-- Sharing Our Humanity - Bruce Cockburn talks about the art and purpose of songwriting --
-- by Mike Muckian - Isthmus --

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16 November 2017 - This past September, after almost 50 years of making music, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. It was an honor many felt was long overdue.

The Ottowa-born songwriter spins tales of hope and despair infused with a personal spirituality that has connected with audiences since he first appeared on the music scene in 1970. His prolific output includes more than 350 songs, including "Wondering Where the Lions Are" and the politically charged "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." He also published a memoir, rumors of glory, which kept him away from songwriting for three full years.

On the heels of his induction, Cockburn released Bone on Bone (True North Records), his 33rd album and the first in seven years. Cockburn talked to Isthmus in advance of his tour stop at the Barrymore Theatre on Nov. 21.

How do you go about writing a song?

The lyrics come first in 99 percent of my songs, and once the lyrical idea develops enough to hang the music on, I can go forward. It usually requires a verse or two before I know where it wants to go. Then itís a matter of fine tuning everything. Itís pretty straightforward once it gets rolling.

Can you give us an example or two?

"All the Diamonds" grew out of a spiritual experience I had in Stockholm. The day after our performance I was sailing on the bay and through the archipelago, and the diamonds were conjured up by the sunlight reflecting on the sea. It seemed to deserve something hymn-like, like you might hear in church, which is not typical for me.

"Night Train" came about after visiting some friends in Toronto who were growing their own wormwood and making absinthe at home. Absinthe is rumored to have psychotropic properties and has the reputation of having inspired or destroyed the careers of numerous artists. I thought I would drink a bunch of it and see what all the fuss was about. I have never done it again and, as a scientific experiment, I wouldnít recommend it.

Is this an especially rich time for songwriters with a political bent?

I donít want to write a song about Donald Trump. Thatís revolting and the guy gets enough attention as it is and for all the wrong reasons. I donít want to add to the cacophony. The other stuff that rides along ó environmental issues and immigration concerns ó might offer material in the right hands, but itís hard to get too technical in a song.

You live in San Francisco with your wife and five-year-old daughter. Whatís it like being a Canadian in Trumpís America?

Itís pretty nutty, but America has always been nutty. I lived in Boston [while attending the Berklee College of Music] back in the 1960s and had hair over my collar. Back then people were polarized by the Vietnam War, and it seems weíve come back around to that situation where we have a hard time talking to each other. How would I talk to a Trump supporter, and how would he talk to me? Itís a major challenge and something we all have to get past.

Is there a musical legacy you like to leave with your fans, something that spans your entire career?

I donít think in terms of "career." The word implies an orderly progress, which I donít apply to myself. As an artist, you have to have the temerity to believe that people are interested in what you do. For what itís worth, I think my songs leave a trail mostly of my own spiritual journey.

I see that as part of my job, and my whole body of work is trying to figure out what itís like to be a human being in this period of history. I am creating little mirrors for myself, and talking a lot to myself through my songs. The conversation then is shared with the listeners.

~from Isthmus.

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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.