19 January 2018 - It should surprise no one that Bruce Cockburn has thoughts about the political turmoil in the United States under President Donald Trump.
After all, the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter has lived in San Francisco for a number of years. He goes to church there. He is raising his six-year-old daughter there. Obviously, he is invested. Heís is also one of modern musicís most astute political songwriters, known for penning tunes such as the angry and direct 1984 anthem If I Had a Rocket Launcher and the urgent, green-leaning 1989 classic If A Tree Falls.
So why wouldnít he have thoughts? Besides, it would just seem a waste to have Bruce Cockburn on the line and not have him weigh in on what is behind the strange political climate of his adopted country.
"Itís all smokescreen now," he says. "You pretty much can bet that everything that comes out of the Presidentís mouth is false. Every single word except for perhaps the references to his own feelings, that may be genuine. But everything else is B.S. But we all pay attention to it because you canít believe the next piece and then you think ĎWhatís going to come next?í But in the meantime, they are dismantling the (Environmental Protection Agency), they are dismantling, as much as they can, any kind of regulation on corporate behaviour. Thatís what itís all about. Itís all about some people making a vast sum of money at everyone elseís expense and heís supposed to keep us distracted, which heís doing a pretty good job of."
Itís all made for a national atmosphere filled with anxiety and confusion. But, if history is any guide, interesting political times tend to lead to interesting music.
Cockburn laughs when asked if Trump "inspired" him in any way when writing the songs for Bone On Bone, his first album in seven years and his first to come after suffering an extended period of writerís block. He quickly points out that "inspired" is not the word he would choose. But he acknowledges that both the moody opening track, States Iím In, and the driving and bluesy Cafe Society loosely reflect the angst and anxiety he senses around him.
But perhaps the most potent political commentary was his decision to include an acoustic-blues arrangement of the religious, traditional Twelve Gates to the City as the albumís closer.
"Itís a song about inclusion," says Cockburn, who will perform backed by a full band at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Jan. 23 and Edmontonís Winspear Centre on Jan. 24. "The message of the Biblical passage from which that comes ó itís specifically about Israel ó is that thereís a gate for each of the tribes. Youíre all welcome here in Godís city. To me, by extension, that seemed like an important thing to say right now in America."
Still, Cockburn ultimately sees Bone On Bone as more spiritual than political. Whatever the case, the album certainly sounds like it came from a songwriter whose creativity has been recharged. From the aforementioned acoustic and gospel blues tracks to the intricate and instrumental title song to the gorgeous and melodic ballad 40 Years in the Wilderness, Bone On Bone finds one of Canadaís finest songwriters in top form. Itís all the more impressive considering that, only a few years ago, Cockburn questioned whether he would ever write another song.
He spent three years writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, which he says sapped up a good deal of his creativity. He had gone through dry spells before, but this seemed a little more permanent.
"There was nothing left over for the songs and no real motivation for the songs because I was doing this other kind of writing," he says. "When it was over, after all that time, I sort of thought ĎI donít know if Iím a songwriter or not, Iíll have to wait and see.í Luckily, because I was hoping I would be still, songs did start coming after awhile. The album is proof of that."
It was the rollicking 3 Al Purdys that helped Cockburn turn the corner. He was asked to compose the song for a documentary about the Canadian poet. Producing songs to order is not the way he usually works but he penned a narrative about a homeless man obsessed with Purdy and eager to trade recitations of his poems for spare change. While itís ostensibly a sad story, Cockburn seems to be having a blast operating outside his comfort zone as he exuberantly inhabits the eccentric narrator.
"Itís something I donít do very much of," he says. "I donít want to say Iíve never done that before because thatís probably not true, but nothing comes to mind that compares at the moment: To be a different character but still be my song. In this case, I imagined myself being that guy in the song. Then it was easy to write him thinking about it that way. Living in San Francisco, thereís plenty of models for that kind of character that you see every day."
Now that the writerís block is behind him, the singer continues to look to the future. On Sunday, Cockburn will be in Calgary for the formal plaque ceremony of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is housed at the National Music Centre. In December, the centre launched a temporary exhibit that included artifacts from this yearís inductees, which include Cockburn, Neil Young, Quebecois rockers Beau Dommage and French-Canadian composer Stephane Venne. It features Cockburnís notebooks in which he wrote lyrics to some of his most beloved songs, including Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If A Tree Falls. It offers a tantalizing glimpse into his creative process.
While Cockburn says he is grateful that he has fans who pay close attention to such things, he admits he doesnít think much about the process once a song is finished.
"I think about the process of writing the next one,Ē he says with a laugh. ďWhatís done is done. The value reflecting on those things have on me as a writer is chiefly to avoid the mistakes of the past or to just do things better; make things more clear, more interesting, more whatever."
Bruce Cockburn will play the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Jan. 23 and Edmontonís Winspear Centre on Jan. 24
~from Calgary Herald - Bruce Cockburn talks about avoiding mistakes of the past by Eric Volmers