A Conversation With Bruce Cockburn

Small Source Of Comfort (True North) is the latest LP from legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s also his 31st studio album in a career that dates back all the way to the mid-’60s. Over the years, Cockburn has become one of his country’s most successful and honored musicians, winning more than his share of awards and accolades, not only for his music but also for his longtime humanitarian work. This week, Cockburn adds MAGNET guest editor to his already impressive resume. We caught up with him via email.

MAGNET: This is your 31st studio album. If asked, do you think you could, off the top of your head, name the other 30 in the order they were released? How many songs do you think you have written in total?
Cockburn: I believe I could come up with the correct list of albums and the order of their release. I often use them as reference points when trying to remember when other things happened. I guess I’ve written between 350 and 400 songs. Quite a few crappy ones were written before the ones on the first record.

Your first album came out in 1970, before a lot of us were even born, so you have seen, up close, all of the changes in the music industry. What do you think are the most significant ones? How different is making and releasing records for you now than it was in, say, 1970 or 1980 or even 1990?
The most important and most obvious change is in the technology. We used to have to go to the store and buy vinyl (or even bakelite) discs. We used to have to go to a professional studio to record! For me personally, the way we do things hasn’t changed so much up to now. It seems likely that there are changes looming on the horizon, as record companies become ever more redundant and the means of distribution keep changing.

I heard you only recently finally got a computer. What made you give in to technology, and more important, is it a Mac or PC? Do you involve yourself with Facebook, MySpace, etc.?
It’s true I only recently got a computer. My girlfriend gave me a Mac for Christmas. It’s really she who has driven my plunge into the e-world, first with a BlackBerry, then a digital camera and now the Mac. I had not felt the need for these things before this relationship,, but because of my travels we spend a lot of time apart. It’s very helpful to be able to communicate faster. And then, of course, there’s the shopping!

You made a trip to Afghanistan in 2009, which inspired two songs on the new album. What prompted you to go there? How did it shape your view of the war going on there?
I went to Afghanistan in September 2009 as part of a small group of people from the world of music and sports. The expectation was that we would offer some entertainment and a morale boost to the troops based at Kandahar Air Field. This we did our best to do. At that time, the base was being run by the Canadian Forces. I was happy to perform for our people. My personal motivation had a lot to do with curiosity and also a sense of solidarity with, and concern for, all those young Canadians risking life and limb so far from home. My brother had recently joined the army as a doctor, after a successful career in the civilian sector. He was soon sent to Kandahar for the standard six-month tour of duty in one of the base hospitals. He and I both thought that I should try to get there during his stay. I’d wanted to do something like this for years and it had never happened, so it seemed like here was my chance. Over the years I’ve traveled to other war zones, first in Central America, then Africa, then Asia, and Kosovo and the Middle East. In the course of some of those trips, I have found myself in the company of soldiers, but never Canadians. It excited me to see what it felt like to be among my own people in that kind of situation. I have to say I was very impressed with the sincerity and professionalism I found among the many Canadian Forces members I talked to. They clearly believe in their mission, which they see as one of creating an atmosphere of peace in Afghanistan that would permit development in all its forms. They picture a 30-year process. A whole generation of kids has to grow up in relative security for there to be a sufficient level of education to afford the understanding and expectation of democracy, for example. Our soldiers feel they can succeed at this if given the necessary support. I’m not so sure they can. At the same time, though, how can our increasingly globalized world tolerate the chaos that has been that country’s history? The absence of human rights, especially for women, cries out for change, not to mention the festering sore of a strategically located state run by carpetbaggers and/or religious gangsters.

You have always been involved in humanitarian work. Most of the time, people concentrate on the positive changes you have made, but how has this work changed you?
Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in helping a lot of people who are committed to bringing positive change to the world. My role has generally been that of mouthpiece. Since I’m lucky enough to have the public visibility I do, I can sometimes be useful in drawing attention to things that need doing and to help generate support for the people and organizations who do the real work. This involvement has taken me to many interesting parts of the world and furthered my education immeasurably. Once in a while a good song comes out of these adventures! The landscapes I’ve walked, the people I’ve met, the relief of having come through a scary situation—all these have given me a very different understanding of myself and the world than I would otherwise have.

You have a reputation as being a restless spirit. How much time do you spend at home in Ontario as opposed to traveling?
I have a pretty cool house in Ontario, which I love being in. It’s the first place I can remember living, in my entire life, that actually feels like more than a base camp. I’m not there very much of the time.

Why did you call the new album Small Source Of Comfort?
When I wrote the song “Five Fifty-One,” I wrote in the second verse, “Small source of comfort, dawn was breaking in the air … You don’t take these things for granted when you think of what’s in need of repair.” Sometimes things seem that precarious. The phrase “small source of comfort” jumped out at me. It seemed to want to be an album title. I liked both the sense of hope and its faintness. I figured if nothing came along that said “title!” in a louder voice that the next album would be called that, and there it is.

“Call Me Rose” is written from the perspective of Richard Nixon. But the twist is he has been reincarnated as a poor, single mom. What inspired that?
I have no idea where “Call Me Rose” really came from. I woke up one morning with the song in my head, almost complete. I don’t remember having dreamt it, but it was there. I thought it was quite weird, but it seemed like a gift, so I finished it. I think it came out pretty well. With hindsight, I suspect it may have been sparked by what was then a recent campaign by Official (Bush) America to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. Various pundits could be heard to say that he was the greatest president ever, that he was terribly misunderstood, etc. After several weeks the apparent campaign abruptly stopped. People just weren’t buying it. I may have been thinking about what his actual rehabilitation might look like, i.e., the redemption of Richard Nixon’s soul.

You wrote “Gifts” in 1968 but waited until now to record it. How come now was the right time for you to do so? Did you change it much over the years?
I used to use “Gifts” to close shows back in the late ’60s. When we made the first album at the end of ’69, Bernie Finkelstein, my manager and the founder of True North Records, asked me about including the song. I thought the album didn’t need it. I responded with, “Oh, I’m saving that one for the last album.” Is this the last album? No idea. The first one could have been the last! It just felt like the right time to record it … just in case.

I love the line “I’m good at catching rainbows, not so good at catching trout” from “The Iris Of The World.” Do you know immediately when you come up with a lyric like that that you did good?
Sometimes a line comes out that feels as though it will touch people strongly. More often I have to live with the ideas and execution for a while before I know what I think I’ve got.

The shorthand description of your music is “folk,” but that is really too limiting. How would you describe it? In your mind, how has it changed over the years?
The music is always in a state of flux. It’s the lyrics that mainly determine what the music should be like in any given song. Sometimes things want to go in a folkier direction. Other words need a rockier or jazzier slant. I keep wanting to explore the possibilities wherever that leads. In the beginning, I resisted being called a folksinger, as it seemed to me that the term implied a connection to some specific tradition. I didn’t feel I could make that claim. As time went on, I resigned myself to the idea that labeling is inescapable. They’re going to call you something, and there are worse things than “folksinger.”

You are an Officer of the Order Of Canada, a member of the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame and the Canadian Broadcast Hall Of Fame, have been awarded a handful of honorary doctorates in Canada and the U.S., and only about 10 musicians have won more Juno Awards than you. First off, thanks for making the rest of us feel like no-talent losers. But what motivates you to keep going when no one would argue that you have already earned all the time off you want for the rest of your life?
I may have earned the time off, but somebody has to keep buying the food. I expect to retire when I become incapacitated, physically or mentally. I fervently hope I recognize the moment when it comes!

—Eric T. Miller

“The Iris Of The World” (download):

3 replies on “A Conversation With Bruce Cockburn”

As a Canadian, I’ve always been proud that Bruce has been a prickly thorn in the side of citizens of any country (including mine) that didn’t enjoy lives of freedom and entitlement. Not to mention that accompanying his social awareness has always been great songwriting, and just a shitkicking guitar style. Gavin’s Woodpile is a great starting point for a new fan looking for a song that encapsulates a pantload of Bruce’s assets.

Bruce has always made music that matters. It’s always great to see him perform or hear a voice of reason in a world that is constantly overwhelmed by politics and what passes for the news. Thanks Magnet for sharing the article and The Iris Of The World – well wishes Bruce!
Toronto, Canada

…to this “honorary Canadian” that Bruce is WELL and touring!

Back on his “You’ve Never Seen Everything” tour, I had the chance to meet Bruce and to tell him what his music meant to me. When I told him that, as an amateur songwriter, I admired his work, as well as Leonard Cohen’s and Joni Mitchell’s (I teasingly call them “The Canadian Holy Trinity”, one for each part of the maple leaf, and I think I may’ve even said as much to Bruce), he chuckled, saying, “Gee, I guess that makes you some sort of honorary Canadian!” It’s a gentle jest I’m quite proud of! He is extraordinarily gracious with his fans, and I hope those that read this get to find out for themselves. Bruce is touring with a new album…things don’t seem so bleak after all!

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