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BRUCE COCKBURN > Interviews

Bruce Cockburn: The Roots Music Canada interview

by Ted Ferris – October 2, 2019

Bruce Cockburn’s 34th studio album, Crowing Ignites, was released on Friday, Sept. 20 on True North Records. The instrumental album contains 11 original songs and was produced, recorded and mixed by Bruce’s long-time confidant, Colin Linden. The album was recorded in a former fire hall located just a few blocks from Bruce’s home in San Francisco.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Bruce about his latest album, the upcoming North American tour, and what comes next for a guitar legend.

Ted: The liner notes explain that the title, Crowing Ignites, was translated from Accendit Cantu, a Latin phrase that appears on the Cockburn family crest. I’m curious to know whether you’ve always been aware of this part of your family history or was this a more recent discovery?

Bruce: Not exactly recent, but it doesn’t go all the way back either. I’ve always been aware of, and always felt kind of connected to, my Scottish ancestry, but I had not ever particularly researched the family history. My Dad did that in the ’70s and ’80s … but I think it was actually my brother who came up with the family coat of arms with that motto on it. It was initially translated as music excites, which I thought was very exciting, and so does he, because what more appropriate (laughs) family motto could I have? But later on I came across other versions of it that weren’t – it was clear that none of these were actually translations. So I actually just went back and translated the Latin, and it came up “crowing ignites,” which I thought had a much better ring to it than the other versions in English. [It’s] just a strong poetic phrase. As far as the ancestry side goes, my Dad actually put it together in a kind of self-published book. He’s the one that did that work; not me. But the connection to Scotland has always been there and remains. It was in the ’90s when we discovered that motto, but the translation was only this year … I was looking at that Latin phrase and thinking … “It doesn’t say ‘music excites,’ and it doesn’t say ‘he arouses by crowing,’ and it doesn’t say a couple other things that people claimed it said. So I got excited and went after it and translated it. And then when I discovered what it really said, I got much more excited … Then my wife said, “You gotta use that for your album title.” So I did.

Ted: Was the concept for Crowing Ignites being an instrumental album in place before the selection of the album title?

Bruce: Oh yeah. It’s not a concept album other than the fact that it’s all instrumental, and that was the intention to do that. Instrumental music, for me at least, isn’t really about anything in particular. It’s about itself … It exists, and it has the capacity to touch you in whatever way it does, and that’s it. … Pieces get titles because you have to call them something, and sometimes you get lucky and think of a title that really fits the piece. Sometimes the titles are obvious right away, and other times you have to struggle with it for a while. But in terms of the album as a whole, the plan was to initially to make a Speechless Two. We were going to collect the various previously released instrumental pieces that weren’t on Speechless and then add some new pieces to that and basically do the same thing we’d previously done ’cause there seemed to be some interest on people’s part on having that, and it appealed to me. But then I started writing pieces, and they just kept coming. So it became Crowing Ignites instead of Speechless Two.

Ted: You recorded the album in a former fire hall in San Francisco. Did you encounter any challenges converting the space into a functioning recording studio? From the photos that I’ve seen online, it looked like there were several hard surfaces you may have had to contend with.

Bruce: No, actually, far from it. It was the easiest thing. Kind of the most hassle-free recording I think I’ve ever done. … The room sounds great as it is. It’s true when you look at pictures you see a cement wall, but the cement wall is very heavily textured so it doesn’t reflect the sound … at all. And there’s a lot of wood in the room, so it really sounded nice. I had heard music in there before, and so I knew that it sounded like it did, and it just seemed like the combination of that and its proximity to where I live and my daughter’s school and so on it made it very convenient. My friend, who owned the place, was very happy to let us use it. Colin … went out and rounded up the gear and brought it in and set it up. It didn’t take much. It came in suitcases and it set up on a table, and there it was. I brought in all my stuff that you can see in the pictures: chimes and Tibetan singing bowls and all sorts of things with strings on them, and then we just – we spent a great week making a record.

Ted: While it sounds like the studio came together quite well, did any particular song present any unique challenges? I understand that “Seven Daggers” and “Bells Of Gethsemane” were constructed in the studio, and you used a vast assortment of unique instruments on each song. Did you have any difficulty putting them together, micing and recording them?

Bruce: Well, … not beyond what you’d expect. Let’s put it that way. I mean, everything’s a challenge. You’ve got to get it right, but there [were] no real difficulties at all. The most complicated one is “Seven Daggers.” We constructed that one and “Bells of Gethsemane,” as you pointed out … in the studio. All the other pieces, I knew what I was going to do when I went into the studio. But with those pieces, all I knew was that I had an idea for certain kinds of layering that I wanted to do. In the case of “Seven Daggers,” I wanted to use little kalimba things that I have, and the charango. … The charango can be tuned so it will play in A minor with the kalimbas. So we created loops out of those and made a layer out of that and then just started adding things to it. [Then] Colin put on the baritone guitar part, and I played the 12-string over top. That was the most elaborate of the constructions. “Bells of Gethsemane,” I just put down a layer of singing bowls and then another layer of singing bowls and then a layer of chimes and some other stuff and just played over top, playing the baritone myself on that one. So I wouldn’t call them challenging. There’s a process, but the only real challenging part, which is always there, is to get past the conditions of the day … How tired are you? Or how imaginative do you feel at this moment? … Those kinds of things. But that’s always there.

Ted: I recognized a few of the musicians that perform on Crowing Ignites. However, one name that I didn’t recognize was Bo Carper’s. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about him.

Bruce: Bo Carper is a guitar player that I’m acquainted with here in San Francisco – a very good guitar player actually. We met at a social gathering, and we ended up jamming together, so that’s how I found out what kind of guitar player he is. Because I don’t really know many people in the music scene here, I [contacted] him and asked him if he knew any percussionists, because I was interested in having somebody play percussion on some of the pieces. He gave me a couple of names. … One I didn’t get a hold of, and the other one … was already booked for the time period that we needed him for. So that didn’t pan out … I let Bo know that, and he said, “Well you know I’m a really great shaker player.” I had never heard anyone say that about themselves before, so I immediately perked up. And so he came in and played shaker. I thought this will be fun to try, or whatever. It’s not what I was exactly looking for, but it might work really well. And I think it does, and I think he did a fantastic job. A couple of the pieces we played live together, and then a couple of them he did as overdubs. Colin was involved in every aspect of the album, and he plays on the aforementioned “Seven Daggers” and also on “Blind Willie,” putting a great slide guitar part on that. And then Janice Powers, Colin’s wife, plays keyboards, as she’s done a lot of times before for me on other albums. She’s really great at coming up with these atmospheric keyboard kind of landscapy parts that I think contributed greatly to the overall effect of things.

Ted: Another person listed on one of the tracks is your daughter, Iona. What was it like including her in the recording of the album?

Bruce: It was fun. She got to clap along, and she was excited to be able to go in studio and clap her hands. I don’t know if it’ll mean too much to her in the long run, but it was fun at the time.

Ted: Let’s talk about a few of the songs from Crowing Ignites. The press release states that “Bardo Rush” came after a dream. Would you like to discuss the contents of the dream that inspired this particular song?

Bruce: The title was inspired by a dream. The piece is a piece. The piece wasn’t inspired by anything except I’m playing the guitar, I think … “This could be a piece [and it] sounds like a good idea.” All the pieces really are independent from other influences in that way. Sometimes I feel a connection … I’ll just sidestep here for a moment. A piece like “April In Memphis” was written on Martin Luther King day this year. “Easter” was written on Easter Sunday last year, and the fact that those pieces came on days that were sort of special days and had a certain mood that seemed to go with those days suggested that the titles should reflect that. In other cases, it was a matter of finding … a verbal phrase that somehow caught the feeling of the piece or that seemed appropriate to something in some way, some mysterious way. [Returning to] “Bardo Rush,” I do dream work. It’s sort of Jungian based dream analysis, you could say, and the Bardo plane is something that’s referred to in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, quite apart from Jung and everything. Jung used that, and other psychology uses that, as a metaphor in a way. The Bardo plane is where you end up when you die and don’t go to Nirvana, and it’s kind of analogous to being in limbo in Catholic terminology. It’s like kind of waiting, wandering in this dead place, and you can be drawn back into the Buddhist frame of reference, of course. You can be drawn back into other lives, new lives. What you want to do is try to get out of that, if you can, so that you can just not have to go through it all. So for the purpose of the Book of the Dead, it’s recited in the presence of the newly dead, assuming that they’re still hanging around and can hear this, and it’s intended as a kind of a … travel guide in a way to navigate the Bardo. … I liked “rush” because it’s a fast piece, and it seemed to fit … Wandering into Bardo is not necessarily associated with rushing, but because the piece was fast, it made a good phrase … “Angels In The Half Light” – that title did come from a dream. [It was] a specific dream, in which I was being girded for battle, basically by angels. The angels were in battle dress … They weren’t glowing figures with wings, but they were clearly angels, and they were getting me dressed up in some sort of bunker to go out and face some sort of adversary. I don’t remember what I thought was out there … It was a dark and spooky dream, but I had the clear support of this contiguous of angels, which made it feel pretty good. So there’s a case where a title actually was lifted from dream imagery directly.

Ted: The song “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz” was written for the Lawren Harris-inspired guitar that luthier Linda Manzer created as part of The Group of Seven Guitar Project. Did you play that guitar on this recording?

Bruce: No. I played my guitar, but I did play that guitar, Linda’s guitar, at the event that opened that show at the McMichael Gallery. All of the luthiers had somebody come in and play their instrument as part of the event. So I kind of wrote the piece for that event and then played it on her guitar then. But no, in the studio it … was an electric guitar. It was my big fat Gibson electric that I used on that.

Ted: The press release states that “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz” was originally slated to be included on the Bone On Bone album but wasn’t released.

Bruce: It was recorded and mixed then [and] with the band that appears on the rest of that album (Bone On Bone). It was a bit of an anomaly, but it seemed to fit well, and I wanted to put it out because I just loved Ron Miles cornet playing on it. It’s so beautiful, and I regretted having left it off Bone On Bone – not because it weakened Bone On Bone, because I think we did the right thing, but it was just too bad not to have it out there. So to get another chance to let people hear it was a good thing.

Ted: The song “The Groan” was originally composed for a Canadian documentary entitled La Loche. I recently watched the film about the aftermath of the shootings that took place in the northern Saskatchewan community in 2016. What lead you to the producer Les Stroud and this particular project?

Bruce: I had met him before …We were at some awards event together, and he performed in Toronto some years back … He got in touch and asked if I was interested in doing a score, and I was. But that piece, “The Groan,” as you would’ve seen, is not in the movie, but it was the first thing I thought of when we first started talking about it. He had used what he considered to be sort of stock stuff of his TV show that he had put in there as his kind of sample score, so we had a model to work to … It was a little bit bluesy and stuff, and I thought that was a good way to go, and that piece, “The Groan,” just kind of came to mind. But when I played it for Les he wasn’t sure about it in the film, and when I started really putting music together with film it was clear it wasn’t the right kind of thing for the context. But I had this piece … which I liked … The handclaps and the drums and stuff like that – it was just a guitar piece, but I did want Colin to play mandolin, old bluesy mandolin, and I kind of knew that going in. So I kind of had that in mind. But the handclaps and the drum thing were an add on.

Ted: Speaking of instruments, you used several instruments from quite varied origins on Crowing Ignites. As you previously stated, the concept for the album came before the title, but as a listener, I found it intriguing that an album titled after the motto of a Scottish clan would feature instruments from such places as Africa, South America, Nepal, France and the Appalachians.

Bruce: It is a bit weird because it’s everything but bagpipes (laughs). There’s no actual Scottish instruments there anywhere. But this is what I have. I have a room full of this stuff, and I wanted to use it all, or as much of it as made sense. So we just brought it all into the studio and set up. But the singing bowls and Tibetan element … there was [a] concept going in that I wanted to build a piece using those, because I love the sound … I had the same idea with the kalimbas and the charango. But Appalachian dulcimer … I don’t use it in the traditional way exactly. I’m playing it as if it’s a hammer dulcimer, but I don’t know how to play hammer dulcimer. So it just does a drone thing in “Pibroch.” … I’ve been interested in music from everywhere for as long as I can remember really seriously thinking about music … Over the years I’ve acquired these various instruments, and it’s nice to be able to put them to use.

Ted: Bernie Finkelstein (Bruce’s manager) mentioned that you’ve been rehearsing with a new sideman for the upcoming tour. I understand that you’ll be performing with your nephew, multi-instrumentalist John Aaron Cockburn.

Bruce: Yes. He was in the band on the Bone On Bone tour. But doing a duo thing is kind of a new thing for me. I did it once before … I’ve done isolated gigs like that here and there. Colin Linden and I have done a couple things where we played together … But the only other time that we really set it up as a tour that I can recall was Salt, Sun and Time. I toured with Gene Martynec, who plays on that album, and the album is … just guitar. There’s a few other little bits and pieces, but mostly it’s just the guitars playing on the songs, and we toured like that … You know, that’s like 40 years ago. It’s been a while. I’m looking forward to it quite a bit.

Ted: What can fans expect to see at any of the forty-plus dates on the upcoming North American tour?

Bruce: Well, we’re still working out exactly what we’re going to do, but it’s not going to be very different in terms of the content or the song list … from a regular show of mine. There’ll be some old stuff and some new stuff. There’ll certainly be some pieces from Crowing Ignites. But it’s not going to be a night of instrumentals. I think that people would be disappointed if they paid money for a ticket and that’s what they got. Most of the people that pay attention to me would want to hear lyrics, I think. And I do like singing songs. So it’ll be a mixture of things.

Ted: Looking to the future, any plans that fans should be looking forward to following the Crowing Ignites tour?

Bruce: I’ve never been very good at making plans, and I haven’t given it any thought at all other than the fact that this tour is going to run, and then we haven’t booked anything for the first part of next year at all. So I’ll be taking some time off. But what I’ll do in the time off, and any plans for future recording and all that sort of stuff remain unknown. I expect that, unless I’m incapacitated in some way, I’m going to keep on doing what I do … Eventually, there’ll be something else, but right now I’m just thinking about the stuff at hand.

Ted: Once again, congratulations on Crowing Ignites. I’ve listened to it several times while preparing for the interview, and I think it’s beautiful. It truly highlights your passion for the guitar. I wish you all the best on the upcoming tour, and I appreciate your chatting with me today.

Bruce: Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest, and thanks for the kind words. Nice to talk to you.

See Bruce live:

Oct. 19 – Koerner Hall, Toronto, ON
Oct. 20 – Centennial Hall, London, ON
Oct. 21 – FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, ON
Oct. 22 – Grand Theatre, Kingston, ON
Nov. 8 – Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC
Nov. 9 – Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Vancouver, BC

Credit: Roots Music Canada

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Bruce Cockburn on his lyric-less new album, Crowing Ignites

CBC Radio · Posted: Sep 23, 2019

One of Canada’s finest lyricists has decided to lose the words — at least for the moment.

Bruce Cockburn’s new album, Crowing Ignites, is his second foray into instrumental music. Instead of lyrics, Cockburn’s deft and soulful guitar playing takes centre stage. He dropped by the q studio to perform songs from the new album, including a duet with our own Tom Power.

Credit: CBC Radio q


Interview: Bruce Cockburn on “Crowing Ignites,” Meeting Jerry Garcia, and ‘Little Ass’ Bells

September 17, 2019 – Melissa Clarke

Americana Highways recently spoke with Bruce Cockburn about his new instrumental album, Crowing Ignites, due to be released September 20th. Here is what transpired.

Bruce Cockburn - 2019 - photo Daniel Keebler

AH: The title of the album is Crowing Ignites. Tell us the story behind this title!

BC: My brother discovered that the Cockburn family motto as part of the coat of arms is “Accendit Cantu” which is a Latin phrase. We were all excited because it was translated for us as “Music Excites” which seemed like a really fortuituous circumstance, especially for somebody like me. But awhile later I was looking up information on the family and it was translated differenty; it was translated as “He Arouses Us By Crowing” and there were some other variations, so finally I looked it up myself, and translated it myself and it came out “Crowing Ignites”! And it was such a punchy phrase it was exciting. My wife suggested I use it for my album title and I thought “yes I should”!

AH: This album is instrumental, as was your earlier album Speechless. In the absence of spoken human language, what does music, on its own, convey?

BC: It’s unusual for music without a lyrical content attached to it to convey a specific idea. But it certainly carries feelings. And it contains the capacity, depending on how the listener approaches it, to transport the listener to a place of their choosing. If I listen to mournful sounding Baroque pieces, for instance, I get a tremendously wistful peacefulness from that music. And there’s music that gets you all fired up and other music that makes you uncomfortable and so on. So it has that capacity as well.

In making music, basically what you hope for is that a listener will get out of it what you put into it, but there are of course no guarantees there. Fundamentally everyone experiences any kind of art through their own filter, and they are going to bring their own understanding of how it fits into their lives to the picture.

You can steer them by your title. But even there, does “Sweetness and Light” mean the same thing to me as it does to everybody out there? Probably not. So you’re always at the mercy of that subjectivity. But that’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand you can be specific about what you want to say but on the other hand there is still a universality to the absence of words because nobody has to get stuck on language, which can be another source of various interpretation. And then half the time people don’t understand the words anyway either.

AH: The song “Seven Daggers” has these wonderful layers, and different world instruments. I wasn’t even sure what one of the was when I saw the instrument list. How did you come to choose them?

BC: It was constructed in the studio. As is the pattern for me, I generally don’t go into the studio to make an album until I know what’s going to be on the album. For this album this was the case, but there were two songs, and this was one of them, that existed in my mind as a concept and had to be developed in the studio, because it was all about the layers.

I had this charango. A charango is a stringed instrument that is a little bit like a mandolin but is native to the Andes region of South America. You’ll hear Bolivian street bands in Europe playing it. I came across this in Chile in the early ‘80s, and I had one and I got another one, and now I have a solid body electric charango which I got in the late 80s that was made by Linda Manzer whose guitars I also play a lot. It’s traditionally tuned to an open A minor 7 chord. And so I thought I also have this sansula, which is kind of like an African thumb piano, and this is a particularly nice version of that with a skin head and it plays so nicely. And its tuned to A minor.

So I had these two instruments that are built to play in A minor, and I thought I can make a pattern here, there’s a piece here. So that’s how it started. And there’s another African instrument in there too, the kalimba.

AH: What about the “little ass bells” you credit in the liner notes? How little are they?

BC: They are quite small! (laughs) Those are a variation of the Indian cowbells you see around in yuppie gift stores sometimes. There was a store in Vermont where I spent a lot of time. This particular store had an incredible array of these bells. The buyer for the store had gone out of her way to get really nice sounding ones, they weren’t clunky at all. These are not tuned in a Western way but they have a really pretty sound to them. So I bought all of them! One of each of the different pitches. Some of them were actually quite large, they were practically a foot long and a few inches around and others that were tiny. I bought a whole selection. And I strung the tiny ones on a metal rod, and you can shake them that way, and that’s what you hear on the record. There are ten of them strung on this thing and they work in a way like sleigh bells, except they don’t sound anything like sleigh bells. They are much prettier.



Bruce Cockburn says Canadians need to face up to their country’s treatment of Indigenous people

Bruce Cockburn on Day 6 – podcast/interview
by Brent Bambury – CBC radio

‘To think that we can absolve ourselves of having exercised cultural genocide is completely foolish’

15 June 2019 – Bruce Cockburn has been writing songs about conflicts in the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people for decades and he has no quarrel with the use of the word genocide.

“I don’t have any problem allowing that word to be applied to the interaction between people of European extraction and people of native extraction in North America,” Cockburn said on Day 6.

Bruce Cockburn March 2019 photo Daniel Keebler

The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) sharply divided the country when it declared the oppression of Indigenous people to be “persistent and deliberate” and concluded it was genocide. Cockburn agrees with the conclusion.

“Whether it was intentional or not, and at times it certainly has been, the effect has been to destroy a culture,” he said.

Canada’s legacy media rejected the claim of genocide and so did some prominent Canadians. For them, Cockburn doesn’t hide his contempt.

“To think that we as Canadians can absolve ourselves of having exercised or attempted cultural genocide is completely foolish,” he said.



Bruce Cockburn talks with Lisa LaFlamme – CTV

Bruce Cockburn talks to CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme at the Academy Theatre in Lindsay, Ont., on Friday, May 4, 2018.

Bruce Cockburn & Lisa LaFlamme - CTV interview

The interview is 37 minutes long and touches on some of Bruce’s insights about being in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during wartime, much about his songs and where they came from, aging in relation to performing and being a Canadian.

Bruce Cockburn - Bernie Finkelstein - Lisa LaFlamme CTV interview Academy Theatre Lindsay, ON - 4 May 2018
Bruce Cockburn – Bernie Finkelstein – Lisa LaFlamme CTV interview Academy Theatre Lindsay, ON – 4 May 2018

Bruce Talks with Lisa LaFlamme


Something Bigger and of Greater Value: Talking with Bruce Cockburn

By M.D. Dunn
February 14th, 2018

At age seventy-two, after fifty years of recording, Canadian songwriter/guitar wizard Bruce Cockburn has produced some of the best music of his career on September’s Bone on Bone. Over thirty-three albums, Cockburn has offered fearless commentary on political issues, meditations on spirituality, and hundreds of brilliant songs that defy categorization.

He is perhaps best known for two mid-career hits, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” These songs, as different as they are from each other, are representative of Cockburn’s sprawling catalog. “Lions,” with its reggae-influenced rhythms is a showcase for his unique finger-picking style, and “Rocket Launcher” demonstrates a concern for social justice that runs throughout his songs. (Indeed, he brought politics into his art when musicians were encouraged to avoid “causes.” His involvement in the anti-landmine campaign helped bring about the Ottawa Treaty, in which 122 nations agreed to abstain from using the weapons.)

Admired by musicians and activists around the world, he is royalty in his country of birth. Yet, for all the critical acclaim, Cockburn is a humble working musician with a generous sense of humor. Of his legendary status, Bruce Cockburn has said: “You can be a legend, or you can be present. You don’t get to be both.”

In a recent interview, conducted over telephone, Cockburn discusses his music, songwriting, and the benefits of not selling out.

The Rumpus: How are things in California? From the outside, it looks terrifying.

Bruce Cockburn: San Francisco is such an anomaly in every sense: culturally, weather-wise, and in terms of its sociopolitical structure. As a city, it’s kind of all by itself, with the illusion of self-sufficiency. You’re insulated from a lot of the weirdness. One day, we won’t be. There will be that big earthquake, and it’ll be our turn.

Rumpus: Bone On Bone is a beautiful album. It gets more interesting with each listen. After about two plays, I could remember most of the lyrics, which says something about the strength of the writing.

Cockburn: I find it surprising you could remember because I have my difficulty with them. It took me a while to get it. I still struggle with the spoken word parts on “Three Al Purdys.” Of course, they are not my words, they are his. But it’s always touch and go if the lyrics are not just simple rhyming couplets.

Rumpus: That is such a cool song. Having Al Purdy’s poems “Transient” and “In the Beginning Was the Word” with verses from your narrator [a homeless performer of Purdy’s poems offering “three Al Purdys for a twenty-dollar bill”] is remarkable storytelling. Your verses in the middle fit perfectly with the verses from Purdy’s poems. My only complaint is that there are only two Al Purdys in a song called “Three Al Purdy’s.”

Cockburn: Well, I didn’t get the twenty dollars. Nobody was forthcoming with the twenty-dollar bill.


Bruce Cockburn on Fretboard Journal – podcast #185

5 February 2018 – On this week’s podcast, we talk to legendary singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Bruce was featured back in the Fretboard Journal #23 and he offers plenty of updates since then on his career, music and projects during our conversation. We chat about his Linda Manzer-built instruments (including the electric charango that she built for him), his memoir Rumours of Glory and the full-length documentary on his life, Pacing the Cage.

This episode of the Fretboard Journal Podcast is brought to you by our friends at Dying Breed Music, where you can find a bevy of great acoustic guitars from the Golden Era.

Fretboard Journal – Bruce Cockburn podcast #185 by Jason Velinde.


Bruce Cockburn: Just Wait and See – PremierGuitar.com

by Adam Perlmutter – PremierGuitar.com

19 December 2017 –

“I see the way the music unfolds as a kind of architecture,” says Bruce Cockburn. “There’s a sense of visual shape that goes with how a melody moves.”

After Bruce Cockburn released his self-titled debut album in 1970, the prolific Canadian singer-songwriter released at least one album every couple of years, yielding a body of work that would be covered by everyone from Chet Atkins to Michael Hedges to Jerry Garcia. But following his 32nd album, 2011’s Small Source of Comfort, things appeared to suddenly dry out.

Cockburn hadn’t disappeared but had transferred his creative energies from songwriting to penning a memoir. In Rumours of Glory, published in 2014, Cockburn shares his personal and political life—he’s a longtime activist who has spoken out on human-rights violations and ecological devastation, among other things—and offers insights into his most popular songs, like “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (from 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws) and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (on 1984’s Stealing Fire).

The period he spent working on the memoir also coincided with the birth of a daughter, and between the demands of fatherhood and writing, Cockburn didn’t feel he had any new songs to offer. In fact, after the book was completed, he wondered if his work as a songwriter was ending, too.

But then Cockburn was asked to contribute a song for the 2015 documentary film Al Purdy Was Here, a portrait of the late Canadian poet, and other new songs soon followed. These tunes are collected on Bone On Bone, which Cockburn recorded with his core band of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig, along with his nephew John Aaron Cockburn on accordion, and jazz trumpeter Ron Miles on flugelhorn.

Cockburn now lives in the United States, and, lyrically speaking, Bone On Bone is a product of life in the Trump era. Musically speaking, it’s a product of Delta blues, modal jazz, and non-Western influences—all distilled in the guitarist’s idiosyncratic fingerstyle approach, with its intricate counterpoint.

Calling from his home in San Francisco, the 72-year-old Cockburn discussed his return to songwriting, shared one of his secret guitar tunings, and explained why his Manzer instruments have been his longtime companions.

“Putting music to a set of lyrics is like scoring a film. You have words that need to be served by the music.”

After completing your memoir Rumours of Glory, you decided you wouldn’t go back to writing songs. Why did you change your mind?

It wasn’t really a firm decision. I just wasn’t sure about returning to songs, because it’d been such a long time since I’d written anything of that sort. The creative energy that went into the book is what would’ve gone into songs if I hadn’t been writing a memoir. Also, I started the book when my second daughter, who’s now 5 years old, was born. Not only was I having to embark on this completely new kind of writing enterprise, but also I was getting no sleep because of the baby. All of that just conspired to make an absence of songs. After the book was put to bed, I thought, it’s been a long time since I wrote songs, maybe I’m supposed to be doing something else now or maybe not. It was just wait and see. Then, during that waiting and seeing, I was hoping song ideas would come. Luckily, they did.

Did you learn anything about your songwriting in the process of working on the book?

I don’t think I learned anything I didn’t already know. It was in some ways instructive to go back over all that old ground, but all along I’ve had a pretty good handle on how my writing process works. It’s been this wait-and-see thing ever since 1970, when I tried being a disciplined writer for a year and that didn’t really work for me. This is in the book—I ended up with about the same amount of usable material at the end of the year of diligently writing every day as I would have if I had just waited for good ideas. Mostly what I was writing was just throwaway stuff. After that, I didn’t bother anymore, I just waited.

The Canadian fingerpicker’s 33rd album features his nephew John Aaron Cockburn on accordion and jazz trumpeter Ron Miles on flugelhorn, and was produced by longtime collaborator Colin Linden.

The opening song on Bone On Bone is called “States I’m In,” and overall the album seems to have kind of an anxious energy. Does the current political situation here in the U.S. factor into the writing?

In an indirect way, it definitely does, as it does for all of us. Who gets through a day without saying the name Trump? You can’t these days. It’s just ridiculous, the degree that his showmanship is able to keep us paying attention to the stupid things he does. In that sense, it’s definitely part of “States I’m In,” it’s part of “Café Society” … any of the things that have exterior references in them, pretty much. The political atmosphere certainly colors the songs.

On “Bone On Bone,” you’ve got an interesting concept going on—a combination of McCoy Tyner-sounding chords and blues fingerpicking moves. How did you arrive at that synthesis?

It’s a good question. I date myself every time I do that, because I’m a product of that period [modal jazz of the 1960s] very much. I went to Berklee for a couple years, studying jazz composition. Coming out of high school, that’s what I thought I was going to be doing with my life. Being surrounded by people who were dedicated to music and by the sound of their music 24/7 for a couple years was really great, and many influences came into my music because of that.

I’d already had a great interest in jazz, and I was a big fan of Coltrane and all that stuff. At the same time, I was listening to Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy and all the older bluesmen, trying to fingerpick like them, which I never really learned how to do. In the process, I ended up mixing a kind of mutant fingerpicking with a lot of the jazz elements that I was learning.

At first, I was self-conscious about the jazz thing. I didn’t want to invite comparison with actual jazz guitars, because I didn’t think my playing warranted that. I’m not that great an improviser and have never been any good at playing on changes and stuff like that. So I didn’t include jazz in my own musical thinking for a long time. It crept in little by little. By the mid ’70s, I had enough confidence to bring in actual jazz musicians to play with me in the studio, and to some extent live. Then it grew from there.

Cockburn favors a tuning he calls EGAD. “It’s like DADGAD,” he explains, “but with the 6th string kept at E instead of lowered a step. I like how easy it is to get that McCoy Tyner movement under your fingers in that tuning.”


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