29 June 2019 - If you were asked to name a Canadian artist who has, in the course of his or her career, released 34 albums to great international critical acclaim, the name Bruce Cockburn might not jump immediately to mind. That may be due in part to the fact heís not an ever-present face in the media, has not been associated with salacious headlines nor has he ever been a guest judge on any number of cheesy talent shows. No, Bruce Cockburn is more like Canadian weather Ė sometimes heavenly, sometimes harsh and demanding, always changing and something all Canadians appreciate for its inherent unpredictable nature.
Since releasing his self-titled debut in 1970, Cockburn the singer-songwriter has delivered an incredible cache of songs, including ďWondering Where the Lions Are,Ē ďTokyo,Ē ďIf I Had a Rocket Launcher,Ē ďLovers In a Dangerous Time,Ē ďIf A Tree Falls,Ē ďCall It DemocracyĒ and many more. Cockburn the musician, however, has also earned acclaim for his exceptional acoustic guitar playing, wonderfully showcased in his award-winning 2005 instrumental collection, Speechless. This September, Cockburn will be releasing a follow-up, Crowing Ignites, featuring 11 original acoustic compositions that deftly illustrate why he was acknowledged by the Canadian Folk Music Awards as Best Instrumentalist.
To promote his upcoming July 13th appearance at the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, Cockburn took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly about going instrumental, winning awards and surviving earthquakes in his current home of San Francisco.
GoBe: An instrumental album at this time seems like a lost opportunity, because the world needs more words of wisdom from Bruce Cockburn. But on the flip side, itís perhaps a perfect fit for the times given the way people are finding words so divisive and polarizing these days. What was your primary motivation for recording CROWING IGNITES and did the great response to Speechless play any factor?
Bruce: Our intention started out to be to make a sequel to Speechless. It was going to be a collection of previously released tracks that werenít on Speechless and a couple of other old things that werenít on that collection and some new material. But I wound up with so much new material that it became its own album, Crowing Ignites. Once we started doing it it took on a momentum of its own. With respect to the absence of lyrics, thereís lots to comment on in the world right now, but thereís also a lot of people commenting. Iím not sure that adding more clamour to the clamour is really that helpful. Thatís not to say we shouldnít all say whatís in our hearts to say, but I donít think the world needs to hear more from anyone about Donald Trump for instance. Everybody knows what they think of him whether for or against.
GoBe: Thereís 11 new original tracks on this release. Where does one start composing for an instrumental album. You have a blank slate Ė is that daunting not having lyrics to build around?
Bruce: Itís a different process. Your question kind of implies that you know this, that I generally kind of start writing songs with the lyrics and music kind of becomes the vehicle for the transmission of those. In the case of instrumental pieces, the ideas come from the guitar itself or from out of the air in a kind of way. Thereís two pieces on the new album that were constructed in the studio. One of them started with Tibetan singing bowls and the other one started with a little riff on the triangle and started from there. With those exceptions the pieces were composed beforehand. They just came from practising and just tooling around basically.
GoBe: So is there anything you had to learn or that you would up learning as a musician in order to produce this album?
Bruce: Well, I always write a little harder than I can actually play. Iíve tended to do that over the years, not always but often I do. Itís part and partial to the process. I discover something on the guitar that I didnít know how to do before, or is a way of using something I know how to do but itís a different application of it. So then thereís a learning curve involved thatís built right into the composition of the piece. In that sense, thereís definitely things I had to learn. I wouldnít say a radical departure, I didnít turn into Pat Martino or a classical player.
Bruce: When you pour your heart into a lyric thereís obviously an emotional connection to the song. Is there as much of that put into a song without the lyrical attachment, or is it strictly physical Ė or maybe metaphysical?
Bruce: I think there is as much. Itís not as specific obviously, because thereís nothing to attach to your ideas. Having that emotional content is one of the things that makes an instrumental performance effective. The capacity to contain that emotion is one of the things that makes a piece workable or a successful composition.
GoBe: The press materials around the new release mentions a makeshift studio that you and producer Colin Linden pieced together in a fire station in San Francisco to record in. What was involved in that process and what impact did the limitations or nuances of the studio have on the final results?
Bruce: You know it came out of a kind of self-interested intuitive flash on my part. Where I live in San Francisco is about four blocks from where my young daughter goes to school. I would walk her to school every day. In the process I became acquainted with and got friendly with a woman who owned this former firehouse that was half way between my house and the school. It was converted into a nice three-bedroom condo with mostly open space. I had been to a house concert there, they run concerts there and other kinds of special events. At one point I ran into my friend Anne who owns the place at a cafť. She didnít use the place day to day on a regular basis. I asked her what she thought about using it as a studio and she took about half a second to say Ďthatís a great idea.Ē I checked with Colin to see if he could assemble the necessary recording gear and thatís how we proceeded. We spent a week in the place just setting up all the instruments and just started playing.
GoBe: Tell me you got to fulfill every young boyís fantasy by sliding down the fire pole.
Bruce: (laughing) No, thereís no fire pole. I donít know that there ever was. It a great space to work in.
GoBe: Itís been nearly five decades since your debut in 1970. Youíve seen the industry change dramatically through those decades, with your music welcome on almost all formats at one time or another. Did you ever consciously feel you needed to change to suit the industry, or have you always simply created what you needed to create such as your upcoming release?
Bruce: I can remember a couple occasions, for instance in the 80s, where we thought Ďeverybody is putting out a single, maybe we should put out a single.í As it turns out, we recorded ďColdest Night of the YearĒ with that in mind. By the time the record got finished and came out it was springtime and no one wanted to play it. Itís become kind of a seasonal thing on radio in Canada, but it was not a success as a single at the time. I donít think about it much. Of course Iím as affected as everybody else by the trends that sweep through. If a thing is exciting for everybody itís probably exciting for me too and I might want to do something like it. Really, I donít feel like Iím in the business. Iím in the business of making music basically and I suppose I have a certain role as a commenter on things. Thatís just how itís developed over the years, but that wasnít really intentional. The intentional part of what I do is to try and make music that Iím interested in, and write songs that say something Iím interested in saying.
GoBe: You say youíre in the business of making music. In doing my research and reacquainting myself with your catalogue, you had 10 albums released in the 70s, another 10 in the 80s. Does that enormous output seem ludicrous to you now Ė especially knowing that it takes artists today a year to produce a song?
Bruce: Well, itís the other way around. I think taking a year to produce a song is ludicrous. Thereís no point in pining for the old days, but in the 70s and 80s we recorded an album and we could put it out a month later. You could spend a couple weeks recording the record and it takes a couple of weeks to put stuff together and itís out. So you could predict what the climate will be when you put it out. Now, because of the corporateness of everything, it takes forever. It takes a year to get an album out. In our case weíre doing it kind of fast, because we recorded the album in February and itís coming out in September. Weíre being speed demons with this one.
GoBe: And that included building a studio too!
Bruce: (laughs) Yes, including building a studio.
GoBe: You scored the 2018 Juno Award in the Roots category for your Bone on Bone album. What do such awards mean to you 34 albums deep into your career?
Bruce: You know, itís an honour to be thought of highly by my peers and everyone else. Itís not something I take for granted. I like to get that kind of attention, but itís not a measure of anything really meaningful. I donít want to denigrate the process. If people want to celebrate what we all do, thatís great. More power to them. Itís an honour to be included, but itís certainly not what I live for.
Gobe: Thereís a couple awards that may hold more significant meaning Ė your Order of Canada and your induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which of those two accolades holds more significant meaning to you?
Bruce: The Order of Canada is in some ways is the only significant accolade of that sort. Being made an Officer of the Order of Canada, a cynic might say whatís the difference, itís just more PR. But Iíd rather be associated with PR for the nation. I just feel that itís something, because of the nature of how the Order was set up, it transcends politics, individual governments and itís a reflection some way of the degree to which some aspect of Canada includes me. To be included and sort of embraced by that Canadian persona is very rewarding and meaningful to me. I have felt for decades that my life and the life of the country are connected some way. I was born there and spent most of my life living there. Thereís some kind of way that Iím a part of Canada and Canadaís a part of me. To have that encapsulated in the medal thatís a symbol of the Order of Canada is very meaningful.
GoBe: From where do you derive the greatest pleasure these days; in the writing and creating, or the performing of the music you make?
Bruce: It has always been two different things. Itís kind of schizoid. The writing on one hand, the process, whether itís lyrical or instrumental, is like a treasure hunt and itís fun. Once it gets rolling it can be exasperating at times too. But itís like being on the trail of something and chasing it down and thatís fun. Performing, when it works well and all the conditions are right, is a whole different kind of fun. Itís more immediate, right then and there. If it works well itís very enjoyable.
GoBe: It worked well the last time I saw you perform at Jackson-Triggs. For this show, will it be an entirely acoustic show in support of the album or will we be treated to a mix of songs and instrumental music?
Bruce: The albumís not even out yet, so weíre not really thinking about Crowing Ignites with respect to these shows coming up. There will be something from the album, but itís not the emphasis. Itís a band show, the same band I was touring with for Bone on Bone, but this time a strictly acoustic format.
GoBe: Final question then. As a current resident of San Francisco, have you experienced an earthquake yet?
Bruce: Iíve only noticed one. There have others since Iíve been here but for some reason I donít seem to notice them. I donít know if itís my own shakiness or the fact I happen to be in a car at the time. There have been no big ones. I do recall my wife and I were lying in bed one morning and there was a kind of cracking noise, not particularly loud. The whole building made a cracking noise and there was a ripple that ran across the ceiling. My wife said Ďthat was an earthquake.í It was a four on the scale, epicentre was down near San Jose. That was my only conscious knowledge of one so far.
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