Bruce Cockburn: Water Into Wine
by Dennis Cook

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Bruce Cockburn- Photo courtesy of Riddle Films Inc.

19 May 2009 -

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin, this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste

There is a sense of the world split open in the work of Bruce Cockburn, like a ripe fig pulled apart by strong hands, the innards tasted hungrily and savored with closed-eye wonder. Since his self-titled 1970 debut, the Canadian singer-songwriter has extended what Wallace Stevens termed "the palm at the end of the mind." There is an intensity of experience and colorful, wholly engaged beauty that runs from head to tail in his music. His lust for life makes one feel a bit more alive just for being exposed to his bold observations and gorgeous melodies.

A tireless veteran live performer, he's never achieved U.S. recognition on the same level as contemporary Neil Young, but the two share a number of striking similarities: a distinct voice in a field that makes individuality difficult, wicked guitar playing skills, a ribald and rebellious nature and an embrace of most of the finest, enduring traits of human beings. While widely celebrated in his native land, in the States he's only occasionally popped up on the mainstream radar with singles like "If I Had A Rocket Launcher." However, he's developed a devoted core audience in the U.S. and around the world that understands the pervasive oomph of his massive catalog and always-intimate concert appearances.

His newest release, Slice O Life (released March 31 on Rounder Records), is a double disc live collection that's as fine an introduction to Cockburn's work as any assembled. It presents his potent baritone tackling pieces from all across his career as well as signature influences like Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," with the lot embellished by entertaining, informative anecdotes that offer off-handed insight into one of the most complex, poetic men in contemporary music. Culled from live performances and soundcheck explorations, Slice O Life provides a winning snapshot of an artist of tremendous stability and unbroken quality.

Few things are simple with Bruce Cockburn. He likes to qualify and broaden his ideas and answers, but in the way the Japanese admire, where complication and clouding in language rarely points to one meaning, one destination. In this way, Cockburn's music is spacious, diverse and capable of mutable forms, drawing readily from blues, jazz, rock and folk to create a flexible, inviting hybrid overlaid with vivid imagery and open feeling.

Given JamBase's own love of variety and intense talent, we are tickled several shades of pink to have scored an hour of Cockburn's time, where we discussed spirituality, playing solo, his influences and much, much more.

JamBase: One of the challenges now after 30-some albums and almost 40 years of professional work is where does one jump in? That's a lot of music, man [laughs].

Bruce Cockburn: It's a challenge for me when somebody says, "Where do I start? What should I listen to?" I don't know [laughs].

JamBase: The new live album provides a pretty good foot in the door. It offers a pretty wide cross-section of what you've done.

Bruce Cockburn: It sorta does go back to the beginning, so I guess it is that [introduction], partly because it's solo and that strain of what I've done over the years, which is how I started.

JamBase: One man, one guitar. There's something very pure about that.

Bruce Cockburn: I don't think I was thinking purity, exactly, at the time [laughs]. There certainly is simplicity, in musical as well as practical terms. It was a choice. I'd come out playing in a bunch of bands in the second half of the '60s and I was tired of noise and tired of bad jamming, and I figured maybe other people were, too, and there might be a place for a guy doing things alone with an acoustic guitar. And I'd been interested in folk music and traditional music for a while, so it wasn't too big a leap.

JamBase: Had you been writing songs already at that point? It seems like you arrived on your debut with a fairly intact vision. There's a sense of personality to even the early records.

Bruce Cockburn: During that band period I was writing songs; originally I was writing songs for all the bands I was in and thinking, to some extent, of those bands when I was writing songs. But after a few years went by I noticed I had this little repertoire of songs within that that really worked better when I played them alone. And they were all the best ones [laughs]. When I came out as myself and not as the guitar player in somebody's band it was with a sense of the songs I wanted to do and an idea of how I wanted to see myself. In some sense, it was an embracing of the sensibilities of the era but also a reaction to the collective thing, which never really sat right for me. I never did very well as a hippie [laughs].

JamBase: There's very little hippie-like about your records in that period.

Bruce Cockburn- photo by Janet Spinas Dancer Bruce Cockburn: I just didn't fit with that. I never really fit with anything, which is partially why I sound like me and not somebody else. It was certainly true then. I felt like I'd learned a lot being in bands. I learned how to be onstage and what worked musically and what didn't, and certainly what I was capable of. There's always room for growth, of course, and you never really know what you're capable of, but I had a pretty good sense of it relative to what I'd been doing. So, it was a natural step.

JamBase: One of the things I'm struck by in your music, and it's there from the beginning, is, I wouldn't say an overt spirituality but an engagement with that type of subject matter. I've never found your work to be preachy but I've also never found it tenuous, which tends to be the case when people take on those types of concepts.

Bruce Cockburn: When we talk about taking on things in terms of songwriting, well, I guess if that's what you do it carries certain conditions and risks perhaps, but I never felt like that's what I've done. I always felt like I just wrote about what's sitting there. So, when it looks like I'm taking on something it's because I've been thinking about that thing and I'm having a reaction to that thing. If it's a political song, a spiritual song or a song about sex it's all the same. This is what I've experienced and how I feel about it, and it's kind of grabbing you by the lapels and saying, "You better listen to this!" I just need to convince somebody they should [laughs].

JamBase: I think terminology matters. I used the phrase 'taking on' but it's clear your work emerges from a more personal space. It's not like you have a cause you're trying to grind out. It's not like you're a cause person anyway, though you have been labeled as such by some over the years.

Bruce Cockburn: Yeah, I've been associated with all sorts of causes, and I don't really mind that generally. If I get labeled as an environmentalist because I care about the survival of the planet for my child and grandchildren to me that's not a cause, it's just, "Come on, let's stay alive! Let's get on with it! This is life!"

JamBase: Yeah, I guess if there's one unifying thing I've picked up on about your music as a long-time listener is it's about life, it's about being engaged with things and sometimes in a very earthy way, which wins you points with me.

Bruce Cockburn: Sometimes it's downright smutty! I think it's just about truth, and not wanting to sound pompous, it's about the human experience, what we are. And we are creatures of the flesh and we have the capacity to comprehend a larger reality than our senses can encompass but we feel is there. At some point in the future scientists may discover what spirituality really is, and if they do it's going to look something like capitalism [laughs]. I think there's going to be all kinds of mysterious strains in there, maybe reducible to numbers, maybe not. To me, that's at the core of everything.

JamBase: There's a tendency to divorce the physical aspects of humanity from the spiritual aspects.

Bruce Cockburn: It's unfortunate. The senses may lie and do from time to time but they always connect us to a bigger reality. And by senses I include whatever we consider to be extrasensory, too. I think that's just a word for senses we don't have a proper name for, but the capacity for feeling that bigger reality exists in all of us. In different ways, to different degrees, it gets expression in often radically different languages, and that expression suffers badly from the attempt to detach it from the flesh.

JamBase: When you take those two things away from each other they're both going to suffer.

Bruce Cockburn: There's no question of that, and you're probably going to go out and make someone else suffer, too!

JamBase: So true! When we carry some big wound or detachment in us there's a tendency to cause damage around us.

Bruce Cockburn- photo by Kevin Kelly Bruce Cockburn: We project it out and blame other people for it. We blame Jews or we blame Communists or we blame Muslims or they blame Christians. It's all bullshit! It's all about projection of that interior wound.

JamBase: We're getting pretty lofty [laughs]. In more practical terms, I'm interested in the process of playing solo. How has that developed over the years?

Bruce Cockburn: For one thing, there's the obvious difference that when a band's playing it covers up a lot of what the guitar is doing. Even if we've been careful about keeping space clear for what the guitar is doing there's other stuff for people to notice, or should be; those musicians aren't standing up there to be models, they're playing their instruments and you want people to hear that. But, what happens when you don't have those musicians there is you have a greater focus on what the guitar is doing and how the guitar and voice relate to each other, which is how I write the songs. So, something more essential happens with respect to the song. It's less of a performance, though I hope the performance aspect is adequate and interesting to people. But it's less about that and more about the song itself as a composition.

JamBase: With the guitar work more exposed you have to carry a bit more on yourself but at the same time the original intentions of the piece are more naked. Your guitar work comes out of the blues tradition initially but I've always liked the echoes of the British guys I've long been mad for like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and John Martyn.

Bruce Cockburn: It's interesting because I never listened to them but other people have said that. I attribute it to the fact that those guys and me all listened to the same things. And we're not coming at it from an American perspective, whatever that means. There is something different. There's no denying the whole vibe of England is much different than America, and different from Canada as well. The fact that I was filtering those influences through my Canadian experience may have been enough like the English thing for there to be similarities. Nick Drake is another guy that comes up a lot with me, and I've never listened to a Nick Drake album all the way through. I've listened to a few songs here and there because people said I should check it out and I didn't like it! It was okay, respectable stuff, but it didn't touch me particularly. The exception [in this area] may be Bert Jansch and his first album before there was Pentangle. Really, the people I was listening to were the old blues guys and, of course, Bob Dylan, and the world of finger-picking that was out there didn't escape my notice.

JamBase: That's interesting. Maybe the way things move in the world is they hit a few different places simultaneously, the lightning hits in a few spots at precisely the same time.

Bruce Cockburn: It's one of the really good reasons to not get a swelled head about all the really cool stuff you're coming up with [laughs]. There's a really good chance somebody out there is doing the same thing.

JamBase: How did this stuff come into your life? How did a young white guy in Canada discover that he really liked black blues music?

Bruce Cockburn: At first it wasn't black blues, it was the early Sun Records era of Elvis [Presley] that made me want to be a musician. I liked the music and wanted to play it before I even got a guitar. And Buddy Holly, too. It was white people playing things that were basically based on black music but where I grew up there weren't any black people! That's what you heard, that's what was on the radio. I loved rock 'n' roll and then when I started taking guitar lessons I was exposed to other stuff, and that wasn't very black either Les Paul and Chet Atkins a step removed from the rock thing and then jazz. Eventually I came around. Towards the end of high school I met some people that played so-called folk music, and I was fascinated. I had never finger-picked before that; I was strictly flat-pick, a little jazzy and a little of that. So, I brought something to my contact with those guys that they didn't have in their background, but here were these guys playing Leadbelly and Brownie McGee songs and finger-picking. Once that door was open, well, you see what happened.

There was a club in Ottawa that I used to go to all the time that I eventually ended up doing dishes and making espressos at, and ended up playing at in time. You weasel your way into the scene. Chances are you don't arrive fully formed. This is a way to enter a scene. You're just a guy who plays guitar and you know a few things, and the way to gain entry to a group that's relatively closed is often social. You don't just crash your way in and say, "You need me because I'm a great guitar player." You do it by being friends with people, and when you're 17 and excited by this stuff you do it by washing dishes and hanging out and just being there.

Bruce Cockburn photo by Kevin Kelly JamBase: There's a vividness to your lyrics, a sense of scene that's cinematic and full of strong imagery. I wonder if poetry has had a strong impact on what you do. It does seem you draw a bit more from that world than the usual verse-chorus-verse folk singer kind of songwriting.

Bruce Cockburn: It's had a huge influence, and predates the effect of hearing Elvis. I was interested in poetry before I knew I wanted to play music. I remember somewhere in the middle of grade school encountering in English class studying what I think of as dumb rhyming, and it wasn't very interesting to me except for something like "The Highwayman," which had a kind of gothic quality. A lot of stuff we studied was just boring. Then, along comes this poem called "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish that I memorized, and it was kind of an abstract or surreal poem. That shocked the shit out of me and this world opened up right there. Words! A poem doesn't have to be defined by the strictures of rhyme or the need to tell a story or whatever kind of stuff we'd been taught. Language assumed a whole new significance for me right there.

JamBase: It is a different way of communicating ideas. There's a comfort level with making leaps that sort of poetry has that's closer to songwriting than structured poetry.

Bruce Cockburn: The leaps are what it's all about, really. There's a lot of different things that can be called poetry, and I guess justly so, but you can tell the story in a poetic manner and it doesn't have to be Beowulf or The Iliad. Those have their strengths and power but they too rely on their ability to create visual imagery. They paint word pictures you're invited to dive into the shiny helmets and whatever it might be even with Homer, who apparently couldn't see any of this stuff!

I've always loved movies, too. I think movies are as big an influence on what I do as poetry or old blues guys. The first movie I ever saw was a Roy Rogers movie my dad took me to, so it wasn't a good beginning but I really liked it. In the latter years of high school I got introduced to Fellini, Bergman and the more cutting edge people of the day, and I loved them, Bergman in particular because it related to that northern sensibility and because a couple of his films are set in medieval times, and I was always fascinated with that, too. Here were these movies that were SO not Hollywood and so intelligent that represented a realm, especially then, that I fantasized about being in.

JamBase: I think the title of the new live set, Slice O Life, almost suggests a film, and in a way you paint a series of scenes within it, especially because it jumps back and forth across your career.

Bruce Cockburn: I guess I thought when I was putting together the repertoire for these shows I wanted to do a cross-section; I always do that but I guess I thought about it a bit more here. We didn't know what would end up on the album. You throw all this stuff out there, and I spent weeks and weeks weeding through 40 hours of recordings to find the right performances of the right songs. It was quite excruciating actually [laughs]. But it was something that worked quite well in the end.

JamBase: The editing is crucial. It can pour out of you pretty fast but then you wonder, "What the hell do I do with all of this?"

Bruce Cockburn: Exactly! You wonder, "Does this make any sense?" I feel very fortunate to not have to answer to suits, but some of the same weeding process has to happen; you have to be tough with yourself. There are exceptions to this; Dylan does very well with this, creating songs that sprawl all over the place but are still powerful. Usually you need to edit what you're doing and weed out all the crap, though sometimes not weeding out the crap creates the strength of the "film." So, I don't know. I guess I back away from making any kind of generalization.

Ottawa poet Bill Hawkins, who was kind of a mentor to me when I first started writing songs, told me that when you're writing a poem just write what's coming out of your head and then go back and cross off everything that doesn't absolutely have to be there. And you're left with something like the finished poem. Although you wouldn't necessarily know that listening to my songs but it's been an important principle to me over the years. It's true and it remains true for me.

~from by Dennis Cook.

Photos by Kevin Kelly, Riddle Films Inc, and Janet Spinas Dancer.

News Index

This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.