3 November 2017 – Bruce Cockburn is a prolific Canadian singer-songwriter and recording artist with more than 300 songs in his catalog. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Dan Fogelberg, the Jerry Garcia Band, Barenaked Ladies, Ani DiFranco, Jimmy Buffett, k.d. lang and many others. This interview discussed many things including his most recent 33rd album “Bone On Bone.”
Published on Sep 20, 2017 – q on CBC – Tom Power interviews Bruce a few days before his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Iconic singer/songwriter, Bruce Cockburn talks to Tom about how he feels about his iconic hits, and how living in the US has influenced his songwriting.
The Bluegrass Situation – By Amanda Wicks
Oct 20, 2017
Life in Trump’s America doesn’t end at the country’s borders. The present-day era’s global scope means that, sonar-like, the current U.S. president’s impact tears across the world, including upward to the country’s endearing northern neighbor. Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote his new album, Bone on Bone, under the unnerving atmosphere that has settled like grey ash over contemporary life ever since the 2016 presidential election. Several songs, including “Café Society” and “States I’m In,” touch on the agitation rippling through communities and individuals, while “False River” decries a more specific issue: pipelines. “Life blood of the land, consort of our earth, pulse to the pull of moonrise, can you tally what it’s worth?” he sings against a locomotive rhythm that practically pulses with exigency. Trump, specifically, doesn’t pop up on the album, but his influence can be felt in the at-times brooding reflections which spur Cockburn’s latest songs.
The LP marks Cockburn’s 33rd and arrives seven years after his last effort, Small Source of Comfort. The time in between took his attention to other places, including fatherhood and his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory. It took contributing a song to the documentary Al Purdy Was Here (about the Canadian poet) to spark his songwriting once again. Cockburn has long pointed his weapons of choice — namely, his pen and his guitar — at issues impacting the world, and Bone on Bone makes clear that his song-based activism hasn’t eased any. If anything, he doubles down, impressing upon listeners the detrimental forces propelled by division, isolation, and more. Cockburn tapped Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, Brandon Robert Young, and even singers from the church he regularly attends — known on the album as the San Francisco Lighthouse chorus — to offset his dusky vocals and paint an inclusive picture of community, even while his song’s subject matter toed a more solitudinous line. His lyricism, as pointed and precise as ever, proves that the septuagenarian still has important messages to share, and will do exactly that — so long as his mind and breath and energy allow him. A new inductee to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the timing couldn’t be more aligned.
It feels more important than ever to have messengers like you.
Thank you for saying that. It does feel like a time when we have to emphasize communication, because everything is so polarized. We’re all looking at slogans and talking in slogans all the time, but it seems really important to share an experience with each other.
Yeah, in keeping with that idea of slogans — even thinking about the way social media packages thought — how do you feel your songwriting has had to change to reach across the aisle, so to speak?
I don’t really have a good answer for that. It’s a legitimate question, but I feel I haven’t really changed my approach to songwriting. I think it’s a question of maintaining some sort of footing in reality. We all have our own idea of what reality is, but social media creates a false reality. I’m not very involved in social media, so I’m not the best person to be passing judgment on it. At the same time, I’m not involved with it because I don’t trust it, because I don’t like it. There’s a great usefulness to it, granted — it’s really great when you can communicate with people at a distance quickly, and if you have something sensible to communicate — but it doesn’t stop at that. For me, it’s a world of BS and I don’t really want to spend time in that world.
Sure. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “If there was a sensible message.”
It’s not very hard to find opinions being passed off as news that really are offensive, whatever your perspective. Most of the time you don’t learn anything, because you just get annoyed. That’s a problem, because it could be a forum for greater understanding.
You touch on a bit of that with “States I’m In,” and I love the title’s play on words: Noddings toward the division people may now feel as individuals and as a country. What’s the most significant message you think listeners need to hear today?
Well, I don’t think the song offers an answer, really, except a spiritual one. I didn’t design the album to have a particular theme, but there is that underlying theme that the spiritual world is one where we can actually meet — or where we need to go, whether we meet or not. It puts things in a perspective that is less prone to being blown this way and that by the winds coming out of various high-profile people. [Laughs]
“States I’m In” is a kind of capsulized dark night of the soul experience. The song unfolds with a sunset and it ends with dawn and, in the meantime, there’s all this stuff — it’s not all autobiographical, although the feelings are. I think the feelings that the song expresses are feelings a lot of us experience, so it has that application for somebody other than me. You can get swept away by all the stuff, but in the end, what’s essential is that relationship with the divine. That’s the whisper welling up from the depths and, if you can shut up long enough to listen for that whisper, it’s there.
Speaking about the album’s spirituality, the number 33 has a powerful religious and spiritual connotation. Does the fact that this is album number 33 hold any meaning for you?
That’s an interesting question, too. I hadn’t thought of that, so I guess the answer’s “no,” but maybe subliminally it did. The number that I did think of is the [song] “40 Years in the Wilderness,” and that’s more specific, both as a reference and in my own life.
And there’s also the fact that it’s been seven years between albums, and seven is a potent number, as well.
Yeah, I know, we’re getting all numerological here.
And I don’t necessarily mean to!
It’s not a belief system that I adhere to, particularly, but I do find it interesting when those things show up. There are certain years in my life … I mean, a year that adds up to four is almost never a good year for me, and almost all the other ones are. So what does that mean? Maybe it’s totally subjective or maybe it’s not.
Or, if you head into those particular years with that mindset, you create your own issues.
Right, it’s impossible. I can never stand back far enough to be sure I’m not doing that. I think all of those kinds of esoteric ways of trying to understand things — whether it’s numerology or the tarot or astrology — they all have some functionality. They all work in some way. But what I’ve thought over the years is that they seem to operate as enhancements to your own sense of contact to the bigger reality, so it doesn’t really matter which one you use, if it helps you. If you have a sensitivity to that kind of listening state, those things help you listen, and they might help you listen — in the case of the tarot — to somebody else’s condition.
Once anything becomes a belief system that can be passed on and you can train people in it and so on, it’s kind of like training musician. I haven’t been to Berklee in some time, and really appreciated it as a great school, and it still is, but the problem with that and the problem with any system of education is, you teach people to be the same as each other. The geniuses will transcend that; they’ll learn all the stuff and then they’ll go on and be themselves. But the people that are not geniuses will end up being very good at what they do but sounding like each other. And I think the same thing applies to spiritual training: You can learn all that stuff and it doesn’t make you gifted.
It doesn’t, and I wonder how much “genius” here applies to a sense of bravery.
Yeah, maybe so, whether it’s bravery or necessity. Some people are brave and step out in spite of their surroundings or themselves, and others of us just luck into it. This is what I know how to do, and I kind of care what people think about it, but I’m not going to let their opinions stop me.
Right, and then speaking of another individual in that sense, your song “3 Al Purdys” … what is it about his use of language that holds such magic for you?
He had great insight for one thing — into people and the historical place of things. And, as a young poet, he’s kind of raw and brash and very Canadian, very colloquial, very rough around the edges, but interesting as all get-out. And then, as he gets older, as the poems become more recent, he becomes more speculative and thoughtful and more international, also. His thought processes are beautifully articulated and communicable, therefore.
He’s got some really visceral introspection’s.
His hit is the poem where he’s in a bar in Ontario, and he tries to get somebody to buy him a beer in exchange for a poem and it doesn’t work, and he reflects on what poetry is really worth, when it won’t even buy you a beer. And of course that’s the side of Al Purdy that my song is thinking of. Everybody who knows Al Purdy knows that poem, and it’s so archetypically Canadian. You kind of had to be there to appreciate it. I don’t know how it would seem to somebody from the U.S. Nonetheless, it captures some aspect of Ontario culture thoroughly. He’s basically my dad’s generation, and he spent the ‘30s riding the rails back and forth across Canada, looking for work like everybody else. Both of the spoken word sections in the song are excerpts from his poetry.
Congratulations, by the way, on being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I know the country has honored you in a few different ways, but what did it mean to be recognized for your songwriting?
It means people are listening. It’s gratifying and humbling, and I’m very grateful for it. An award is a thing, an event, and the event has its own meaning, and it had meaning. It was nice to be part of it, and then, you know, I have a thing to take home and put somewhere that I’ll have to dust. [Laughs]
What a way to look at it!
But what it represents, like I said, is that people are paying attention, and an artist can’t ask for anything more.
Very true. Well, my last question is admittedly silly. You’ve been called the “Canadian Bob Dylan,” so who would you say is the American Bruce Cockburn?
Um, I’d like it to be Tom Waits, but …
Alright, let’s just make that claim!
I don’t think anybody’s anybody except themselves, but I remember way back in the day being described in more than one review of a show as the Canadian John Denver, and the only similarity is that we both have round glasses. It’s such a cheap way to try to describe something. It’d be better to describe me as not the next Canadian this or that: He’s not the Canadian Bob Dylan. He’s not the next Leonard Cohen. He’s not the next Joni Mitchell. If you do enough of those, you can kind of get to what the person might be. If I had to be some American singer/songwriter, Tom Waits would be high on my list. Lucinda Williams would be high on my list, too. And Ani DiFranco is a terrific songwriter and closer, in a certain sense, to what I do. I forget where it was, but I was described as Ani DiFranco’s uncle.
It’s better than being described as “the next Canadian something or other.” It was actually kind of an honor, but these comparisons … if they’re not amusing, then they’re sort of not very nice.
Credit: The Bluegrass Situation – Counsel of Elders: Bruce Cockburn on Serving as Messenger By Amanda Wicks – Oct 20, 2017.
July 7, 2017 –
It has been 33 years since the release of Bruce Cockburn’s darkly infectious hit, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, a stirring commentary on the injustices the Canadian singer-songwriter experienced during a visit to Central America.
Today, the song remains as valid — and potentially misunderstood — as ever.
“A lot of people relate to it currently, in terms of Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, any number of places,” Cockburn said in a recent interview in advance of his July 15 appearance at the Vancouver Island Music Festival in Comox.
“Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be running out of war and pain.”
Cockburn recalls the “scary” experience of playing the song for 2,000 Christians at a music festival in England in the 1980s, and everyone enthusiastically singing: “If I had a rocket launcher … some son of a bitch would die.”
For reasons like that, he is not comfortable with people singing along to the song.
“There’s nothing joyful or celebratory about it. It’s truthful, but that’s not a pleasant truth to me. I don’t like reliving it.”
July 4, 2017
Rock ‘n’ roll poets are few, but Bruce Cockburn is one of those rare legends of both instrument and word.
His songs have been quoted in books and movies and even in other songs (by U2 in God Part II). Cover versions of his songs have catapulted other acts to stardom (Barenaked Ladies). And his name has been evoked in global conversations for humanitarian efforts and social development.
Other stars like Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett and Emmylou Harris are outspoken fans. Steve Bell, one of Canada’s most notable Christian performers, did an entire album of Cockburn covers.
Cockburn is, by any estimation, a master of the guitar. He plays a finger-style that was honed on jazz at the Berklee School of Music but the raw material was carved from the blues found around his Ottawa upbringing, then steeped in international concepts he picked up along the way. When Cockburn travels, he always brings a little something home.
He also has a healthy appetite for poetry, from which his abundant lyrics emerge.
He’s written some lightning bolts, the most famous of which is “gotta kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” found tucked in the folds of his classic hit Lovers In A Dangerous Time.
It is hardly alone. Sizzling metaphors and turns of phrase engorge the sails of his music career.
He told The Citizen that he studies master poets and reads it for fun as well, but he knows his place on that bookshelf.
“In a way, writing songs gives you an out. You can get away with – and sometimes you’re obliged to get away with – things that wouldn’t really stand up on the page very well, because they have to go with the music,” he said.
“I can say yeah, I’m a pretty good guitar player for a songwriter, or I’m a pretty good songwriter for a guitar player. It’s not really poetry, what I do, but it’s so much like it I hold myself to that standard.”
Jun 30, 2017 – by Bill King
We lived in what was stamped a “hippie haven” in the early seventies – Gothic Avenue, which borders Quebec Avenue – in High Park, Toronto. The brown rice/alternative lifestyle sanctuary was a haven for writers, musicians – in fact the late Billy Bryans lived only a few steps away and was playing in a band called Horn. Music was big fun and discovery. You could start in the early morning after a hit of a hash/tobacco joint and walk in on neighbours. Music played day and night, in fact it was all about checking out the person next door’s album collection.
The progressives blasted Emerson, Lake and Palmer – the countrified – Pure Prairie League – and the folkies loved their Tea for the Tillerman/Cat Stevens and a newcomer rising on the Canadian scene, Bruce Cockburn.
Even if you didn’t pay much attention you learned who the artists were were through peripheral listening. I had Bruce’s voice memorized as well as his fluent guitar playing. Cockburn stuck with you like he belonged in your life. Right time, right place!
The debut – Bruce Cockburn, produced by Eugene Martynec, came with a single that seemed to follow Canadians everywhere – Going to the Country. I know the inhabitants of Gothic Avenue were served a new side each year we survived the developers wrecking ball – High Winds, White Sky – Sunwheel Dance, Night Vision, Joy Will Find a Way and In the Falling Dark.
Come September, Cockburn is inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (CSHF)and releases his thirty-third recording, Bone to Bone. I connected with Bruce from his San Francisco home and collected his thoughts on a number of issues, episodes and events.
You have a couple of big events in September – induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and your 33rd recording – Bone to Bone. Your thoughts?
Any particular order? The exciting thing for me of course is the album – it’s been awhile since I’ve had an album out. I’m happy with the songs and how it came out. I’m anxious to get it out and get people to hear it. The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame thing is nice. There’s a lot of ‘halls of fame’ in the world. In one way, it’s delightful to be recognized by the scene – people who enjoy what I do and people who are close enough to it to appreciate what I do. That means a lot. I can also remember thinking, getting inducted into some kind of hall of fame means you should already be dead or about to be. I don’t feel like that now. It feels pretty good. I also remember being somewhere and there was the towing and removal hall of fame – every industry has one. This is a national one and a big deal – it’s nice and I’m very appreciative.
It’s about songwriting too – something very special.
It’s nice to be recognized by the people who understand what you do.
You have a healthy attitude about your career. It’s spanned decades and there is no reason to retire – just keep making music..
Yes – as long as I can keep doing it, that’s what I want to do. I don’t take it for granted or assume my feelings would ever change – it could, but hasn’t so far. I like what I do and I like performing the songs I write for people. It’s the way they get to hear them best and the way I get to share them in the presence of actual human feedback. As long as I’m physically able to do it, I expect I will.
Do you still enjoy your time on stage?
I’ve always been terrified on stage and that hasn’t really changed that much. Terrified would be overstating now but back in the beginning it was terrifying, now it’s just kind of stressful. When you perform your songs to actual human beings in a live situation, that’s where the song really lives and becomes meaningful. If nothing else, the experience of being there focused on the same thing with a whole bunch of people is a pleasant sensation. Then afterwards, it feels good for a few minutes and then you start thinking about all of the things you did wrong and then it takes a day or two before you start feeling good about it again. Along with the precarious situation is the idea of making a living without having a boss. Being able to travel – some people would find it as having an adventurous lifestyle. It’s a great thing – a gift and not everybody gets to do it.
by Cathleen Falsani
Updated on May 26, 2016. Original post published in March 2011.
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006
May 11, 2016 – A two hour radio interview that took place in April 2016, has been uploaded to WEFT.org.
Niecey interviews well known and respected Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
22 February 2016 – The title of Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, now out in paperback, is Rumours of Glory. Upon reading the book, it occurred to the Cockburn enthusiast and fellow Juno-winning musician Hawksley Workman that there was too much rumour and not enough glory affixed to the standing of Cockburn. The two artists spoke to each other recently by phone, about credit due, MTV and roads worth taking.
Hawksley Workman: The passing of David Bowie got me to thinking about artists who seem supremely aware of what they’re creating for themselves and their own self-mythologizing. My sense, Bruce, is that you weren’t ever really aware of the legacy you were creating. Is that fair to say?
Bruce Cockburn: It strikes me that legacy is a very ephemeral thing. I’ve had that word thrown at me, but I don’t know. I think it’s out of my hands.
Workman: But people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, they nurtured or fostered an image of themselves that accompanied their art. I have trouble that you’re not included in the group of names we seem to culturally deify, and that it’s because their kind of self-mythologizing wasn’t part of your landscape. Do you feel that?
Cockburn: For me, it’s always been about the music and words. But under the surface, I recognize I have an ego like everybody else. I want to be noticed. In the beginning, I was defensive about that. I didn’t want to think in those terms, and I went to great lengths to avoid acquiring an image of any sort. But then I found that I had acquired an image of somebody who was trying not to have an image. So, I couldn’t beat that one. Once you put yourself in front of the public, an image is thrust upon you – by people’s response, by the media, by some sort of natural reaction to having somebody who is up on stage seem larger than life.
Workman: I hear all that. But your compulsion to do or to go or to be seems to eclipse that of somebody who might stroke their chin and think about what move might make them cool.
Cockburn: I’d be a liar if I denied being aware of how things might look to other people. But, again, it’s out of our own control. You can make choices, and people might see you as being cool or as a jerk. I got called names for supporting the Sandinistas. You can’t take that out of the picture, but, for me, it’s always been about curiosity more than anything else. I don’t see anything as a compulsion.
In late 2014, just after the release of Bruce’s memoir, Rumours Of Glory, Peter Feniak interviewed Bruce and also reviewed the new memoir. Here is a reprint of that interview that appeared in the December 2014 Good Times.ca magazine.
Bruce Cockburn – Faith and hard-won maturity have calmed his “angry adolescent soul”.