-- A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn --
by Bryan VanCampen -

News Index

30 April 2015 - Singer-songwriter and activist Bruce Cockburn has been a solo artist since 1969 and a recording artist since 1970. His songs include hits like ďWondering Where the Lions Are,Ē ďLovers in a Dangerous Time,Ē and ďIf I Had a Rocket Launcher.Ē He is the subject of a 2013 documentary, Bruce Cockburn Pacing the Cage: The Feature Documentary, and in 2014, his book Rumours of Glory: A Memoir was published. Cockburn will play a mix of old and new songs at the Hangar Theatre on Sunday, May 3. He spoke to the Ithaca Times about music, his career, and his feelings about the state of the world.

Ithaca Times: Where are you today? Is this a Monday night off for you from playing?

Bruce Cockburn: No, Iím home in San Francisco now.

IT: My mom lived in Watsonville. Iím not crazy about Los Angeles, but I love the Bay Area.

BC: No, Northern California is way better.

IT: How long have you lived there?

BC: About six years.

IT: I always hoped Iíd get to talk to you because I also play guitar and write songs, and you were very influential in showing me that I could write my own songs and not just learn other peoplesí songs.

BC: Sorry for that. [Laughs.]

IT: It was Elvis Presley that got you started playing guitar. When did you start writing your own songs?

BC: Well, it was a slow process. I got introduced to a whole lot of other music beyond that early rock ní roll as soon as I started taking guitar lessons, basically, because my teacher wasnít a rock ní roll guy, he was more into a sort of very mainstream jazz. That kind of jazz that you still run across a lot here and there: I mean Les Paul and other people. So I got introduced to other kinds of music and it expanded from there. And I discovered an interest in writing music when I was still in high school. I absorbed a fair amount of theory and was eventually formally taught quite a bit of it. By the time I got out of high school, I thought I wanted to be composing music for large jazz ensembles, so I went to Berklee to study that, and it occurred to me to try and write songs even though I had great appreciation of the folk scene, especially when Dylan came along, and the Beatles and so on. They were the kind of model for the kind of songs that you could write because, growing up, I didnít have a particular interest in writing lyrics about, uh, dating.

IT: [Laughs.]

BC: But there were models that went a little further. So when I finally dropped out of Berklee at the end of í65, I had become interested in writing songs then. I dropped out because I realized the jazz thing was not for me, even though I love it and still do and listen to a lot of it. I ended up applying a certain amount of what I learned at Berklee in a kind of informal way to my own songwriting. In those days, Berklee was strictly a jazz school. Now they teach you songwriting and stuff. Iím skeptical of that although I have great respect for the institution. Iím a little bit skeptical about studying songwriting and the likelihood of turning out formulaic songwriters by having a course like that. But back then it was strictly jazz; it was small and very intense. I learned a lot, but it wasnít for me. So I guess this is just the short part of this long answer to your question. I started really thinking of myself as someone who wrote songs in í66, when I joined a band that was doing original material.

IT: So the Beatles had been around a few years at that point.

BC: Yeah the Beatles had had almost their whole career by then, and the Rolling Stones, too. There was just a lot of good songwriting going around. There was crap, too. Atrocious songs would get on the radio that were ďin the style of.Ē Like when so-called ďprotest musicĒ became popular, partly influenced by Dylan and others, they were the real songwriters who happened to write songs that could be categorized that way, like Dylan and Phil Ochs and other people. And then there were all these posers that sort of wrote songs like that because they were popular. The style was popular. But that was in full swing in the mid-sixties. It was an encouraging atmosphere in which to work because it was like, ďEverybodyís doing it, I can do it too.Ē

IT: Itís hard to sing a Dylan song without sounding like Dylan: his cadences, his phrasing.

BC: Yeah, heís a very idiosyncratic singer. Although if you listen to enough old R&B, youíll hear a tremendous amount of what Dylan did. He did it with his weird, reedy voice, but his phrasing, you hear that a lot on old R&B and blues records.

IT: In the documentary, you were using an echo box to overlap phrases on the guitar, and once I knew that you liked Elvis, I could hear a lot of [Presleyís guitarist] Scotty Moore in what you were doing.

BC: No, Scotty Moore wasnít the original impetus to want to play guitar. He and whatever the guyís name in the Crickets, and Richie Valens. Itís like, thatís real guitar playing, quote-unquote. Thatís what I thought at the time. And it was quote-unquote real guitar playing; it just wasnít the only real guitar playing. [Laughs.] But Iím not at all upset to be compared with Scotty Moore, thatís for sure. But thereís a few pieces where I use an echo for rhythm. Itís just an echo, itís not a loop. But thereís a couple of songs where I do that. One instrumental piece in particular, ďThe End of All RiversĒ, that has echo and an extremely long reverb as well, and so I can actually harmonize with myself.

IT: Iíve never been able to figure that out for myself, but I hope to someday.

BC: Well, you just set the echo tempo and then play with it. That particular song uses the lowest possible setting on my Boss echo unit. Thatís all it is. I just made it as slow it could go and played with it.

IT: Since you were at Berklee, do you write your own charts when youíre making an album?

BC: In theory, although Iíve never done it. The arrangements are mostly worked by discussion and intuition more than by written parts. But technically, I do know how to do that.

IT: If you wanted to write a part for flute, you could write that.

BC: Yeah, I could do that. I havenít generally done that, but Iíve worked with the people, whoever was producing the albums, to work on horn parts or on string parts as the case may be. When we did Life Short Call Now (2006), I got Jonathan Goldsmith to produce the album because I knew he could write really great string parts, certainly much better than what I would have come up with. (The album featured a 27-piece string section and guest appearances by Ron Sexsmith, Ani Difranco, and Hawksley Workman on backing vocals.) He produced that album, and he produced a bunch of the albums in the 80s. But in the meantime, heís had a career writing orchestral film scores, and heís really good at writing for strings, so thatís why I got him all through that album because I knew I wanted strings. In theory, I could write parts, but what we usually do in the studio if itís a band is just to play the songs, and people come up with their own parts, and Iíll act as kind of editor and say, ďa little more of this, a little less of that,Ē you know, get the feel right and then we play it. I prefer, if Iím gonna hire good people to play with me, part of it is to let them do their good thing.

IT: I first saw you playing ďWondering Where the Lions AreĒ on Saturday Night Live with the original cast in 1979. Most of the SNL books concentrate on the comedy and not the music. What do you remember about that experience of live American TV?

BC: Um, it was very tense. You know, we were there for an afternoon and part of an evening, and thatís all, and it was a very tense atmosphere. We didnít really meet any people. We justówe were there, we were put in our position: ďBe ready for this, and hurry and up and wait, and hurry and up and wait.Ē I mean, they treated us with respect, but everybody was really wrapped up in their own thing, and nobody was really interested in us. There was another band on that show, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and that guy, the guitar player, I canít remember his name, and Iíve met him since then [Cockburn is likely thinking of vocalist/guitarist Russell Smith], the rhythm guitar player of that band, and he was goodóI quite like the bandóbut he tried to make conversation with me, but I was so nervous I couldnít even talk to him. Iím sure he thought I was some kind of an asshole.

IT: They had a great lead-rhythm guitar guy, Duncan Cameron.

BC: Yeah, they were a good band. ďThird Rate RomanceĒ was a hit. It was a good record, like a bunch of Memphis soulful white guys.

IT: I was driving in Oklahoma at night in early 1985 when I first heard ďIf I Had a Rocket Launcher,Ē and I had to pull the car over and just listen. I really like the guitar sound you had on that record [Stealing Fire].

BC: Thanks. What was on that? It was probably a Strat.

IT: Thereís a certain icy, angular ďstereo chorusĒ shimmer in the mid-80s, especially the Police, and that song and stuff like "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" and "Making Contact" and "Peggy's Kitchen Wall" really had that sound. I always think of the Police, who I love.

BC: They were good. I saw them live once, early on, around the time of their second album.

IT: A friend of mine wanted me to ask: Do you, Bruce Cockburn, still wish you had a rocket launcher?

BC: Well, I didnít really wish it then, either. I was just telling people how it feels being exposed to this stuff. It wasnít so much a wish as it was to say, this is how I feel, and this is what Iíll be doing about it if I have to. If I had the means to respond to this military repression, I would have made use of this. Thatís what I was really saying. If thatís still true, it might be, Iím not sure. But Iíve been in a lot of war zones, but Iím not interested in war in that kind of way. But I donít think Iíve ever been that anxious to fire on anybody.

IT: Tell me about the war zones.

BC: For work, I tour in the United States and to a lesser extent in Europe. But Iíve traveled. Iíve traveled in Japan, Iíve traveled in New Zealand, that kind of thing. The trip that produced ďIf I Had a Rocket Launcher,Ē that had nothing to do with touring. It was loosely described as a ďfact finding missionĒ; those trips are really about helping getting work for various kinds of agencies in the Third World. In this case, it was Oxfam Canada that sent me down to Africa. But since that time, Iíve been involved in various other trips. I went to Central America four or five times in the Ď80s, and Africa and Nepal once in the Ď80s. Later on, Iíve been involved with a campaign to ban land mines; in connection with that, I went back to Mozambique and Vietnam and Cambodia. In the meantime, somewhere in there, we went and played Kosovo. I spent a week in Baghdad in 2004 and a week in Afghanistan in 2010, I think. There was another trip back to Nepal at the very end of their civil war. So when I say Iíve been in a bunch of war zones, thatís what I mean. But I havenít gone to any of those places except in conjunction with either charitable work of some kind, or in the case of Afghanistan, I went because I could, basically, because I could go sing for the Canadian troops, and my brother happened to be one of the Canadian troops, so that made it nice to go there. It was a different kind of trip, though.

IT: What do you with your down time when youíre not performing?

BC: Well, lately I have a three-year-old, so when Iím not touring, Iím dealing with baby stuff.

IT: Is this your first child?

BC: No, Iíve got a grown-up daughter whoís got four children of her own.

IT: In the documentary, you say, ďWeíre f***edĒ.Ē Do you still feel that way? Of course, that was the year of the financial meltdown.

BC: It had nothing to do with the financial crisis. No, I donít feel better about it, actually. If I want to go thereóI donít spend all my time thinking about itóbut If I go there, I donít feel good. I feel like the worldís in a very precarious position. I donít think itís hopeless, because thereís always room for someone to come up with something. But I donít see much evidence that the people in a position to make decisions about the way the world goes are doing anything about anything, other than money. Theyíre very interested in that, but theyíre not fixing any of the damage that weíve done, and thereís the whole philosophy of perpetual warfare; what kind of crap is that? But thatís America these days. Iím not very hopeful about it, but Iím hopeful enough to have a kid. But Iím worried about what kind of world sheís going to grow up into.

Cockburn to Visit the Hanger by Bryan VanCampen -

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.