Bruce Cockburn

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

Growing up when rock and roll was basically the taboo genre of music, but your main musical influence was literally the King of Rock and Roll, your only option is to make a mark in the music industry. Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist Bruce Cockburn has been making rock, jazz, folk music for over fifty years with musical diversity and song lyrics that display his humanism principals. Starting his career with his self-titled album released in 1970, this extraordinarily talented musician has achieved twenty-two gold and platinum records, which includes his Christmas album that earned six-time platinum accreditation. Now, Cockburn has just released his latest studio album O Sun O Moon and is taking his new music, along with his past hits on tour.

Catching up with Cockburn prior to his tour, he revealed some details about the show, his new music, past projects and experiences, and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: What can fans look forward to with the show?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, it’s a solo show, so that’s the most obvious feature of it, I think. There’s nobody onstage but me. I mean Dar Williams is opening, but at this point at least, we don’t have any plans to do anything together. It’ll be a fairly difficult show of mine in the sense that there will be a mixture of the new and the old. The difference this time around, I think having spent the last couple of or at least year and a half maybe doing the Fiftieth Anniversary tour that was supposed to happen just a couple years before that. There’s a new album out now or shortly to be out that will be out when I’m doing the touring that will bring me to you, and there will be songs from that featured in the show, of course. Some of which I’ve been doing in other shows, but most of which people haven’t heard. So, I’m actually quite looking forward to throwing those at folks, and the show will be a mixture of the new album and older stuff. Obviously, things that I think people will feel ripped off if they don’t get to hear and whatever other older things I feel like doing and think people will find interesting.

SFL Music: I heard and saw the video for “Us All”. It’s a great song!
Cockburn: Thank you.

SFL Music: You’re welcome. What would you say inspired that?
Cockburn: Just looking around. All my songs are kind of a response to some trigger that I feel, like some emotional trigger. Just looking around at the scene through the Trump stuff, to the COVID, to just the combination of the polarizing politics, and the kind of forced isolation of COVID has been very unhealthy I think for society at large. Not just in the U.S., but certainly in the U.S. among other places, and I just really wanted to make a statement about the facts that we are a community and that standing in effect kind of across the street from each other and calling each other names isn’t really productive (he laughed). So, this song kind of came out of that line of feeling and thinking.

SFL Music: I did notice songs on the Album O Sun O Moon that there were a couple that look like there may be a theme? “On a Roll” and “Orders” and “To Keep the World We Know” which is I think about climate change?
Cockburn: Hmhmm.

SFL Music: That had Susan Aglukark on it. How did that come about?
Cockburn: It was Susan’s idea actually to try and write a song together. I welcomed the idea. I haven’t done very much of that over the years. A little bit, but it was just nice to think of collaborating, and the direction of the song was her idea. She was reacting to all the wildfires everywhere and she doesn’t live in California or anywhere there were wildfires, but what was interesting was that you didn’t have to look very far to see the effect. The song of course, lists a lot of places where some of which we don’t really see in the news, but where the same kind of thing was happening as was happening in California and other places in North America. B.C. for instance too in the year when we were writing the song. There’s a reference in the song to the “flames coming out of the kitchen tap” and in a community up on the shore of Hudson Bay, it wasn’t related to the wildfires and all that, but there was some kind of toxic waste material was fermenting underground and causing gas flames to be coming out of people’s kitchen taps. You turn the tab on and here it’s a Bunsen burner. So, even though it was a little bit off the topic, it still was related to the abuse of the planet, and also at least partly responsible for the climate change. So, it seems like a good thing to put in, and the irony of that was just the kind of weirdness of it was appealing to sort of draw attention to, but yeah, it was fun to write that song. Even though it would have been more fun if we would have been able to sit in a room together and work on it, but it was written long distance and by email and phone call, whatever.

SFL Music: You write a lot about environment and politics. Would you say there was a theme with this album?
Cockburn: Not intentionally, but the way my process works is, I write a song when I get an idea or I try to, and if when I have enough of those, I make an album. So, it’s not like there’s any overriding intention to have a theme, but what has happened in almost every case that I can think of over the years, is that the songs are the product of a period of time in which they’re written and they reflect whatever I’m reflecting off of in that period of time. So, between BONE ON BONE which was the last album before this that actually had lyrics. The one immediately before was instrumental, but between then and now, these songs came out and we’re all kind of sharing the same big picture experiences. The effect of the atmosphere that we’ve been living with, they produce these songs. So, it gives them a sense of unity and a sense that there is a theme even though it wasn’t intentional, but as you pointed out, there are a couple of different themes. Spirituality is one and the environment is one, and the need to respect each other is a big one too.

SFL Music: Would you say your inspiration for writing comes from your everyday surroundings?
Cockburn: Pretty much yeah. I mean, each song has its own motivation and its own context really and when you put them all together on an album, then it assumes a sort of larger purpose kind of frame. The first song I think of all of these If I remember right was “When You Arrive”. It might have been “US ALL”. It’s one of the two because they were both written around the same time. I think “When You Arrive”, it’s basically a reflection of getting old (he laughed) more than anything, and getting old in San Francisco in a time of COVID. I’m kind of joking about that. It’s more about what’s important about getting old is that you have time to kind of prepare for what’s next. People who die young don’t get that. Those of us who are too old to die young get to anticipate what’s coming, and I mean of course nobody knows, but we all have feelings about it and notions about it, so there’s a lot of that in the album. I think circumstantially, that’s kind of turned out to be one of the themes as well. That song, “On a Roll” which was also one of the earlier ones to be written. “Colin Went Down to the Water” of course, that’s specific because that’s about a friend of mine who drowned in a scuba diving accident in Hawaii while I happened to be in Hawaii. He lived there which I don’t of course, but we were just there hanging out and then this happened. There’s a fair amount of stuff which isn’t really new for me. I mean, a lot of my albums have references to that passage (he laughed). “Wondering Where the Lions Are” does for instance.

SFL Music: What would you say inspired you to become a musician?
Cockburn: Elvis Presley. Elvis was the closest thing I understood to divine when I was thirteen, fourteen and the guitar playing, I didn’t know who it was at the time, but Scotty Moore who played guitar with him in the early days, really was the guy who made me want to be a guitar player. When I started learning guitar, I discovered and was introduced to all kinds of other music that became important to me, but in the beginning, it was all that early rock and roll. Buddy Holly likewise. They were the two big ones.

SFL Music: Did you take professional lessons?
Cockburn: Yeah. In that era, guitar playing was associated with rock and roll which was associated with unsavory teenage behavior in gang form or whatever. I know that my parents had visions of biker jackets and switch blades and greasy hair and all that sort of stuff. None of that existed in Ottawa to speak of. Certainly not in any numbers. I found this beat up guitar in my grandmother’s closet. No one could remember whose it was, but it had been sitting in there for decades and I started banging around on it trying to figure out rock and roll riffs, and my parents said look, we’re good with you playing the guitar. You’re obviously into it and everything. I’m paraphrasing. They didn’t use that language, but they said, “there’s two conditions. We’ll support that, but there’s two conditions. You have to promise to take lessons and learn to play properly, and you have to promise that you won’t get a leather jacket or grow sideburns.” Both of them seemed perfectly easy things to promise so yeah, ok. Yep. So, I took a couple years of lessons from a teacher in Ottawa and then it went on from there. At the end of high school, I was also studying composition, not in the beginning, but it got to this where I studied some piano and then caught a classical composition, and then I went to music school to study composition thinking I was gonna be writing music for large jazz ensembles. Then that turned out not to be the right path and turned-out songwriting was.

SFL Music: How did your autobiography rumours of glory come about?
Cockburn: Harper made me an offer (he laughed). HarperCollins (Publisher). We met in a bar on Haight Street in San Francisco and they made me an offer that I decided not to refuse. I had other invitations to do something like that from different sources, but it never seemed like the right time and this one came. It was a good offer for one thing, but it also came at a time when I felt like I had enough of a story to tell. There’s no point in writing a memoir when you haven’t done anything, in my opinion. We’ve both seen probably you know, you go in a book store and there’s a coffee table book that’s like the memoirs or the life story of some seventeen-year-old pop star or a twenty-year-old hockey player and it’s like come on, (he laughed) how much of a story is there? My mother gave birth to me. When Harper offer came it was late enough in the game that I felt like I had something to say and so it was easy to accept it.

SFL Music: You’ve won thirteen JUNO awards, been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award as well as an Officer of the Order of Canada. How did that come about?
Cockburn: The Order of Canada is a civilian honor that is bestowed on you by the federal government in Canada. They give so many people a year, so It’s been going for I don’t know how long. Quite a while now that the Order is maybe a hundred years or more. So, there’s a lot of us (he laughed). And a lot of dead ones as well, but it’s an honor. I mean, I felt quite honored by it. I got promoted at one point. There are three ranks. There’s Member which is the lowest, Officer which is middle rank and Companion of the Order is the highest rank. Every prime minister of Canada is inducted automatically just by having been prime minister into the Order as a Companion, the highest rank. I think the intention of the Order is to promote kind of all the good stuff about Canada. So, if you contribute to Canadian life in some meaningful way, then you’re considered for inclusion in the Order, and so I guess they thought I did.

SFL Music: What would you say is the secret to the longevity that you have?
Cockburn: Not dying (he laughed).

SFL Music: Oh goodness. Ok!
Cockburn: Well, it sounds silly, but really, I’ve been able to just keep doing what I do. It’s not just death of course, other things could interfere with that, but there’s been no reason to change direction in that sense. When I got to the end of writing the book, I kind of wondered if I was still a songwriter because it, a few years since I’d written a song. At that point all my creative energy had gone into the book, but then songs came. So, it continues.

SFL Music: What would you recommend to a new artist, an up-and-coming artist?
Cockburn: Hard to know. My advice in the past would have been, well and this would still apply, learn your instrument. Learn whatever your instrument is. Whether you’re just a singer, and I don’t mean to say just a singer, but If singing is only what you do, is all you do, do that really well. Learn how to do it well. That doesn’t mean learn to become an opera singer, but learn how to control your breath. Learn how to transmit energy through the medium of your voice and the same applies to any instrument you’re playing. It’s just be good, ‘cause there’s a lot of hackers out there and some people have more talent than others and are going to be better than others at various things, but you just got to be as good as you can. That would be point one, but in the old days, I would have said, keep your publishing. Whatever you do, don’t sell your publishing or don’t trade it away for a record contract ‘cause all the record companies would be trying to get it off you because its where the money was. But now the money’s not there anymore unless you’re doing a genre of music that is gonna get a lot of radio stations which is not a given anymore. So, I would say still hang onto it though because you still want to be able to take advantage of for instance, if somebody wanted to put your song in a movie or like the eighties songs that got into Stranger Things for instance. Whoever owns Kate Bush’s publishing cleaned up as a result of that, but the streaming services which is where everybody hears their music these days, don’t pay. So, this is why the scene had changed and it’s not lucrative anymore the way it once was. For me, I’ve never been in this game for the money, but it doesn’t hurt to have it and there’s no reason why somebody else should reap the benefits of your labors unless you like them enough to want to offer that. So, that would have been a piece of advice that I don’t think is really meaningful now. Otherwise, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to start out in this climate. One nice feature of the scene having changed in the direction it has, is that live music, everybody wants to play live now because that’s how we get paid. I mean, we all wanted to play live anyway because we love playing. I’m saying we in a pretty vague way here, but speaking for myself, I like playing live. It’s more fun than recording. Although I like recording too, but it’s kind of thrown the emphasis back on live performances in a way, which is I think a good thing.

SFL Music: You’ve played onstage with Jimi Hendrix and Cream?
Cockburn: Well, I didn’t exactly play with them, but I was in a band that opened for them. If I had been a little bit braver, I could have been in a band with Jimi Hendrix because we were all at a party after. It was in a recording studio in Montreal. They had a stage set up with instruments like drums and stuff. People would get up if they wanted to, and Hendrix did and I could have, but I was too shy, embarrassed.

SFL Music: Is there anything new for fans to look forward to? New videos or singles coming out? You mentioned “When You Arrive”.
Cockburn: These decisions are not ones that I’m not terribly involved in, but “On a Roll” is going out to radio kind of now as we speak. So, that’s gonna be the first track the record company people are pushing and it’ll be in the shows of course as will most of the songs. I mean, I’m not gonna do the whole album every night because that would not leave enough time for other stuff that people want to hear. Over various nights, all of the stuff will be in the show, but videos and stuff, I don’t know. In the eighties and nineties, we made videos. A couple of them were pretty good. Some of them weren’t very good, but the energy’s kind of gone out of that. The videos that are done now we could do, I guess. I don’t know. I’ve never been on TikTok. I’m not quite sure what you do. I’m not sure I’m really the right material for that, but I know True North (Records) had a guy doing some sort of graphic videos that were simple, but kind of nice-looking graphic videos to go with some of the songs. You said you saw “Us All” and I think they did one like that for something else. In the past there’ve been others like that and there maybe more. I don’t know what the plans are there, but we’ll see what comes. I think how much attention gets paid to stuff like that over time will be determined by what kind of response the album gets, I guess. If it gets a lot of attention, a lot of sustained attention, then there will be more of those things.

SFL Music: Was there anything you want to add about the show?
Cockburn: Everybody should come (he laughed).

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