A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn
If you were asked to name a Canadian artist who has, in the course of his or her career, released 34 albums to great international critical acclaim, the name Bruce Cockburn might not jump immediately to mind. That may be due in part to the fact he’s not an ever-present face in the media, has not been associated with salacious headlines nor has he ever been a guest judge on any number of cheesy talent shows. No, Bruce Cockburn is more like Canadian weather – sometimes heavenly, sometimes harsh and demanding, always changing and something all Canadians appreciate for its inherent unpredictable nature.
Since releasing his self-titled debut in 1970, Cockburn the singer-songwriter has delivered an incredible cache of songs, including “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “Tokyo,” “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” “Lovers In a Dangerous Time,” “If A Tree Falls,” “Call It Democracy” and many more. Cockburn the musician, however, has also earned acclaim for his exceptional acoustic guitar playing, wonderfully showcased in his award-winning 2005 instrumental collection, Speechless. This September, Cockburn will be releasing a follow-up, Crowing Ignites, featuring 11 original acoustic compositions that deftly illustrate why he was acknowledged by the Canadian Folk Music Awards as Best Instrumentalist.
To promote his upcoming July 13th appearance at the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, Cockburn took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly about going instrumental, winning awards and surviving earthquakes in his current home of San Francisco.
GoBe: An instrumental album at this time seems like a lost opportunity, because the world needs more words of wisdom from Bruce Cockburn. But on the flip side, it’s perhaps a perfect fit for the times given the way people are finding words so divisive and polarizing these days. What was your primary motivation for recording CROWING IGNITES and did the great response to Speechless play any factor?
Bruce: Our intention started out to be to make a sequel to Speechless. It was going to be a collection of previously released tracks that weren’t on Speechless and a couple of other old things that weren’t on that collection and some new material. But I wound up with so much new material that it became its own album, Crowing Ignites. Once we started doing it it took on a momentum of its own. With respect to the absence of lyrics, there’s lots to comment on in the world right now, but there’s also a lot of people commenting. I’m not sure that adding more clamour to the clamour is really that helpful. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all say what’s in our hearts to say, but I don’t think the world needs to hear more from anyone about Donald Trump for instance. Everybody knows what they think of him whether for or against.
GoBe: There’s 11 new original tracks on this release. Where does one start composing for an instrumental album. You have a blank slate – is that daunting not having lyrics to build around?
Bruce: It’s a different process. Your question kind of implies that you know this, that I generally kind of start writing songs with the lyrics and music kind of becomes the vehicle for the transmission of those. In the case of instrumental pieces, the ideas come from the guitar itself or from out of the air in a kind of way. There’s two pieces on the new album that were constructed in the studio. One of them started with Tibetan singing bowls and the other one started with a little riff on the triangle and started from there. With those exceptions the pieces were composed beforehand. They just came from practising and just tooling around basically.
GoBe: So is there anything you had to learn or that you wound up learning as a musician in order to produce this album?
Bruce: Well, I always write a little harder than I can actually play. I’ve tended to do that over the years, not always but often I do. It’s part and parcel to the process. I discover something on the guitar that I didn’t know how to do before, or is a way of using something I know how to do but it’s a different application of it. So then there’s a learning curve involved that’s built right into the composition of the piece. In that sense, there’s definitely things I had to learn. I wouldn’t say a radical departure, I didn’t turn into Pat Martino or a classical player.
Bruce: When you pour your heart into a lyric there’s obviously an emotional connection to the song. Is there as much of that put into a song without the lyrical attachment, or is it strictly physical – or maybe metaphysical?
Bruce: I think there is as much. It’s not as specific obviously, because there’s nothing to attach to your ideas. Having that emotional content is one of the things that makes an instrumental performance effective. The capacity to contain that emotion is one of the things that makes a piece workable or a successful composition.
GoBe: The press materials around the new release mentions a makeshift studio that you and producer Colin Linden pieced together in a fire station in San Francisco to record in. What was involved in that process and what impact did the limitations or nuances of the studio have on the final results?
Bruce: You know it came out of a kind of self-interested intuitive flash on my part. Where I live in San Francisco is about four blocks from where my young daughter goes to school. I would walk her to school every day. In the process I became acquainted with and got friendly with a woman who owned this former firehouse that was half way between my house and the school. It was converted into a nice three-bedroom condo with mostly open space. I had been to a house concert there, they run concerts there and other kinds of special events. At one point I ran into my friend Anne who owns the place at a café. She didn’t use the place day to day on a regular basis. I asked her what she thought about using it as a studio and she took about half a second to say ‘that’s a great idea.” I checked with Colin to see if he could assemble the necessary recording gear and that’s how we proceeded. We spent a week in the place just setting up all the instruments and just started playing.
GoBe: Tell me you got to fulfill every young boy’s fantasy by sliding down the fire pole.
Bruce: (laughing) No, there’s no fire pole. I don’t know that there ever was. It a great space to work in.
GoBe: It’s been nearly five decades since your debut in 1970. You’ve seen the industry change dramatically through those decades, with your music welcome on almost all formats at one time or another. Did you ever consciously feel you needed to change to suit the industry, or have you always simply created what you needed to create such as your upcoming release?
Bruce: I can remember a couple occasions, for instance in the 80s, where we thought ‘everybody is putting out a single, maybe we should put out a single.’ As it turns out, we recorded “Coldest Night of the Year” with that in mind. By the time the record got finished and came out it was springtime and no one wanted to play it. It’s become kind of a seasonal thing on radio in Canada, but it was not a success as a single at the time. I don’t think about it much. Of course I’m as affected as everybody else by the trends that sweep through. If a thing is exciting for everybody it’s probably exciting for me too and I might want to do something like it. Really, I don’t feel like I’m in the business. I’m in the business of making music basically and I suppose I have a certain role as a commenter on things. That’s just how it’s developed over the years, but that wasn’t really intentional. The intentional part of what I do is to try and make music that I’m interested in, and write songs that say something I’m interested in saying.
GoBe: You say you’re in the business of making music. In doing my research and reacquainting myself with your catalogue, you had 10 albums released in the 70s, another 10 in the 80s. Does that enormous output seem ludicrous to you now – especially knowing that it takes artists today a year to produce a song?
Bruce: Well, it’s the other way around. I think taking a year to produce a song is ludicrous. There’s no point in pining for the old days, but in the 70s and 80s we recorded an album and we could put it out a month later. You could spend a couple weeks recording the record and it takes a couple of weeks to put stuff together and it’s out. So you could predict what the climate will be when you put it out. Now, because of the corporateness of everything, it takes forever. It takes a year to get an album out. In our case we’re doing it kind of fast, because we recorded the album in February and it’s coming out in September. We’re being speed demons with this one.
GoBe: And that included building a studio too!
Bruce: (laughs) Yes, including building a studio.
GoBe: You scored the 2018 Juno Award in the Roots category for your Bone on Bone album. What do such awards mean to you 34 albums deep into your career?
Bruce: You know, it’s an honour to be thought of highly by my peers and everyone else. It’s not something I take for granted. I like to get that kind of attention, but it’s not a measure of anything really meaningful. I don’t want to denigrate the process. If people want to celebrate what we all do, that’s great. More power to them. It’s an honour to be included, but it’s certainly not what I live for.
Gobe: There’s a couple awards that may hold more significant meaning – your Order of Canada and your induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which of those two accolades holds more significant meaning to you?
Bruce: The Order of Canada is in some ways is the only significant accolade of that sort. Being made an Officer of the Order of Canada, a cynic might say what’s the difference, it’s just more PR. But I’d rather be associated with PR for the nation. I just feel that it’s something, because of the nature of how the Order was set up, it transcends politics, individual governments and it’s a reflection some way of the degree to which some aspect of Canada includes me. To be included and sort of embraced by that Canadian persona is very rewarding and meaningful to me. I have felt for decades that my life and the life of the country are connected some way. I was born there and spent most of my life living there. There’s some kind of way that I’m a part of Canada and Canada’s a part of me. To have that encapsulated in the medal that’s a symbol of the Order of Canada is very meaningful.
GoBe: From where do you derive the greatest pleasure these days; in the writing and creating, or the performing of the music you make?
Bruce: It has always been two different things. It’s kind of schizoid. The writing on one hand, the process, whether it’s lyrical or instrumental, is like a treasure hunt and it’s fun. Once it gets rolling it can be exasperating at times too. But it’s like being on the trail of something and chasing it down and that’s fun. Performing, when it works well and all the conditions are right, is a whole different kind of fun. It’s more immediate, right then and there. If it works well it’s very enjoyable.
GoBe: It worked well the last time I saw you perform at Jackson-Triggs. For this show, will it be an entirely acoustic show in support of the album or will we be treated to a mix of songs and instrumental music?
Bruce: The album’s not even out yet, so we’re not really thinking about Crowing Ignites with respect to these shows coming up. There will be something from the album, but it’s not the emphasis. It’s a band show, the same band I was touring with for Bone on Bone, but this time a strictly acoustic format.
GoBe: Final question then. As a current resident of San Francisco, have you experienced an earthquake yet?
Bruce: I’ve only noticed one. There have others since I’ve been here but for some reason I don’t seem to notice them. I don’t know if it’s my own shakiness or the fact I happen to be in a car at the time. There have been no big ones. I do recall my wife and I were lying in bed one morning and there was a kind of cracking noise, not particularly loud. The whole building made a cracking noise and there was a ripple that ran across the ceiling. My wife said ‘that was an earthquake.’ It was a four on the scale, epicentre was down near San Jose. That was my only conscious knowledge of one so far.
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