-- Counsel of Elders: Bruce Cockburn on Serving as Messenger --
-- By Amanda Wicks - The Bluegrass Situation --

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20 October 2017 - Life in Trumpís America doesnít end at the countryís borders. The present-day eraís global scope means that, sonar-like, the current U.S. presidentís impact tears across the world, including upward to the countryís endearing northern neighbor. Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote his new album, Bone On Bone, under the unnerving atmosphere that has settled like grey ash over contemporary life ever since the 2016 presidential election. Several songs, including "Cafť Society" and "States Iím In," touch on the agitation rippling through communities and individuals, while "False River" decries a more specific issue: pipelines. "Life blood of the land, consort of our earth, pulse to the pull of moonrise, can you tally what itís worth?" he sings against a locomotive rhythm that practically pulses with exigency. Trump, specifically, doesnít pop up on the album, but his influence can be felt in the at-times brooding reflections which spur Cockburnís latest songs.

The LP marks Cockburnís 33rd and arrives seven years after his last effort, Small Source of Comfort. The time in between took his attention to other places, including fatherhood and his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory. It took contributing a song to the documentary Al Purdy Was Here (about the Canadian poet) to spark his songwriting once again. Cockburn has long pointed his weapons of choice ó namely, his pen and his guitar ó at issues impacting the world, and Bone on Bone makes clear that his song-based activism hasnít eased any. If anything, he doubles down, impressing upon listeners the detrimental forces propelled by division, isolation, and more. Cockburn tapped Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, Brandon Robert Young, and even singers from the church he regularly attends ó known on the album as the San Francisco Lighthouse chorus ó to offset his dusky vocals and paint an inclusive picture of community, even while his songís subject matter toed a more solitudinous line. His lyricism, as pointed and precise as ever, proves that the septuagenarian still has important messages to share, and will do exactly that ó so long as his mind and breath and energy allow him. A new inductee to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the timing couldnít be more aligned.

It feels more important than ever to have messengers like you.

Thank you for saying that. It does feel like a time when we have to emphasize communication, because everything is so polarized. Weíre all looking at slogans and talking in slogans all the time, but it seems really important to share an experience with each other.

Yeah, in keeping with that idea of slogans ó even thinking about the way social media packages thought ó how do you feel your songwriting has had to change to reach across the aisle, so to speak?

I donít really have a good answer for that. Itís a legitimate question, but I feel I havenít really changed my approach to songwriting. I think itís a question of maintaining some sort of footing in reality. We all have our own idea of what reality is, but social media creates a false reality. Iím not very involved in social media, so Iím not the best person to be passing judgment on it. At the same time, Iím not involved with it because I donít trust it, because I donít like it. Thereís a great usefulness to it, granted ó itís really great when you can communicate with people at a distance quickly, and if you have something sensible to communicate ó but it doesnít stop at that. For me, itís a world of BS and I donít really want to spend time in that world.

Sure. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, ďIf there was a sensible message.Ē

Itís not very hard to find opinions being passed off as news that really are offensive, whatever your perspective. Most of the time you donít learn anything, because you just get annoyed. Thatís a problem, because it could be a forum for greater understanding.

You touch on a bit of that with "States Iím In," and I love the titleís play on words: Noddings toward the division people may now feel as individuals and as a country. Whatís the most significant message you think listeners need to hear today?

Well, I donít think the song offers an answer, really, except a spiritual one. I didnít design the album to have a particular theme, but there is that underlying theme that the spiritual world is one where we can actually meet ó or where we need to go, whether we meet or not. It puts things in a perspective that is less prone to being blown this way and that by the winds coming out of various high-profile people. [Laughs]

"States Iím In," is a kind of capsulized dark night of the soul experience. The song unfolds with a sunset and it ends with dawn and, in the meantime, thereís all this stuff ó itís not all autobiographical, although the feelings are. I think the feelings that the song expresses are feelings a lot of us experience, so it has that application for somebody other than me. You can get swept away by all the stuff, but in the end, whatís essential is that relationship with the divine. Thatís the whisper welling up from the depths and, if you can shut up long enough to listen for that whisper, itís there.

Speaking about the albumís spirituality, the number 33 has a powerful religious and spiritual connotation. Does the fact that this is album number 33 hold any meaning for you?

Thatís an interesting question, too. I hadnít thought of that, so I guess the answerís "no," but maybe subliminally it did. The number that I did think of is the [song] "Forty Years in the Wilderness," and thatís more specific, both as a reference and in my own life.

And thereís also the fact that itís been seven years between albums, and seven is a potent number, as well.

Yeah, I know, weíre getting all numerological here.

And I donít necessarily mean to!

Itís not a belief system that I adhere to, particularly, but I do find it interesting when those things show up. There are certain years in my life Ö I mean, a year that adds up to four is almost never a good year for me, and almost all the other ones are. So what does that mean? Maybe itís totally subjective or maybe itís not.

Or, if you head into those particular years with that mindset, you create your own issues.

Right, itís impossible. I can never stand back far enough to be sure Iím not doing that. I think all of those kinds of esoteric ways of trying to understand things ó whether itís numerology or the tarot or astrology ó they all have some functionality. They all work in some way. But what Iíve thought over the years is that they seem to operate as enhancements to your own sense of contact to the bigger reality, so it doesnít really matter which one you use, if it helps you. If you have a sensitivity to that kind of listening state, those things help you listen, and they might help you listen ó in the case of the tarot ó to somebody elseís condition.

Once anything becomes a belief system that can be passed on and you can train people in it and so on, itís kind of like training musician. I havenít been to Berklee in some time, and really appreciated it as a great school, and it still is, but the problem with that and the problem with any system of education is, you teach people to be the same as each other. The geniuses will transcend that; theyíll learn all the stuff and then theyíll go on and be themselves. But the people that are not geniuses will end up being very good at what they do but sounding like each other. And I think the same thing applies to spiritual training: You can learn all that stuff and it doesnít make you gifted.

It doesnít, and I wonder how much "genius" here applies to a sense of bravery.

Yeah, maybe so, whether itís bravery or necessity. Some people are brave and step out in spite of their surroundings or themselves, and others of us just luck into it. This is what I know how to do, and I kind of care what people think about it, but Iím not going to let their opinions stop me.

Right, and then speaking of another individual in that sense, your song "3 Al Purdys"Ö what is it about his use of language that holds such magic for you?

He had great insight for one thing ó into people and the historical place of things. And, as a young poet, heís kind of raw and brash and very Canadian, very colloquial, very rough around the edges, but interesting as all get-out. And then, as he gets older, as the poems become more recent, he becomes more speculative and thoughtful and more international, also. His thought processes are beautifully articulated and communicable, therefore.

Heís got some really visceral introspections.

His hit is the poem where heís in a bar in Ontario, and he tries to get somebody to buy him a beer in exchange for a poem and it doesnít work, and he reflects on what poetry is really worth, when it wonít even buy you a beer. And of course thatís the side of Al Purdy that my song is thinking of. Everybody who knows Al Purdy knows that poem, and itís so archetypically Canadian. You kind of had to be there to appreciate it. I donít know how it would seem to somebody from the U.S. Nonetheless, it captures some aspect of Ontario culture thoroughly. Heís basically my dadís generation, and he spent the Ď30s riding the rails back and forth across Canada, looking for work like everybody else. Both of the spoken word sections in the song are excerpts from his poetry.

Congratulations, by the way, on being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I know the country has honored you in a few different ways, but what did it mean to be recognized for your songwriting?

It means people are listening. Itís gratifying and humbling, and Iím very grateful for it. An award is a thing, an event, and the event has its own meaning, and it had meaning. It was nice to be part of it, and then, you know, I have a thing to take home and put somewhere that Iíll have to dust. [Laughs]

What a way to look at it!

But what it represents, like I said, is that people are paying attention, and an artist canít ask for anything more.

Very true. Well, my last question is admittedly silly. Youíve been called the "Canadian Bob Dylan," so who would you say is the American Bruce Cockburn?

Um, Iíd like it to be Tom Waits, but Ö

Alright, letís just make that claim!

I donít think anybodyís anybody except themselves, but I remember way back in the day being described in more than one review of a show as the Canadian John Denver, and the only similarity is that we both have round glasses. Itís such a cheap way to try to describe something. Itíd be better to describe me as not the next Canadian this or that: Heís not the Canadian Bob Dylan. Heís not the next Leonard Cohen. Heís not the next Joni Mitchell. If you do enough of those, you can kind of get to what the person might be. If I had to be some American singer/songwriter, Tom Waits would be high on my list. Lucinda Williams would be high on my list, too. And Ani DiFranco is a terrific songwriter and closer, in a certain sense, to what I do. I forget where it was, but I was described as Ani DiFrancoís uncle.

No way.

Itís better than being described as "the next Canadian something or other." It was actually kind of an honor, but these comparisons Ö if theyíre not amusing, then theyíre sort of not very nice.

~from Counsel of Elders: Bruce Cockburn on serving as messenger -, by By Amanda Wicks.

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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.