The always intimate Bruce Cockburn remains organic yet committed to his craft
By Dan MacIntosh - Stereo Subversion

News Index

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

The fact that Bruce Cockburn holds a cult following in the United States is only a small source of comfort. If there were any justice in the music business, heíd be as famous as that other Bruce from Jersey. Yet year after year, Cockburn turns out sometimes beautiful, other times angry, and always highly personalized collections of songs. Listening to his albums is like reading a poetís intimate journal, as Cockburn oftentimes documents his travels to war-torn regions of the world to share his first-hand impressions of what is really going on.

Cockburnís latest album, Small Source of Comfort, reveals this veteran folk singerís still-fertile imagination. One song titled Call Me Rose imagines Richard Nixon as a woman of all things, for instance, while Each One Lost finds Cockburn mourning the mounting life losses in Afghanistan.

Stereo Subversion caught up with Cockburn after a bad day. His vehicle had broken down while he traveled across the United States. Yet youíd never even know anything had gone wrong while talking to him. Cockburn is soft spoken, polite, and always engaging. From a conversation that ranged from his brief brush with Hollywood, to his love of the open road, there was never a dull moment in this conversation.

Stereo Subversion: The first thing I noticed about your new album, Small Source of Comfort, was that there are many instrumentals on it. Would you say youíre in kind of a compositional zone now?

Bruce Cockburn: I donít think we can make any grand inference from the fact that thereís the five instrumental pieces. I think they just worked out that way, and they seemed to flow together with the songs well, so we kept them all in. Whatíll happen next? I have no idea. Perhaps Iíve written all the words Iím gonna write. I donít really make deliberate plans about that kind of thing. Itís what happens. In this case, what happened was I got eight songs and then one old one pulled out of the closet and the five instrumental pieces.

SSv: When you compose an instrumental, is that just a song that words never came to, or do you intentionally create instrumentals?

Bruce: My songwriting goes in the opposite direction to that of many songwriters that Iíve compared notes with. I write the words first then I look for music to fit those words. In a way, Iíve compared it elsewhere to kind of scoring a film where you have images and maybe characters or bit of a story or something that you need to support, but you donít want music to interfere with it. So itís really lyric driven.

But, in the case of instrumental pieces, obviously that isnít really how it works so they just come out of the air. They come out of fooling around with the guitar. While practicing or just exploring on the guitar and Iíll stumble on something that seems like it should become part of a piece, and then Iíll look for more things to go with it and eventually thereís a piece.

SSv: It makes me feel good to hear you say that you practice because Iím so impressed with your guitar skills. I fool around on the guitar, but I certainly canít do anything like you can. But to hear that you practice, that gives me encouragement.

Bruce: You know what, use it or lose it. The older you get, the more true that is. There are so many skills that, if you want to keep them, you have to use them. Youíve got to practice.

SSv: I was reading the notes to the album about the song Bohemian 3-Step where you said you were creating a score for a major Hollywood film - -

Bruce: Jenny Scheinman plays violin all over the record, which Iím really happy I got to know over the last few years in Brooklyn. We had done a bit of playing together. When sheís not touring with other people ó because she hasnít toured with me, although she will be shortly ó sheís got a regular weekly gig sheís does at a tiny club in Brooklyn. And one night I was walking by there ó and this is kind of how I got to hear her ó Iíd heard her play with Bill Frisell and then I started paying attention until one day we walked by the club and there was a sandwich board outside with her name on it, so we went in and heard this amazing performance.

One thing led to another and we ended up getting to know each other and she invited me to come and do a couple of those gigs with her, as kind a dual gig where we would do half my stuff, and half her stuff. And we did that, and it was really fun. And at one of those [shows], a music director for this big Hollywood film, which Iím not really supposed to name, I donít think. I think there was an agreement to that effect. But the music director for the film happened to be in the audience. Or actually he didnít happen to; he came to hear Jenny because he thought that her music might suit the film.

When he heard what we were doing together it made him think that there was a strong possibility for the pair of us. So he approached us about making a demo, which the film company paid for. Whatever. But it wasnít a case of competing against other people for the gig. It was more a case of making up a demo so the director of the film could hear what it would be like. He was not sure where he wanted to go with, with the music, and whether he wanted to go in a more scaled down direction or with a big orchestral score.

In the end, he decided to go with the big orchestral score. Meanwhile, we had done this demo and what that meant is that we spent a week hanging out together and co-writing a bunch of pieces and then learning them and then recording them. And it was really fun doing that, too. Some of those piecesÖman, I think thereís some viable music that we may end up doing something with some day, but how it relates to the album is that a couple of the pieces on the album were written very much at the influence of working with Jenny, Bohemian 3-Step, particularly. But also Lois on the Autobahn is a product of that. But I expect that if I continue to be acquainted with her for long enough, we will have some affect on each otherís stuff.

SSv: Maybe you could become the next Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.

Bruce: That would be weird. I donít know if thatís in the cards, but Jennyís really worth checking out. Sheís going to be the opening act on the tour, as well as playing violin with me in a tiny three-piece band.

SSv: Oh wow! That should be fun for you.

Bruce: I think so, yeah.

SSv: The last time I saw you, maybe you remember the gig at the Santa Monica Pier.

Bruce: That was the festival that didnít quite work. It was really good musically, but I donít think very many people came to it. Yeah, it was a good gig.

SSv: I think you were just by yourselfÖ

Bruce: Öyes, on that occasion.

SSv: You know, when you mentioned the Hollywood film, and then I looked on the album credits that you thanked Ang Lee, am I jumping to a conclusion that those two are associated, or is Ang Lee just a friend of yours?

Bruce: You might be jumping to a correct conclusion, but I donít think I can really confirm or deny it.

SSv: Okay. Iím not going to press you on it.

Bruce: They were very particular about that.

SSv: Weíll just let readers draw their own conclusions and let it be that. I also noticed in the notes to the new album that a lot of your ideas come from driving. Do you like driving, and what is it about driving that kind of helps to inspire music?

Bruce: Thereís a lot of visual imagery in the songs that are definitely the product of long distance driving. We were just spending a lot of time on the highway. In my case, I do have a bit of a bug for driving; especially in the West where the spaces are big and the speed limits are high and thereís incredible what Ė to me Ė is my favorite landscape, which is kind of that mountainous desert stuff that you drive across when you go through Wyoming and Utah and Nevada. I love that.

So any chance I get to drive across it, I welcome. I like the meditative aspect of driving through those conditions where thereís a lot of space and youíre not really Ė you obviously have to be paying attention to what youíre doing Ė but you arenít dealing with imminent crisis moment by moment, like you are when youíre driving in Eastern traffic.

So thereís a lot of time to just feel the landscape, feel the kind of timelessness of sitting in that landscape. It doesnít work so well when youíre in a hurry because youíre aware of how long itís taking to get to the next whatever. But where thereís not a time issue, even though youíre probably going at the same pace, you donít have that hanging over you, so thatís why it feels really good. Iíve had that itch since I was young.

~from by Dan MacIntosh, Wednesday, March 30th, 2011. © Copyright 2010, Stereo Subversion, LLC. All rights reserved

Editor note: The show at the Santa Monica Pier.

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.