30 March 2011 - In the Canadian singer-songwriter universe, Bruce Cockburn is part elder statesman, part frontier-scaling firebrand. He's a guy who's never had any qualms about speaking up about his beliefs, whether he's critiquing U.S. foreign policy or ruminating on Christian spirituality. More than four decades into his career, Cockburn's voice as a songwriter is still razor sharp on his new release, Small Source of Comfort. That album comes out next Tuesday, but until then, you can hear it in its entirety right here! We're streaming Small Source of Comfort in the player below. [The stream is no longer live.]
We caught up with Bruce over the line from San Francisco (where he was hanging out with the special lady in his life) earlier this week. He was kind enough to chat with us about his new album, his experiences in Kandahar and his relationship to songwriting as an activist tool. That latter subject is very much at the top of our minds today, as we take a moment to think about the musicians around the world who've been persecuted for raising their voices to stand up for their beliefs. You can find out more about Music Freedom Day by clicking here. Read on to learn what the almighty Bruce Cockburn has to say:
Q: The liner notes of this album include short explanations of where and when each track was written, almost like you're trying to create an imaginary atlas. Were you thinking a lot about geography while you worked on the album?
A: That period of time was characterized by a lot of road travel, which shows up in the songs more than any other single thing. ... A lot of highway driving made its way onto this album. My girlfriend was living in Brooklyn for much of the time during which these songs were being written, and I was driving back and forth from my place in Ontario to New York. That's how I came up with [the song] "Iris of the World".
Somewhere along the way, she moved to San Francisco. The drive has gotten a lot longer, and the scale of everything has changed. You know, I spent the first part of my career, a big chunk of the '70s, driving across the country. It was a hugely fruitful, formative period, and I learned a lot about Canada. A couple years back, I started to feel a certain kind of nostalgia - not for that period of my life at all, because who'd want to go back there? [Laughs] I had nostalgia for the freedom of open spaces. It's a lovely quality that had gradually disappeared from my life. Touring isn't the same when you're traveling in a tour bus. For starters, you're often traveling at night, and you're also moving at a pace that doesn't allow you to savour the journey. Anyhow, I was kind of hankering for some way to do that kind of driving, and now I'm doing it a lot. [Laughs.] So the lesson is either: be careful what you wish for, or open yourself up to the possibility of something and it'll come to you. At least, that'd be the New Agey take on it.
Q: You're spending a lot of time criss-crossing the border. Do you get any grief from customs officials who aren't pleased by some of the things you've said about U.S. policies in your songs?
A: I've never been held up or flagged as a threat - not to my knowledge, at least. I have no idea about what's been said about me behind closed doors, but the U.S. government keeps issuing me a work visa every year, and when I get to the border, the officials are generally friendly and efficient.
The only time I noticed anything related to that was back in the Reagan era. Vernon Walters, who represented the U.S. at the United Nations - and you know, those ruling bodies have a long history of abusing the poor around the world in the name of imperialism - I heard him interviewed on the CBC. He was lamenting the fact that artists had been brainwashed by the Sandinistas. He was talking about Hollywood stars and musicians, and then all of a sudden he says, "Hey, you've got one of 'em right here in Canada, that Bruce Cawk-burn!" I was so proud to have him mention me by name. It wasn't quite as good as getting the Order of Canada, but it was pretty close.
Q: Speaking of foreign policy... Several songs on the album were written in - and about - Kandahar. How did you wind up there?
A: It all started because my brother joined the army a few years ago. They were recruiting doctors, and he's an anesthesiologist, which is a skill the army can certainly use. I shouldn't speak for him, but he said that one of the factors for him [in making this choice] was reading Romeo Dallaire's book about Rwanda. Shortly after my brother joined up, he found out he was being sent to Kandahar for 6 months - and once we knew he was going, we both started conniving about how I could get there.
Eventually, we got the go-ahead, and I ended up included in this week-long trip, along with the band Finger Eleven, a young guitar player from Gatineau called Ricky Paquette and some sports people. I'd always wondered what it was like to be in a war zone with Canadians, and it was really interesting.
Q: Back when you released You've Never Seen Everything (in 2003), I remember asking whether you'd written any songs in the wake of 9/11, and you said you felt paralyzed, and like "writing a song was the stupidest reaction to a horror like that". On Small Source of Comfort, you tackle the situation in Kandahar head-on. Have your feelings changed?
A: I don't know that I've changed in that regard. To write an effective song that deals with anything, for me, something about it has to be personal. In the case of 9/11, I wasn't there. I mean, I have my own personal story to tell about that day, but it's a spinoff of the tragedy, not something that's a song.
Q: Your song "Each One Lost" is a direct response to witnessing the funeral of a soldier killed in Kandahar.
A: Yes, I was part of a ramp ceremony honouring two young Canadians who had been killed that day. I found it very moving, both in its sadness and in its... I'm not sure what the appropriate word is, but I'll say, "inspiring," for want of a better word. There was an inspiring level of respect and honour in which those two were held by their colleagues assembled on the tarmac at Camp Mirage. It was like nothing I've experienced, ever. I've been at a couple funerals, and I've been present when others have experienced tragedy, but something about the whole feel of the ceremony - and my proximity to it, too ... We were lined up along the ramp coming out of the C-130. Opposite us, on the other side of the ramp, were the chief of the armed forces and the Governor General; maybe their presence lent something extra to it, but I don't think so. It was just the poignancy of these two young lives being cut short. I looked across at the Governor General; she was crying and I was crying. The others were being formal in the way only soldiers can be formal. It stuck with me, and I wrote that song.
Q: March 3 is Music Freedom Day. You're a guy who's spent quite a bit of time traveling the world. Have you encountered any artists who've been persecuted because of the music they've written?
A: I've met other people here and there who've been songwriters in risky circumstances. Years ago, I traveled with a Zimbabwean singer named Mechanic Manyeruke, a beautiful gospel singer and guitar player. As far as I know, he wasn't under any direct threat from the Mugabe government, but he was living under dire circumstances, under poverty and repression. When I knew him, it was the late '80s, and the situation in Zimbabwe wasn't as bad as it's become.
Q: Is music really an effective tool when it comes to shedding light on stories that might be buried in mainstream channels?
A: There's more than one way to air stories like that. I mean, there are a lot of things music can do... People will often ask me whether I think music can change the world. I think you can pull something up into the daylight with a song, you can make it available to people in a way that other mediums that communicate the same thing can't do. Someone who's not inclined to read newspaper headlines might react; the emotional content of a song can touch some part of you that responds in a more involved way. It's a visceral way to get a message.
Q: What are the songs that have touched you on a visceral level?
A: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"... A lot of Dylan songs from that era of his career touched me in that way. Buddy Holly songs touched me in that way. There were songs that resonated with me when I was first discovering music as an adolescent. And the first time I heard Ani DiFranco's songs, they touched me like that. Not necessarily because of what she was saying, but the power of them...
Q: Is that what you want your legacy to be, years from now when people look back at your career? That you wrote songs that resonated on that visceral level?
A: It's hard to think about that. I have no faith that there will be any legacy at all - it's not the kind of thing I can take seriously, really. If there's anything left of me after I'm gone, I hope there's something about it that's a good role model for somebody. It 'd be nice to be thought of as an artist who was committed to telling the truth and tried to do that in an artistic way.
~from CBC Radio2 by Sarah Liss.