Bruce Cockburn - Canadian Icon Returns to Niagara

Bruce Cockburn - Canadian Icon Returns to Niagara

By David DeRocco                   

Jackson-Triggs Winery is known for many fine wines, but it’s their amphitheatre that’s serving up one of Canada’s most revered vintages. As part of their annual concert series, Jackson-Triggs welcomes back iconic Canadian singer/songwriter/activist Bruce Cockburn.


Since his debut release in 1970, Cockburn has written more than 350 songs on 34 albums over a career spanning five decades, selling more than one million albums in Canada alone. Deeply respected for his activism on issues from Indigenous rights and land mines to the environment and Third World debt, Cockburn has undertaken work with organizations including Oxfam, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Friends of the Earth. An officer of the Order of Canada, the Ottawa-born artist has been honoured with 13 JUNO Awards, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

On his most recent album, the critically-acclaimed release O Sun O Moon, Cockburn once again weaves his lyrical tapestry with rich imagery and themes including his own mortality. Cockburn took time to chat with about

GoBe: Let’s start with a real easy one. Is there anything you enjoy about doing media around your tours and album releases at this stage? Or does it depend on avoiding having to answer inane questions like that one?


BRUCE: I usually enjoy the conversations I have with people. Occasionally someone asks a question that’s like, well, how do I answer that? It’s either so obvious or so obscure there’s nowhere to go with it. Most of the time the conversations are pleasant. Most of us like to talk about ourselves, I guess.


GoBe: You’re touring in support of you last album, O Son O Moon which has received great reviews. What validation if any do you take away from such things at this stage of your career?

BRUCE: I would lump reviews in with audience response in terms of how it affects me. An individual review, I don’t tend to read them anyway. But once in a while somebody sends me something that I check out. I don’t do social media, so I don’t really have access to reviews that appear. In general, it’s really affirming to get a positive response to stuff going out there. I find that I’m more touched by it now than I used to be when I was young. In the very beginning I adopted a stance that I don’t care what people said. I was just going to do my thing anyway. It was a defensive approach to the prospect of bad reviews or being ignored. Over time that wore off. At this point it feels really nice to have the approval of people.


GoBe: I know as a fan, when I look at artists I love – you included – heritage artists that often get ignored by radio despite the fact they’re releasing great albums, I love to see the positive reviews. Just for those reasons, that aging doesn’t mean a decline in the quality of your talents.


Bruce: I hope not. I think it depends on how you assess quality. If it’s a question of popularity, that’s one thing. Some people prefer to listen to music that doesn’t challenge them, a nice tune they can whistle or have as an earworm. Other people want more from the stuff. The approval is nice to get but you can’t operate from a place of seeking it. You have to write what’s there to write. If you do that there’s no reason to assume the quality won’t improve over time as you get better at what you do.


GoBe: Speaking of writing what’s there, lyrically the title track is woven with the reflections of an individual perhaps facing his own mortality. You’ve always explored the spiritual side of life in your songs. What are the positive impacts of embracing or accepting your own mortality as a person and as a songwriter.


Bruce: I think if you don’t accept it you’re going to be living at a higher state of stress from fear. You’ll also be blinding yourself to one of the most significant things that can happen in your life. I think ignoring it is not an option nor is obsessing over it. I pay attention to it. I want to be ready for it, although I’m not really sure what that means. It has partly to do with the fact my relationship with God is sufficiently clear that I’ll know him when I see him. Whenever that transition takes place, I want to be as ready for it as possible. I don’t have a clear sense of what being ready for it means other than being open hearted to the whole thing. I’m not anxious to die by any means. I’m very aware of the fact that with each passing year that comes closer.


GoBe: You recently turned 79. I saw Roger Daltrey last week who’s still rocking at 81. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are out there doing two-and-a-half hour shows in their 80s. Is being a musician the secret to a long life? Or is it more doing something that makes you happy?


Bruce: Not necessarily. There’s always Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. I think if you don’t succumb to all of the different pitfalls that are waiting, and you’re lucky, if you’re meant to die young you’re going to die young. But if you don’t do that there may be something about the lifestyle that is just a little bit less wearing on the system. I don’t do drugs and stuff so I don’t know what happens to people’s bodies that do. Somebody like Mick Jagger gets regular exercise in a big way. That alone promotes a degree of fitness and maybe longevity. Every other week in the news there’s someone I know who croaks so maybe it’s not a given.


GoBe: Perhaps it has more to do with doing something that makes you happy?


Bruce: It might, yeah.


GoBe: Throughout your career you’ve always been a great chronicler of the big issues of the day. When you look at the world today, do the number of issues and challenges facing the world seem greater than in previous decades and if so, is that a source of inspiration for a songwriter or an overwhelming challenge to know where to focus your lyrics?


Bruce: I write more as a reflex. I don’t plan. For me personally it doesn’t affect the writing. But I look around, and the big difference I see with conditions now and previously, and it may just be awareness, is the global nature of everything. There’s always been war, there’s always been tragedy, there’s always been people abusing each other. There’s always been people rising to the occasion and really shining in difficult circumstances. That’s history. My understanding of it earlier in life was more regional or situational. You can think of Indigenous people in North America faced with this reality of history. It’s ongoing. You can look at that as an issue. In fact, that issue is worldwide anywhere there has been a colony. You have to work that out. There’s a lot of talk in the U.S. about reparations for slavery. Well, slavery was hideous and tragic but it’s not unique in the world. What’s unique is the way it became an industry. The Babylonians were enslaving people, the Romans were enslaving people, the medieval British were enslaving people. That’s history too. At this point, anything that happens anywhere happens everywhere given our ability to communicate and travel. That makes certain things more worrisome. Is that fodder for songs? For me it is.


GoBe: In my day job I work for a large conservation organization. The song “Keep The World We Know” says “there are people who live to believe in the good we all can make.” You’ve been keenly aware of environmental issues for years. What’s left in your well of optimism? Do you think that humanity can embrace the smart choices we need to make to survive?


Bruce: I think it’s a longshot. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s important to not give into pessimism. It’s alright to be realistic. In fact, it’s required to be realistic about the chance. It ain’t over till it’s over. I think it’s important to keep site of the fact there are “lucky accidents” that happen, or that there are times when people really do rise to the occasion, or someone arrives on the scene that really can make a difference. I think it’s a longshot, so I’m not waiting around waiting for that to happen. It’s all worrisome. I’ve got grandkids and a young daughter. The prospects that young people will be facing is pretty daunting. That worries me more than anything else.


GoBe: From your 1970 self-titled debut through to 1979s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws you released 10 albums. Looking back, what were you thinking? That’s an insane amount of production by today’s recording standards. Looking back, do you remember that as a chaotic time, or just a great time of creative expression?


Bruce: I think if anything, the latter. When we were looking for distribution for the first album, we had a meeting with Columbia at the time. They wanted to sign me to a contract that would commit me to them over a time, and they wanted two albums a year so they would always have something new to promote. I just laughed at them. That’s ridiculous, I’m not committing to that. So I committed to one album a year, and it more or less worked out to be that. There wasn’t much touring to be done back then. You could do a national tour in Canada, for me it was like 10 shows. I had a lot of time in between to write and to hang out. The hanging out was what produced the writing. I think it’s true for any artist. The energy behind what you have to say pushed harder within you when you’re young than when you’re older. I still have things I want to say that I think of every now and then. I just don’t think of them as readily as I did when I was young. It’s partly because I said a lot of what I had to say already. No point in repeating the same ideas. I try to stay receptive to ideas, but it’s a combination of being busier, having more on my mind, and I’ve just slowed down. It really started to slow down in the 80s when the touring picked up, because we really started travelling a lot outside of Canada. A tour in t he 70s was me, my wife, and my dog in a truck driving around to gigs.


GoBe: So in retrospect putting out five albums in the 80s doesn’t mean you weren’t being lazy.


Bruce: (laughing) No, I don’t think so. In the 80s too, it was not just touring, there was also all the global travel that had nothing to do with music, like Central America, Nepal, Chile, places that had difficult stuff going on. That filled up a lot of time and mental space. As you said early, the spiritual aspect of things has always been front and centre, but in a way the journalistic writing that happened in the 80s and 90s was the result of that travel. That was another pace changer. After that I just started getting old (laughing).


GoBe: Speaking of getting old, you recently received a Doctor of Music degree at Waterloo, one of many many honours you’ve received over this amazing career. Are there any of which you are particularly proud to have receive?


Bruce: They’re all nice, and the recent one, nobody booed my speech, so that was good. People were nice. I think the one that means the most is the Order of Canada. Because I identify as a Canadian, that honour has a sort of special significance for me. It’s also not specific to anything in particular. The music business awards, the Junos, they’re great to get but they have less meaning to me than the non-music things. It has more to do with being a presence in people’s lives and having people be a presence in my life. It’s the human exchange that makes it valuable.


GoBe: They’re all incredible, but as a fan I’m happy that you’re part of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Your art and your craft has always been stellar over the years and that’s put you in the company of some great company that doesn’t include politicians.


Bruce: (Laughingt) Right?


GoBe: What can fans expect from your upcoming Niagara performance?


Bruce: We’re almost done with all the touring that’s occupied the last couple years. It’s a solo show. That’s point one. There will be a lot of words and a lot of guitar. In terms of content of the show I’m not sure, but likely it has a certain emphasis on the songs from O Son O Moon, the songs from that and a cross section of other stuff people have been responding well to, some of the things people will feel cheated if they don’t hear, and then some older stuff for fans who have been around a time will be interested in.


GoBe: Finally, you appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1980 as your career in the U.S. started to gain momentum. Are there any interesting memories you can share from that experience with that cast at the time?

Bruce: There’s a couple, not really very entertaining ones, but I was terrified at the time. I was practically blind with fear. And the atmosphere in the studio was very tense, not just because of my fear but it was the original cast, and they were kind of all disaffected with each other you can say. It wasn’t a good vibe to be working in at all. And the other musical act on the show was the Amazing Rhythm Aces who had a hit “Third Rate Romance.” I liked that song and the band was really cool, but I was so nervous at one point the guitar player in the band came over and shook my hand and I couldn’t converse with him. Years later we were down in Muscle Shoals recording somebody and that band was at the session. The guitarist was talking, and someone asked the producer who had he worked with and he mentioned working with me, and the guitarist said, ‘Bruce Cockburn, what an asshole.’ My reputation travelled. That was the mid-80s sometime. Then, in the early 90s I was doing a live radio show in the States that some of the NPR station carry, and on the show was that same guitarist. He was doing the singer songwriter thing. So I introduced myself and apologized. He didn’t remember any of it. He said, ‘I was probably drunk.’ So it all ended up fine.


1. On A Roll (3:31)

2. Orders (4:44)

3. Push Comes To Shove (4:12)

4. Colin Went Down To The Water (4:41)

5. Into The Now (4:15)

6. Us All (4:40)

7. To Keep The World We Know (3:30)

8. King Of The Bolero (5:24)

9. When The Spirit Walks In The Room (4:15)

10. Haiku (4:01)

11. O Sun by Day O Moon By Night (3:50)

12. When You Arrive (4:33)


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