Songwriting Advice from Bruce Cockburn
The Canadian songwriter/guitarist on playing in open tunings and keeping an open mind By Adam Levy - Acoustic Guitar

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July 2012 - CANADIAN SONGWRITER BRUCE COCKBURN has been recording tuneful, thought-provoking songs—with his own intricate acoustic and electric guitar work—for more than four decades. With 31 studio recordings to his credit, and a few live ones too, Cockburn continues to make music that’s hard to categorize but easy to dig. His latest is Small Source of Comfort, on which Cockburn once again deftly infuses his songs, as well as a few intriguing instrumentals, with elements of jazz, folk, and rock. I recently spoke with Cockburn to get some writerly and playerly songwriting perspective. A craftsman through and through, his methodology is straightforward and streamlined. Anything that gets in the way of the actual work of writing has been eliminated from the process. And yet he remains an intrepid explorer, constantly considering new ideas and new pathways.

Starting with Lyrics

For Cockburn, songwriting almost always starts with the lyrics. "Not necessarily a complete set of lyrics," he says, "but something that at least has a shape of its own. There’s often an imaginary structure that the lyrics can kind of hang themselves around—a rhyme scheme, stuff like that. Then it’s a question of finding the right music to give them rhythmic punch, if they need that, or an atmosphere—a kind of environment to exist in. That’s where the guitar comes in."

Guitar Sans Technology

When it’s time to develop music for his lyrics, Cockburn says that process most often starts with a rhythm or a repeating riff, and he’ll develop the structure from there. But, while his music is driven by rhythm, loops and drum machines aren’t particularly useful to him. Most often, in fact, he avoids machinery altogether when writing. “I’m not much into technology,” he says. “Some people are fast with that stuff. You have to be if you’re going to use it. Otherwise, a lot of ideas can disappear down the drain while you’re getting yourself organized.” He doesn’t even use any kind of recording device when writing. “I just write things down on paper. Anything else disrupts the idea flow.” He’ll simply play the guitar parts over and over until they stick.

Change One String

Cockburn is fluent in a variety of alternate tunings, and he uses them to enhance the atmosphere of his songs and instrumentals. One of his better-known pieces, Foxglove (from Night Vision), was written and recorded in open-C tuning (C G C G C E)—a setting that’s relatively far from standard six-string tuning.

But it’s not the novel tunings that Cockburn finds most compelling, or even most useful. “Most of my tunings,” he says, “are really just changing one string. I have a lot of songs in a tuning I call drop-F#, where the G string goes down to F#. Parnassus and Fog— an instrumental on Small Source of Comfort — is in that tuning, and Fascist Architecture from Humans and Don’t Feel Your Touch from Big Circumstance. For me, you change one element of the guitar, then all of a sudden there are all these sonic possibilities that weren’t there. If you’re a flatpicker, it probably doesn’t make much difference. But for fingerpicking—where one of the sources of color is the degree to which you can get the strings to ring against each other—changing one string can really make a difference.”

One tuning that Cockburn has been keen on—especially in recent years—is D A D G A D, as well as its slight variant E A D G A D. “I’ve found a lot to work with in that world,” he says. “For instance, there’s a song on the new album called Iris of the World that’s in E A D G A D. I was fooling around with that and I wanted to put in a sort of Scotty Moore lick in the choruses, with a couple of hammer- ons. The tuning itself is what gave me an opportunity to do that. It doesn’t come out sounding like rockabilly the way it appears in the finished song, but it’s suggestive of a rockabilly sensibility. It didn’t have anything to do with the lyrics directly. It just fit with the groove of the song—which did have to do with the lyrics.”

Experience and an Open Mind

Cockburn says that his writing process has changed over the years: “Hopefully, we learn as we go. The earlier songwriting I did was much more naive. When I’m writing lyrics now, it’s more deliberate. There’s a greater awareness of how it all works.”

While honing his skills over time, Cockburn has continued to keep an open mind. He knows from experience that being more deliberate doesn’t necessarily mean being stuck in one particular groove. For example, when he first wrote the lyrics to Going to the Country (from his first album, Bruce Cockburn), he says he was thinking of writing a classic blues shuffle along the lines of “Going to Chicago Blues.” “But when I actually tried to put that music to the lyrics I’d written, it sounded stupid,” he says. “Then there was this other thing that came along—a folkier, more melodic idea—that worked much better for those lyrics. That’s happened so many times over the years. I might imagine the lyrics one way while I’m writing them, but they end up being very different in the end. Knowing that leaves a certain openness with respect to where the lyrics can go.”

Focused Editing

With Cockburn’s writing process being so open, how does he know when a song is actually finished? “When I can’t think of anything else,” he says [laughs]. But, he warns, sometimes a song can get overdone. “Sometimes you go back and look at a song the next day and realize there’s a whole part of it that doesn’t need to be there. Maybe you wrote two songs—or a song and a half—when you thought you were only writing one. That’s something that took time for me to appreciate. In the beginning, you try to put all your ideas into everything. You learn as you go that that’s not the best way to do it. Maybe you can make a stronger, more effective piece of work if you focus it more, allow it to be confined in its own terms.”

Keep Yourself Interested

While Cockburn is wary of giving definitive advice to songwriters (“Everybody’s got free advice—and most of it is only worth what free things are worth.”), there was one last bit of wisdom he did want to impart. “Don’t stop exploring. There are a lot of talented people who keep writing the same song over and over again. I think it’s important to try to expand your horizons. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Always keep looking for a new angle of approach, or some new element to inject into your writing. That way, you’re going to keep it interesting to yourself, if nothing else.”

~from Acoustic Guitar by Adam Levy, July 2012.

This article also appears in Acoustic Guitar, July 2012.

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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.