7 September 2017 – by Andrea Warner – CBCMusic
“Take up your load, run south to the road,
Turn to the setting sun,
Sun going down, got to cover some ground,
Before everything comes undone.”
The gentle lilt of his guitar, that familiar voice a little more road-worn but still warm and wise, and those words. This is his first studio album in seven years, but few lyricists help us to know ourselves more deeply than award-winning singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
Above is the chorus from “40 Years in the Wilderness,” the third track off of Cockburn’s new record, Bone On Bone. CBC Music has the advance stream playing a week ahead of its Sept. 15 release. Order the album here and get a list of his Canadian tour dates here.
A week after Bone On Bone drops, Cockburn will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on Sept. 23 in Toronto, alongside Beau Dommage, Stéphane Venne and Neil Young. It’s a fitting honour for Cockburn, who, over the course of almost five decades in the music industry, has penned some of the most thoughtful and enduring folk and pop songs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including his U.S. breakthrough, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” and the gorgeous “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
But after writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, Cockburn wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to write anything ever again.
“I didn’t write any songs until after the book was published because all my creative energy had gone into three years of writing it,” Cockburn said in a press release. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with. As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”
Three years later, Bone On Bone is here.
Cockburn spoke with CBC Music over the phone from his home in San Francisco about writer’s block, finding his faith again and how the late Canadian poet Al Purdy helped kick start the making of Bone On Bone, his 33rd album.
The fifth song on the record is called “3 Al Purdys” and I love the fact that he was an entry point for you after your break with songwriting. What was your relationship to him and his poetry?
I actually didn’t have any relationship with him or his poetry really, until the invitation came to contribute to the film [Al Purdy Was Here]. I was aware of him certainly and I was aware of his reputation but I hadn’t really gotten into his stuff at all. When the prospect of doing something for the documentary was raised I went out and got his collected works and I was completely blown away and amazed that I’d missed it all those years. And regretful, because it would have been great to have met him, or at least to sort of been able to track the development of his work over the years. You can kind of do that looking at the book as a retrospective, but he really was an incredible poet and so Canadian. I can’t think of anyone other than Stompin’ Tom Connors who so exemplified a certain aspect of Canadian culture.
And there’s so much pathos and humour in his work.
When I got asked to write a song, I had not written anything for a while. All the time I was writing my memoir and I couldn’t really get into the concept of songwriting because all the creative energy was going to the book. I was kind of wondering, “Am I going to write songs again?” The invitation came to do this and it was like, “OK, this will be the kickstarter.” I immediately thought of this image of this homeless guy who comes across as being penniless for his art. I pictured him kind of in the wind, coattails blowing and he’s ranting on the street. Well, not really ranting, he’s reciting Al Purdy’s poetry, he’s obsessed with his poetry. The chorus is “I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a 20-dollar bill,” I think Purdy would’ve approved of that, probably.
I think so too.
Basically the guy’s like, “You look at me, you see a homeless bum, you think I’m ranting. But you’ve got to pay attention to this, ’cause you can spit on the prophet, but pay attention to the word.”
I think a lot about those themes, and they’re in your work, too, the obligation of humanity to see a little bit deeper than we sometimes want to.
I agree with you. When you encounter the surface of something, there’s a massive depth behind it. Allow for that even if you don’t know what’s in there, so that you have the chance to discover more. It’s important to kind of approach everything in life like that.
Can we talk a little bit about ‘Forty Years in the Wilderness’? I think this is one of the most extraordinary songs I’ve heard this year and I’d love to know a little bit about what went into writing it.
I was in church one day and the sermon was about Jesus descending from heaven and he realizes who he is, or what his mission is let’s say. One of the gospels basically describes him as kind of jumping up and running off into the desert. He spends 40 days in the desert and in the story he’s tempted by and being offered all sorts of great worldly things, which he rejects. This [sermon] happened right about the time, not to the date, but more or less 40 years since I’m a churchgoer. And I’m back in church and I’m hearing this, and I’m thinking, well — it’s not quite correct to say why, but a large part of me not being a churchgoer was learning about the world.
It hit me at the end of the ’70s, way back when, that if I was going to love my neighbour as myself I’d better find out who my neighbour was. I embraced urban life at that point, which previously I’d been very suspicious of, and I made a point of kind of socializing myself in a very different way from how I had been before that point. And over time, I mean, didn’t just happen overnight, but ah, you know, I had a lot of adventures. I met a lot of great people and some not-so-great people and I travelled to some amazing places and I pretty much fell away from going to church, although I did not fall away from my belief in God and my desire for a relationship with God.
My wife who was going through her own spiritual searching was kind of steered toward this particular church [in San Francisco] and had gone pretty regularly for several months before she managed to convince me to actually go and I went and I completely fell in love with the place — well, not with the place but with the people and the spirit that’s there.
Your guitar playing is really the centrepiece for so much of the record and I was really curious about how the guitar has helped shape you as a storyteller over the years. It seems like it’s an extension of your storytelling.
I almost think of it the other way around. I’m a songwriter because I wanted to be a guitar player. I started off wanting to play rock and roll guitar, under the influence of Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and Elvis. I never did end up playing that music, per se, but that got me wanting to play the guitar and, you know, over the years, the earliest years of playing I began to imagine myself being in the jazz world and playing, you know, composing music mainly, but playing on the guitar. I never got the chops together to be a jazz musician.
Well the reason I didn’t is that I felt after I got to know it more, that it wasn’t really where I was being invited to go. I was interested in all kinds of other music as well by the time this kind of turning point, decision-making wise. I was heavily under the influence of Bob Dylan and singer-songwriters/folk music of the ’60s. My mother said, “Well, you’re gonna have to sing, you know. Play guitar and sing too.” And I’m going, “Nah, no way, I’m not singing.” She had a lot to do with convincing me that that singing was something I could pull off, even though I was terrified of doing it.
Once I was learning folk songs and blues tunes, it wasn’t a very big step to start writing songs. It was the guitar that started it all. And I’ve always loved the instrument and loved making music on the instrument, whether there was a song to be sung or not, you know?
I’d like to talk about the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction. I was wondering if we could just briefly look at some of your most popular songs and just how your relationship has changed to them, perhaps, in some cases the decades between when you wrote them and when they are now. Let’s talk about ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher.’
That was a heavy song at the time and it’s still heavy when I perform it. In order to make a song live in a performance setting I kind of have to be in the song, I have to be in the state of mind I was in when I wrote it, and ah I honestly don’t like being in that state of mind. It’s not a fun place to be, but not because of the notion of committing an act of violence that I don’t particularly approve of, but just to relive the atmosphere that produced that song. But people like to hear it. I like playing it because I like the way the music fits. I like doing the guitar solo in it, in particular, so that helps mitigate the sort of cloak of angst that I have to put on in order to put the song across properly.
Does it feel particularly relevant again?
I don’t think its relevance has ever really diminished. The connection to the current goings on is pretty obvious, of course, and the … I mean if you write a song about war or about the kind of mindset that goes with war. We’re surrounded by it in the media right now and it’s right up in our faces because we’re being invited by a couple of maniacs to think seriously about participating in a war.
Absolutely. What about ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’?
I sing that song a lot, the same applies to “Rocket Launcher” and a couple other ones, the ones that have been particularly popular. I get tired of singing them because they’re in every show, you know? Like, “OK, can we just have a show that doesn’t have this?” But at the same time I want to sing them and I want to give people, first of all what they paid to hear, to some extent, and I also am grateful that people have allowed these songs to touch them and I don’t in any way want to be thought of as disowning these songs. So I sing them and I’m fine with that but at the same time, you know, “Lovers” is a song I could see not doing for a while except that it’s going to be in the shows because for the reasons I said. The fun part of this is going to be the tour that’s coming up is a band tour. I haven’t done a band tour for quite a while and so we can really rework some of these things a little bit from the kind of solo presentation that I’ve been giving. And that’ll make it fresh and fun for me.
What about an overlooked gem of yours? What do you think is a song of yours that should have resonated but maybe it didn’t and you love it a lot?
Oh boy. I don’t have a very good answer for that one. When I’m thinking about putting a show together or thinking about, like, the repertoire that I’m going to be drawing from for a period of time — ’cause I can’t retain all of the songs in my head at the same time. I can manage to hold about 50 or 60 of them and then after that, if I were to pick an old one I’d have to go back and relearn it. There are songs that the “non-hit,” quote unquote, ah, songs that I think of as, at any one time as part of the repertoire change over time and um, so right now I’m thinking about songs like “The Gift,” which I’d forgotten all about and it came back. Saw a video of me doing it on a German TV show and I thought, “Wow, that’s a pretty good song. I should get that together again.”
There’s a couple like that. There’s another, a song, this isn’t quite what you were talking about, but there’s one of the songs that’s really been popular with people, called ‘Peggy’s Kitchen Wall’ and that I have not been able to play for a long time because my fingers over the years, in the last decade or so, have become a little arthritic and they’ve actually changed shape a bit so I can’t quite reach as far on the guitar neck as I used to be able to do. It’s only a matter of of a couple of millimeters, but that’s a couple millimeters between one side of a guitar fret and the other side of the guitar fret so I haven’t been able to play ‘Peggy’s Kitchen Wall’ but I recently discovered a way to actually make it work so I’m excited about being able to play that again.
Listen via Spotify