sense of presence, sage wisdom and timelessness – is an excellent place to start your journey.

“One more time,” Cockburn urges his backing singers onward with a glimmer in his voice on the final, life-affirming refrain of “When You Arrive.” And when he plays it live, the whole audience joins in, shedding even more light into all the dark corners. Now isn’t that what friends are for?

GW: Glad you could make time to talk to us, Bruce. Our phone call seems very timely, since your recent album is called O Sun O Moon, and yesterday we had the total eclipse in the eastern U.S. A nice coincidence! I’m guessing that maybe if you’re near the East Coast right now, you were able to see the eclipse. If you did, I’m curious what your personal reaction to the that was.

Cockburn: Yes, in fact, I’m in Ontario at the moment. It was pretty amazing, actually.

GW: We enjoyed it in our area, too, and we could travel to where totality was without too much effort. Coincidentally, you often deal with imagery of stars and the cosmos in your lyrics, so one of the things I wanted to ask you about is the struggle between darkness and light in your songs. The album title and lyrics of O Sun O Moon seems to allude to that, but then you have a song like “On a Roll”, which seems to imply that maybe the light is winning this time. Would you say that’s true, or is it still always shifting for you?

Cockburn: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t exactly thought about things from that angle. My songs come from a pretty personal place, so, in my mind, they don’t automatically equate with larger philosophical observations. But, to phrase that question another way: “Do I feel myself to be an optimist or a pessimist?” In those terms, then I do tend to go back and forth.

In certain areas, in terms of individual spirituality, I’d say I’m an optimist. But in regard to the future of the planet, I’m more inclined to pessimism. The pessimism isn’t [giving in] and saying, “Ahh, what the hell! It’s all going down. . . .” It’s because I have grandchildren and also a young child, and I worry about the future for them.

The pessimism comes in where I don’t see as much being done to offset the threats that we’re faced with. Spiritually speaking, I do think there’s a kind of contest between dark and light, and I think that “On a Roll” is a celebration of the fact I feel like – at least while I was writing that song – that light will triumph. Also, that when I cross that boundary to whatever comes next, I’m gonna find myself in a good place. That’s what the hope really is.

GW: That’s good. An interesting thing about the new album is your sense of resolve in the lyrics. Thinking back to your [2011] album, Small Source of Comfort, I sensed that you were in a period of doubt and transition as a songwriter. After that you did one more lyrical album, Bone on Bone, and then next was the all-instrumental album, Crowing Ignites. So did the instrumental album serve as a kind of ‘palate cleanser’ for you, to give you a break from writing lyrics?

Cockburn: I suppose it could have had some of that effect. I had wanted to do a Speechless II, and the original Speechless was a compilation of previously recorded instrumental pieces from my various albums. So my intention was to write a few new instrumentals to go with the same concept, because I had recorded a lot of other instrumentals since the first Speechless came out. And we might still do that someday. But what happened is that once I started writing the pieces, they kept coming and I ended up with a whole album of new stuff that became Crowing Ignites.

So, yes, it was cleansing, and, perhaps, I also didn’t have so many pressing lyrical ideas at the time. It was fun to make an instrumental album and to think only in those terms. When it comes to writing lyrics, I can’t really force the issue very well. I’ve done it occasionally, and I haven’t liked the results very much. But with instrumental music, I can just pick up my guitar, start fooling around and look for things more actively than I can with lyrics. So it was fun to work on Crowing from that perspective.

GW: I do think there’s often a quality in your albums of forward motion, kind of a restless search. In a certain sense, some might consider that ‘progressive’. One of the things I get from O Sun is more of a contented feeling, maybe even a nostalgic flavor. Obviously, you reference your own sound. But it also seems as if you might be giving some stylistic nods to some of your formative influences, such as the Gypsy Jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. With the accordion, vibes and violin, there are also hints of Astor Piazzolla and New Orleans blues and jazz. Would you say that this new album came to you more freely than some of your recent projects?

Cockburn: I guess I’d have to think back to what some of the other albums were like to work on, but this one worked out very smoothly. As I said, when writing lyrics, I wait around for ideas and for the ‘flash’ and little ‘gooses’ of energy that get it going. And when that happens, I’m very grateful.

Several of the new songs were written in Maui when some of my family, friends and I were there [a couple of summers ago]. We rented a house, and it was so calm with tranquil, beautiful surroundings, and good company. That was, of course, before the tragic fires in Lahaina. The effect of that atmosphere was like it popped the cork and out came all of these songs!

For example, two songs that were like that were “King of Bolero” and “Into the Now”. Another song, “Colin Went Down to the Water”, came about a little differently but also in that setting. There was – as I like to think of it – a certain amount of grace that went into the writing of the songs, very little conscious tugging at things to get them to happen.

The oldest song of this set of songs was “When You Arrive”, and the idea for that had sat around in my notebook a long time. Then, one day, it suddenly clicked, and I thought, “Oh, yeah!” And that’s how it works. I’ve had that experience with songs, from time to time. It’s not like I went back to them every day and said, “What I can do with this?” They’re just there, and then something would invite me back to revisit them, and then there it was. Whether all of this was easier than other albums, I’m not sure. I’d have to think back hard about how those songs came to be.

Even the recording [of O Sun]went pretty well, and that can sometimes be more difficult than the songwriting. One thing on this session is that I suffer from Meniere’s Disease, and my vertigo acts up at times. I’d have attacks of vertigo every day during the recording, and yet it came out all relaxed and cool. And – heh-heh – you won’t hear that on the record. We got lucky with that. It could have been worse! But, it was a very pleasant atmosphere at the studio where we recorded in Nashville. I stayed in a house where you walk across the yard, and then you’re in the studio. It made it all very workable and fun.

The way we approached it was that Gary Craig –my drummer and percussionist – and I recorded everything together. So he acted like a kind of human beatbox or human click-tracking, and he kept me in the right place rhythmically. So we had vocals and guitar, and some form of drums or percussion, and then we added people to that. And the great thing about it for me, in particular, is that I didn’t hang people up [during the sessions] waiting for me to get my shit together. And everybody contributed the most beautiful things.

Jim Hoke, the horn [and clarinet] player, walked in, really prepared, and he did the most amazing and beautiful horn parts. He started laying stuff down, and it was really magical, even though I was feeling like garbage.

GW: I’m glad you mentioned that. I wanted to ask you specifically about the horn, vibes and violin arrangements and how much of that you pre-composed. From what you say, it definitely sounds like you gave the musicians a blank page.

Cockburn: Yes, I’ve always taken the approach that you hire somebody based on the fact that you like what they do. So I just see what they’re going to do. And if something isn’t working, then I’ll intervene and say, “OK, how about more of this, or less of that?” But, generally, with the calibre of people we’ve had coming in, that hasn’t been much of an issue.

Sarah Jarosz came in and sang and played great. And (violinist/vocalist and previous Cockburn collaborator) Jenny Scheinmann – we got lucky with her, because she just happened to be in Nashville at the same time. We had no budget to fly people around. We had to use people we had access to, and Jenny was someone I’ve worked with a lot in the past.

GW: Yes, I saw her warm up and perform with you in Michigan in 2011, so I know just how good she is.

Cockburn: There was a lot of magic like that around the making of the album, and a lot of really good feelings.

GW: Briefly, I’d like to have you touch upon your own musical training and education. For example, I know you studied jazz guitar at Berklee School of Music early in your career (mid-1960s). Just curious whether you always approach your songwriting from a theoretical perspective, or, for example, if you like to experiment and create new harmonies using altered tunings?

Cockburn: I do use some different tunings, although for a long time I didn’t. Way back near the beginning, I did use ‘open C’ and that’s the tuning I use on “Soul of a Man” (Note: This is a song that Cockburn has been performing on his recent tours). I learned that song in the ‘70s from the Blind Willie Johnson record. But I had observed the tuning from watching the Reverend Gary Davis. But other than that, I steered away from using open tunings back in the early days because I was hearing a whole lot of people who really couldn’t play guitar using those tunings to make the songs sound different from each other. And – heh – that didn’t work very well as that kind of function.

So I didn’t want to get stuck in that. For me later on, that ceased to be an issue and I just started exploring other tunings. That’s especially evident on Crowing Ignites. And there’s a song on this new album that’ s in what I call “E-GAD”. It’s DADGAD (six-string) tuning with the low string left in E instead tuned down to D. That gives you a nice combination of fourths and modal harmonies that you can move with, kind of like [jazz pianist] McCoy Tyner. Y’know, I’m not comparing what I do with what he did. . .

GW: Right. I understand, though, that you’re augmenting your harmony by changing the chord voicings. . .

Cockburn: Yeah, and it applies on some other songs, like the “King of the Bolero”, “When Push Comes to Shove” and maybe another one. Sometimes, all you have to do is change [the tuning of] one string, and then that suggests some new kind of riff that you hadn’t stumbled on before. And that can become the basis for a new song.

GW: As I’ve seen from – if that website is at all reliable, your sets over the last year have remained fairly fixed since the start, with a focus on O Sun O Moon and a pretty consistent selection of your other historical songs. I’m curious whether you’ve been writing any new songs in this period and trying any of them out live, and whether you feel like another album is possibly taking shape.

Cockburn: Not really. . .I’m not ruling out the possibility of doing another album. I’ve just been busy doing what I’m doing, and the energy that might have gone into songwriting – some of that’s gone into figuring out new ways of doing songs that my arthritic hands won’t do very well now.

Songs that I’m doing are the ones that people would want to hear. I had to come up with a new way of playing “All the Diamonds in the World”, for instance, and “Pacing the Cage” and a couple of other things that people are always asking for. For a long time, I’d have to say, “No, sorry, can’t do it because my hand won’t make those chord shapes. And that’s one area where using alt tunings can be very helpful.

So, I’ve been doing some of that [re-arranging] and that’s been taking up some of the songwriting energy. But it’s worked, and I’m able to play those songs now. Whether people approve of the change in my guitar [parts], I don’t know. There are a lot of guitar players who’ll come to the shows, and they’ll see that those aren’t the same shapes they’ve seen me do before. But I think the music works now, and hopefully they’ll think so too!

GW: As you were writing O Sun O Moon, life was obviously going on all around us. Global warming, for example, is obviously a big modern problem that you call out in the album, and you alluded to other things such as the Covid period of 2020-2021. So do you like to be more indirect now in your observations or do you still like to be blunt, as you were with “All Our Dark Tomorrows” or “Trickle Down” (Two overly political songs from You’ve Never Seen Everything.)?

Cockburn: I think it depends on the circumstances and what kinds of ideas come to me. I don’t have any specific ‘policies’ about that. It’s just what comes up. Susan Aglukark approached me about co-writing a song. And her idea about “To Keep the World We Know” was about global warming, and that song was much more intentional than I usually am. It’s because another person was involved, and it was her idea. Not the title, but she had some phrases and the concept. She wanted us to write a song about wildfires. I kind of took the ball and ran with it, and then we tossed its back and forth – over the phone, by email, etc. – and we came up with that song. I think it worked out well, but that’s quite specific and pointed.

In terms of what the song’s talking about, it doesn’t name people. But the problem [of global warming], of course, is bigger than just calling out people’s names. To single out certain decision makers for a song like that would be pointless, because they’re all screwing it up. Who’s your ‘bad guy’ today? The ‘bad guy’ is the money interests that are financing our politicians and financing their policies. That’s hinted at in the song, but that’s the enemy and it’s how we handled it.

GW: Touching on your repertoire in more detail, I wanted to ask you a bit more about your fans’ expectations. You mentioned before that fans ask for songs, but you’re not always able to play them now, even if you want to. Which songs from your history do you enjoy playing the most, and which ones, if any, would you like to ‘retire’?

Cockburn: Ohhhh, there’s – heh-heh – um, I don’t think I’d necessarily want to name specific songs. But, really, not because I don’t like the songs, but when I’m thinking of putting a show together, there’s always a short list of songs that have to be in the show. And sometimes I find that kind of confining. So it would be nice to just not do them. For a while, anyway, and have them come back later.

In a way, that happened with “All the Diamonds”, “Pacing the Cage” and “Lord of the Starfields”. They’re all songs that because of the [chord] fingering of the original versions, I could sort of play them, but they didn’t come out well. They were all sort of messy sounding. So I had to come up with new ways of playing, and that made them fresh again.

Having to not be able to play them for a couple of years, at least — it’s been about that long that I’ve had this problem. So people would call out especially for “Pacing the Cage” and I’d really [regret] not being able to do it. I’d say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m working on it.” So that was one that got a rest and then it feels to play it again – feels good. With “All the Diamonds”, I did go through a phase where I hated that song – not as a song, just having to play it. But that was years ago, and I got over it.

Some [older] songs are lighter and they don’t require quite as much from me to perform them. I don’t have to go quite as deep to perform them as I do with “Pacing the Cage”, y’know, to make them meaningful in performance. I’m happy I got a rest with “Pacing” because it’s not a happy song, and I have to go back to where I was emotionally when I wrote the song.

GW: You’re being kind of a ‘method actor’ then?

Cockburn: Yeah, I’m in the emotional state of when I wrote those songs in order to make them mean anything. It’s not by choice, either. It’s just what happens. It is how I feel I have to do it to make the songs real for people who are listening. Some of the songs are less pleasant to do that with than others. It was helpful to have that break.

GW: Looking ahead, could you share what your plans are for more tour dates beyond this next tour, which I know ends in early July?

Cockburn: My wife and family are probably going to want me to take some time and go somewhere, because she’s the one who needs the break. So I’m sure we’ll get away somewhere, and that might involve going back to Hawai’i. We’re looking at possibly adding some dates in the Southeastern U.S., in the November timeframe. Not confirmed yet, but that’s the general plan.

GW: Wrapping up then, Bruce, with one last philosophical question, coming back to the question of darkness and light. Obviously, with your faith, you have often expressed a fascination with the nature of existence, cosmic questions and starlight as a symbol. So time and again, you’ve shared your own spiritual outlook that seems certain but still allows room for the listener’s interpretation. Do you think we go to a good or a bad place when we die, or do you think we all become stars?

Cockburn: No, I don’t think we become stars. But I do think it’s very possible that we become [another form of] energy. And one point of view is that the energy we experience as living creatures dissipates and goes somewhere after our bodies die, right? Because, as we know, energy is not created or destroyed. The body goes to bits but the energy goes somewhere else. Whether it retains a consciousness or sense of its own identity is a different question altogether.

Some people think that it doesn’t, but I think it does. I do think there is darkness in the universe and you don’t have to look far to find it. I can buy into the Christian viewpoint, but I don’t think there are literally Pearly Gates or streets paved with gold. I think that’s a metaphor for something beautiful. And I kind of see it as involving a connection with the Divine and the ruling principle of the cosmos, which is a beautiful and loving presence.

I think when you look at a starry sky and you are moved emotionally by that, what’s moving you is your sense of connection with the bigness of everything. I think bodies get in the way of that, so if you get the body out of the way, then your relationship with that will become more direct, pure and accessible.

GW: Thanks, Bruce, for sharing some of your perspectives on what goes into your songwriting. Your imagery of stars is one of the things that stands out for me in your songs, and I appreciate hearing more of your thoughts about that.

Cockburn: There’s an incredible amount of beauty and energy out there. And who knows? We may all get swallowed up in a black hole!

Photo: Bruce Cockburn in focus, in 2023 | Photo: Shannon Stevens, Cincinnati OH | Composite: Sam A. Marshall

Bruce Cockburn Tour Dates, Spring-Summer 2024


Bruce Cockburn: On a Roll – Women of Ill Repute

Feb 26, 2024 Women of Ill Repute

38 albums in, most of them gold or platinum, Bruce Cockburn is still Kicking at the Darkness. He’s a legendary singer-songwriter-activist who’s won 13 Juno awards, and is now heading out on tour with his latest, “O Sun, O Moon”, where he sings “In my soul, I’m on a roll”.

Now 78, Bruce is still trying to make the world a better place. We talk about the one time “the suits” got a say (Franklin the Turtle lyrics ), about others having hits with his songs (Lovers in a Dangerous Time), and the story behind his signature round glasses!

Bruce tells us he wondered if he was lacking the proper paternity gene, as he didn’t get to be around much for his first daughter. Now he has a second, and he’s become a US citizen to be with her and her mom in San Francisco. We were worried, him being a Canadian icon and all, but he’s kept his Canadian citizenship.

Interview date January 17, 2024

Women of Ill Repute – podcast

The Divine Sounds of Bruce Cockburn

By Steven Libowitz | November 21, 2023

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has released some 35 albums over his half-century career, enjoying enough success stateside to sustain making music, but also falling far short of the household name recognition of fellow Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, or even Gordon Lightfoot.

Now at 78, Cockburn – whose catalog includes such transcendent love songs as “This is One of the Best Ones” and polemics like “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” – has released a new album, O Sun O Moon, that shares how time takes its toll and slipping the mortal coil, but also invites us “out of the armor and into the now” and exclaims when “push comes to shove, it’s all about love.” He talked about all of it in a far-reaching conversation from his San Francisco home in advance of a solo show at the Lobero Theatre on November 18.

Q. Let’s just jump right in: How do you think your songwriting has changed and evolved over the years?

A. The perspective I have now is as an old guy, and you can probably trace how that’s changed. But not the point of view. Opinions might be different, but it’s more a deeper understanding because when I was young, I didn’t really understand anything… The songs have always just been a product of the time in my life that they appear – triggered by what I encounter that produces a strong emotional response, and what happens in my heart and mind.

Q. So is songwriting a way of processing, a method of making sense of the world and yourself, sorting that through in search of understanding, or more a way of communicating what’s internal?

A. I really only know after the fact… It’s not like I have something burning to get off my chest. But when I go for a long time without writing a song, I do feel choked up and confined. But it’s only with hindsight that I can see that a given song was processing something.

Q. You’ve been praised for the ability, more than most singer-songwriters, to balance between the outer and inner world, and the gritty details and the spiritual essence. Does that resonate? And if so, how do you navigate between them?

A. I’m aware of the degree to which being able to do that pleases me. It’s how I like to see things. I don’t think any good purpose is served by separating the day-to-day from the spiritual. I think they should mix, and they should influence each other, or at least the spiritual should influence the day-to-day. So it’s never very far from my line of thought, and therefore it shows up a lot in the songs no matter what I’m talking about.

Q. What about the permeability of the inner and outer worlds?

A. They’re not distinct at all. The phrase “my journey” sounds so grandiose, but I feel like it’s a thread that’s run through my life from the beginning of being self-aware that the membranes are permeable. The older I’ve gotten, there’s refinement of where I started. Early songs “Spring’s Song” and “Man of a Thousand Faces” I’m asking, “What is this? Where are we? What are we doing?” … I’ve always expressed my understanding of the need for a relationship with the divine. I feel like it’s clearer now, and the weight of it is more evident now.

Q. People tend to want to separate your catalog into political and personal songs. But you’ve shared that there’s no difference to you.

A. They’re all love songs. Even “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” – it’s a cry of pain, not hatred. I was expressing anger, but the last thing I wanted to do was go kill anybody. I wanted people to feel what it’s like to be in a situation like that, which is the point of art. Whether it’s something physical like a refugee camp under attack, or dealing with your own inner processes, you’re still singing your truth so that people might see things in new ways. Otherwise, why bother?

Q. How have you been able to maintain that equilibrium as our world has become even more polarized? You seem to still seek commonality, practice acceptance, and yearn for understanding. Someone else put it that you have a hope for a better world that you can’t shake.

A. It’s more necessary than ever to allow any worthwhile thoughts and feelings about that out to where they can be heard. It’s not in the dialogue that we see around us, which is so fragmented – everybody’s talking at the mirror. I think it’s really important now to offset that in any way available… When an idea for a song like “Us All” comes along I jump on it, because it means something bigger than some of the other ones, which all have their own significance and meaning and importance to me personally. I really want to get that out there and heard… Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have enough self-confidence to think of myself as influencing people, which is an utterly foolish goal anyway. Or maybe it’s a dodge, I don’t want to accept the responsibility. But what I see myself doing is sharing what I have experienced, felt, questioned, and understood with whoever’s willing to listen.

Q. Your new album has the thread of contemplating mortality, but you’ve been doing that for decades, going back at least to “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which repeats the phrase “I’m thinking about eternity.”

A. It’s just part of the landscape… but you can’t help noticing that the horizon is getting closer all the time … My fear and my hope – the fear leads – is that when I get to that threshold and step over it, or I’m dragged over it, that I recognize the divine when it shows up. What that means in practical terms, I have no idea.



Nearing 80, Bruce Cockburn angles into mortality on ‘O Sun O Moon’

‘The songs are written from the view of an old guy,’ says the legendary Canadian musician. ‘I invited people to notice.’
By Lou Fancher
November 16, 2023

Bruce Cockburn 2023 photo Keebler

If there are albums that cause a person to think about time and tone beyond tempo and a voice’s timbre, Bruce Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon is one of them. Its 12 tracks open onto galaxies of contemplation, with the 78-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist now based in San Francisco musing on topics from aging to climate change. Common humanity prevails—track “Orders” reminds that “Our orders said to love them all.” Another song, “Us All,” has Cockburn crooning, “Open the vein, let kindness rain/O’er us all/O’er us all/O’er us all.”

The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame musician, whose 22 gold and platinum records have sold nine million copies worldwide, continues his penchant on this 38th album for crafting complex lyrics in marvelously simple, guy-in-a-bar-style language. Their sophistication lies under the surface, with each line honed to sleek essentialism. Cockburn’s impeccable guitar playing is given at this point in his career, but cannot be overlooked—the production elucidates the acoustic elements of his voice and guitar—and on one track, dulcimer—along with those of a stellar group of guest artists.

O Sun O Moon might be Cockburn’s most personal album—even his most optimistic. Songs contemplate the end of life, and puzzle over human inability to care adequately for each other, ourselves, the planet. Lyrics sometimes float, delivering soft scents that seem carried by winds from long ago. Yet at other times, words explode with hard-truth vigor.

“Most optimistic? I’d say I have no idea,” says Cockburn in an interview with 48 Hills. The rest of his reply displays his typical, straight-off-the-cuff dry humor, followed by practical reflection.

“I’d have to go back and listen to them all. But no, I think Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaw was a pretty optimistic record. All the ’70s albums are like that, and it gets darker as time goes on. This new one is certainly more optimistic-sounding than You’ve Never Seen Everything. It’s always been back and forth for me. This album doesn’t have too much tragedy, other than ‘Colin Went Down To The Water.’ That’s specific to being in Maui, when a friend drowned in a scuba accident, but it’s not the kind of tragedy we see all around the world today. If not the most optimistic, this album is certainly one of the more optimistic.”

With two exceptions—the song about his friend and one about global warming, written with Inuk singer Susan Aglukark, Cockburn says O Sun O Moon‘s tracks aren’t inspired by real-life people or happenings. The claim is mildly disingenuous. “On a Roll,” the album’s first track acknowledges an aging body’s crumbling infrastructure, a clear reference to the substantial back pain that has Cockburn fighting to get and remain vertical each day. “But in my soul/I’m on a roll,” the song concludes. Cockburn insists the album is not so much disassociation from human loss and environmental devastation as it is attention to internal tunings that have long been present in his music.

“It was the greater focus I’ve had during the last few years: the spiritual side of things that previously has always been there. That’s always been a conspicuous part of the songs, but there’s a point in your life where you feel you gotta go deeper. These songs reflect that intention, and I have no way to measure how deep I’ve got [he laughs], but the songs reflect that process. ‘O Sun O Moon’ and ‘When the Spirit Walks In the Room’ are certainly about the spiritual side.”

After not writing songs for an extended period of time, Cockburn spent a summer month hanging out with friends and family in a house they had rented on Maui. “The songs came out of getting up early, before everybody else, and sitting on the porch and looking at scenery and playing the guitar. The imagery in those songs reflect that experience. It’s the essence behind the scenery that’s really what the songs are about. They’re not attempts to produce descriptive landscape.”

He refers to “Push Comes To Shove” as “a more straight-up love song,” and says “King of the Bolero” just “came out of nowhere. That song started with an idea that came in San Francsico and had sat around in his notebook for a while—and a memory about a comment someone once made about a man of considerable heft whose double chin wrapped “all the way round his neck.”

That song most surprised Cockburn, who adds, “but it’s like they’re all a surprise; ‘When the Spirit Walks In the Room’ came in hour. I see those things as such a gift. They feel like a surprise; the ones that have to be worked on and take more time, less so. ‘King of The Bolero’ is so utterly non-autobiographical. It was typical of me back in the day, and reminded me of songs on my first two albums, songs like ‘Happy Good Morning Blues.’ There’s a kind of lighthearted surrealism. How vivid it is surprises me. You don’t have to think about it too much. Once the picture is there, it’s just a matter of painting it in.”

The album’s one instrumental piece “Haiku” was written in Maui; its title came from the name of the little village he stayed in.

“It’s another in a long line of guitar instrumentals I’ve come up with over the years. They come from a different process because they’re not triggered by lyrics. They’re triggered by stumbling on something, usually on the guitar. Trying a new tuning and seeing what comes out, for example.” In the case of “Haiku,” he was “stumbling” on what became the first phrase of the piece; moving double stops over a drone bass Cockburn has used in lots of songs.

“It was, where can I take this? It just built up from that. I give myself some sort of jamming room in instrumental pieces like this that aren’t so folky. When I wrote it initially, it was, ‘What can I get the guitar to do here?’ Then when it was almost done, I thought it would be nice if it had a bossanova feel to it. If you’d heard the guitar by itself, your imagination wouldn’t necessarily have taken it in that direction, but that’s where it went to for me. I wouldn’t have minded a little more of bossanova, but what we got was good.”

Asked about messaging, Cockburn says, “I wasn’t thinking of messaging so much, as the stuff that’s on my mind isn’t exclusive to me. We’re all thinking about the same stuff, and the older we get, the more proximate that horizon becomes. Mortality’s never been off the radar for me, from the get-go. I’ve always been aware that life ends. If I think about the actual moment, it makes me nervous. But the concept does not. The older I get, the balance shifts; there’s some reconciliation between those two things. The songs are written from the view of an old guy. I invited people to notice.”

What does a song do? Willing to admit songwriting is indirectly a way of getting people to notice him and his perspectives, Cockburn makes it clear as to what his songwriting is not.

“It’s not about persuading people, it’s about observing, and wanting to share the observation. We’re seeing protests, counterprotests, horrible behavior all over the place. We don’t thrive in that atmosphere. It would nice if we could all just step back, so there is in the songs that underlying feeling. That said, it wasn’t like I was deliberately thinking I had to say something about spirit or manifestations of the divine. It’s just what came up.”

Cockburn’s about to embark on an extensive North American and world tour, which includes appearances December 1 and 2 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage. He says the most satisfying songs to play on the road are the new ones—“when I don’t screw them up.” “When You Arrive” is a gas, because he plays it as a sing-along.

“It cracks me up every night when I can hear a whole audience singing, ‘And the dead shall sing/To the living and the semi alive.’ People are bellowing it out and it’s really great,” he says.

The conversation ends with Cockburn saying he’s holding out not just to live for several more decades, but to reach his 500th birthday while still vertical—and writing songs. But before allowing him to return to his daily life (which includes picking his young daughter up from school), one question remains that the non-traditional Christian musician seems to have never been asked: about his favorite hymns. Also, would he most want to sing them during one’s final hours?

“One of them is partly a favorite by association: ‘A Closer Walk With Thee.’ You don’t hear it often these days, but I walked into church on a day before COVID when I wasn’t playing with the band. I came in and they were playing it. It was so cool to hear it as a swung song. It really worked. Another on is ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.’ It comes at the end, and actually runs all the way through, the Coen Brothers’ movie True Grit. They use Iris Dement’s version of it in the soundtrack. It’s beautiful, partly because of the harsh context in which it comes up in the film. It’s a favorite of mine. I’m trying to get my daughter to learn it.

“‘Peace in the Valley,’ I’ve loved that ever since I heard Elvis Presley do it in the ’50s. I actually do know how to play that one. If I get around to doing my imaginary album with the writing of other people’s stuff, that’ll be on it. It’s a Thomas A. Dorsey song and he wrote it for Mahalia Jackson. Her version, the one they recorded, sounds like they did it the way they felt they should. Maybe I’m biased because I’m so attached to the original version I heard, which was Elvis’. I’d have my daughter do that with me too, because she’d be more reliable.”

BRUCE COCKBURN plays December 1 and 2 at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley. More info and tickets here and here. Purchase O Sun O Moon here.


Photo: Daniel Keebler

Stalwarts Of Music with Aditya Veera interview with Bruce Cockburn

Aditya Veera (from India) interviewed Bruce on July 15, 2023.

Stalwarts Of Music with Aditya Veera (@adix70) ft. Bruce Cockburn, the much-awaited interview is out now on:
Youtube –

Premiered Nov 8, 2023
This episode of Stalwarts Of Music with Aditya Veera, Season 2, features the celebrated musician Bruce Cockburn as the guest. Bruce, a renowned Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist, has earned global recognition throughout his extensive career, marked by numerous awards, including 13 Juno Awards. He holds a place in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Aditya Veera delves into Bruce’s background, starting with his earliest musical influences shaped by exposure to classical, Broadway tunes, and pop music. However, the emergence of rock and roll in the late 1950s significantly impacted his musical preferences. In his teenage years, he explored classical music and self-studied jazz composition and musical theory.

The conversation navigates through various aspects of Bruce’s life, including a remarkable encounter with Ali Farka Touré in Timbuktu, Mali, during a documentary shoot about desertification. Bruce vividly recalls a memorable, albeit linguistically limited, collaboration with Touré during a performance.

Bruce’s environmental activism, reflected in his music, becomes the focal point. He discusses the intention behind songs like To Keep the World We Know, addressing climate change and wildfires. His insights emphasize the emotional core of his songwriting, aiming to raise awareness and possibly serve as rallying cries for environmental concerns.

The interview progresses to discussions about global efforts to address environmental issues, emphasizing the complexity of balancing economic prosperity with sustainability. Bruce recognizes the reluctance of individuals to attribute human causes to climate change and underlines the importance of imagination and will in decision-making.

They delve into the symbolic and emotional resonances within Bruce’s music, particularly the song Colin Went Down to the Water, inspired by a friend’s tragic drowning incident in Maui. Bruce’s creative process involves channeling emotional experiences into relatable songs.

The conversation shifts to his song Pacing the Cage, rooted in mortality and aging, aiming to celebrate life despite the inevitability of mortality. They discuss his guitar style, influenced by blues musicians, and how arthritis is prompting him to reconsider the guitar parts in his songs.

Spiritual and existential themes within Bruce’s music and his beliefs become the focus. He discusses his explorations of different spiritual paths, emphasizing the importance of personal relationships with the divine and transcending cultural limitations in spiritual expressions.

Aditya explores Bruce’s hopes for his music’s timeless quality and its potential to resonate with future generations, akin to the lasting impact of old blues musicians. Bruce addresses the sensitive political themes in his music and his belief in portraying his truths, even if they might be contentious.

The interview encompasses Bruce’s experiences in diverse cultural settings worldwide, touching briefly on his limited visits to India. He also reflects on overcoming physical challenges and the influence of his comfortable upbringing on his perspective.

The final segment introduces a Rapid Fire round, providing insights into Bruce’s preferences and thoughts, culminating with his essential qualities as a singer-songwriter and his humble wish to be remembered positively for his contributions to the art.

In essence, the interview presents Bruce Cockburn’s multifaceted journey, emphasizing his musical evolution, environmental activism, spiritual explorations, and his resilient, authentic approach to life and art. His desire to leave a positive impact through his music and contributions is central throughout the conversation.

The interview live stream will later be available on all major audio streaming platforms (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeart Radio & many more). You can head out to the podcast section at to watch more interviews or click here –
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Bruce Cockburn takes us on a leisurely walk to the gates of heaven – Graham-Rockingham

5 October 2023 – Mortality and morality are two dominant themes in O Sun O Moon, Bruce Cockburn’s latest album, Graham Rockingham writes.

The final track on Bruce Cockburn’s latest album “O Sun O Moon” is an old-timey singalong called “When You Arrive.” Backed by saxophone, clarinet and six backing vocalists, Cockburn plucks out a ragtime rhythm on guitar while delivering the chorus in a gravelly somnambulance, a slight uptick at the end of each line.

“The dead shall sing, to the living and the semi-alive
“Bells will ring, when you arrive”

It’s a fun song, despite the morbid lyrics. After all, there’s no beating death. It comes to everyone, so you might as well take it in stride. Laugh at the inevitable.

Let’s hope Cockburn sings it Oct. 11 when he performs a solo show at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Concert Hall. Imagine a full house singing along, celebrating our mortality, maybe even hoping there’s something more than … well … just death.

At 78, Cockburn has reason to have such things on his mind. Like the rest of us, he’s aging. Cockburn is on the phone from his home in San Francisco, where he has lives with his wife M.J. and their 11-year-old daughter, Iona.

So Bruce, do you encourage a singalong when you perform “When You Arrive?

Watch: When You Arrive

“Oh yeah, as much as possible and it’s so much fun when it works,” he said. “When everybody gets singing in it, it’s such a great feeling — that the inevitability of it can be sung about in a cheerful way. It’s fun.”

Mortality and morality are two dominant themes in “O Sun O Moon.” Why not focus on the two big M-words? Once you reach a certain age, they’re even bigger than those other M-words, marriage and mortgage. We all have to face what awaits us at the end, and whether we’ve lived a life worthy of its gifts.

“When You Arrive” dovetails nicely with its preceding track, the more sombre “O Sun by Day O Moon By Night,” gospel-tinged hymn chronicling the narrator’s walk to the gates of heaven.

Cockburn is a Christian and the morality of his faith has woven its way through his work since the early ’70s.

So one has to ask: Bruce, do you believe in heaven?

“Pearly gates and streets paved in gold? No, not that heaven,” Cockburn responded. “But I think there is … well … I have no idea what it is. All of the attempts people have made to depict it in words or imagery, nobody can really get a handle on it. I like to think that there is something within us that persists, that there is a consciousness attached to that element of perception. There may not be, but I don’t think there’s anything to lose by hoping there is.

“I think we go somewhere. Maybe all I’m really talking about is the dissipation of our energy into the cosmos.”

It’s nice to know even Bruce Cockburn — revered as a virtuoso guitarist and one of Canada’s greatest songwriters — doesn’t have the answer to everything. He is sure of one thing, however: the need to conduct ourselves on earth with love, understanding and forgiveness, even toward ones who don’t necessarily deserve it.

Here’s a verse from the track “Orders.”
“The sweet, the vile, the tall, the small
“The one who rises to the call
“The list is long as I recall
“Our orders said to love them all”

Similar sentiments can be found throughout the album on songs like “Us All” and “When the Spirit Walks into the Room.”

“I was glad to get the ideas for songs like ‘Us All’ or ‘Orders’ to address something that I think is a huge problem, it’s not a new problem, but the manifestation of it as I encounter it now in the United States, is not something I grew up with.

“This divisiveness, I think, has been encouraged deliberately by various elements and it’s very dangerous and unpleasant, so the songs were intended to address that.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bruce Cockburn album without some politics thrown into the mixture and the lead single “To Keep the World We Know,” co-written and sung with Susan Aglukark, portrays a world literally on fire. Despite the song’s lyrics of impending environmental doom, the song carries an upbeat, bouncy melody.

To Keep The World We Know

“That was sort of intentional,” Cockburn explained. “Everybody’s aware of this stuff at this point. It’s not like we have to convince anyone. It’s more about the focus. It’s not an angry rant or a mournful lament, it’s let’s get on this, let’s do something. So a hopeful element was appropriate.”

As Cockburn edges toward an eighth decade on the planet — “I hear 80 is the new 60,” he joked — he has no idea whether he has another album in him. He knows, however, he can still perform. And gain some joy from it.

When asked if he felt nervous, up on stage all alone with just his guitars and a microphone to back him, Cockburn chuckles.

“It’s easier than when I was young,” he said. “Then it was terrifying. Now it’s just a little bit frightening and it gets less frightening as the tour goes on. But I like what I do and I’m glad to be able to keep on doing it. I’m grateful for that.”

“Time takes its toll
“But in my soul
“I’m on a roll”
From “On a Roll,” opening track on Cockburn’s latest album “O Sun O Moon.”

Credit: Bruce Cockburn takes us on a leisurely walk to the gates of heaven by, for