-- Interview with Bruce Cockburn --
By Rich Kimbal - Downtown - WZON Radio

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31 May 2020 - On May 13 Rich Kimbal interviewed Bruce Cockburn, you can listen to the audio here and read the transcription below.

Rich KimballWe get things underway, here in the [Wondering Where the Lions Are begins in background] second hour of the program, by welcoming in a singer, songwriter, and musician who's been making great music for more than five decades now. [music fades out] He has had twelve Juno Awards in his career, has recorded over thirty albums. He's the author of a wonderful memoir Rumours of Glory. We're pleased to be joined this afternoon by Bruce Cockburn. Bruce, thanks for being with us.

Bruce Cockburn - Thanks for having me. Nice to talk to you.

RK - How are you doing in this time of social isolation?

BC - [laughs] Doin' okay. We're all dealing with, you know, this new and exotic situation but, you know, we're getting by alright.

RK - Exotic. I like that.

BC - Well yeah, I mean in the sense that . . . it's not exotic in the pleasurable sense, but it is certainly in the sense of being something that's very different from how we've all expected our days to go in the past. So it's, you know, we're basically in the same boat as everybody else. And there are three of us, my wife and daughter in our apartment in San Francisco, 24/7 [laughs]. So whereas there used to be, uh, space . . . My daughter would go to school, my wife goes to work, I do my thing through the day, and then it . . . you know . . . we all . . . we convene kind of at dinner time. But now it's, it's all the time, so . . . That's a pretty big change, and we're lucky enough to have a pretty decent sized apartment and, you know, that's in a neighborhood that's comfortable, and we do go out. But, uh . . . but, uh . . . it's still vastly more limited in scope than it . . than we're used to, so . . . You know, although I have, as I hear myself saying that, I realize that we're also getting used to this, now, after this much time. But I'm not that happy about that, to be honest [RK - No.] I'd rather not be getting used to it.

RK - In the midst of all this, a celebration of your work, a boxed set. 50th Anniversary boxed set. Bruce, well how amazing is it for an artist to be with the same label for fifty years? That's an incredible record of consistency.

BC - Y'know . . . I mean it is, actually. I . . . I . . . I think it's relatively unusual. Maybe . . . not quite unique perhaps? It might be unique. But certainly rare in the music world that a relationship like that persists for so long. But, it just worked, y'know. So there's never been any real reason to wanna change it. It started because Bernie Finkelstein, who for most of those years was the owner of True North Records. Wanted to start a record label, and I wanted to make an album, and our mutual friend Gene Martynec wanted to produce . . . wanted to become a producer. We were all coming out of the, sort of the band era of the sixties. Bernie had been a manager and Gene had been a guitar player in a couple of bands, and I had also. But I had these songs that worked when I performed them solo better than any of the band stuff that I had done. And I kind of wanted to move forward with that. So, the three of us got together and True North Records started, and my first album was the first album on the label. Coming out in 1970, and it, it . . . soon after, within the year even after it came out, it was clear that I needed a manager. Bernie volunteered his services. Well, he didn't exactly volunteer. He suggested that I pay him to do that. And . . . . it seemed like a good arrangement, and we still have that arrangement. So aside from the oddness [laugh] of having been with the same label all those years, I've had the same manager all those years also. And so, that's kind of anomalous, let's say, in the music scene. But it's, it's just . . . there's been like I said, there's never really been any reason to change it.

RK - When did you start playing the guitar, Bruce?

BC - I was fourteen. So that would have been 1959, and I was into rock and roll in a big way and I really wanted to play guitar. I hadn't really formed the conscious intention but I just had it as 'Oh that'd be so great to be able to do that'. And then while a house we were, my dad, was having built was, as things are generally and haven't changed, I mean in this respect. The contractor was late on the thing, so the house wasn't ready when school started, and the old . . . we'd moved out of the other place, and blah, blah. So we were staying at my grandmother's house for a couple of months waiting for the new house to be finished. And I discovered in the attic, in a closet in the attic, this old beat up Hawaiian guitar that . . . and it was like Oh, this is meant to be. There's a guitar that nobody cares about and I get to have it. Y'know. So I painted gold stars on the top, and y'know posed in the mirror with it, and tried to play rock and roll riffs without much success. And then . . but my parents could kind of see where this was going, and it's like Okay look, if you want to take guitar lessons, we'll . . or if you want to play the guitar we will support that, but you have to promise to take lessons and learn to do it properly. And you have to promise you won't grow sideburns and get a leather jacket. [all laugh] I thought that was a fairly light burden, so I said Yeah okay, let's do it. And, so that's where it went.

Bruce - Y'know Bruce - this is Bruce - If you have fifty years for the record label, but you have established fifty years with a fan base that are very, very loyal. I'm one of those people who goes back, liked your music from the start. You've done something that I think maybe only Norman Blake and a few other guitar players have done, and that is for that long be both consistent as a songwriter and consistent as a writer of instrumentals. How do you . . . how do you approach the fact that you've been able to keep, you've been able to change, do different things, but you've kept this solid fan base. I think I know why, but I'm wondering what you think.

BC - [laughs] I think, I think it's a blessing. I don't look at it too hard. But . . . and I'm very, I'm grateful for it and I'm very kind of proud of that element of my audience, that people have been willing to hang in for that long. And through a bunch of changes too! I've tried to be the best I can be in musical terms, in lyrical terms, over those years, but in the course of that there have been changes from, y'know . . . in, in terms of musical style, in terms of the kind of direction the lyrics have gone, or the kind of the content of songs have gone. And, and most of those people have stuck with me all that time. So it's . . . I'm . . . like I say, I'm very grateful for that. [indistinguishable under next comment]

Bruce - Well, very few people have virtuosity on the fingerboard, and that kind of a thoughtful, introspective way of making the lyrics fit the music and the playing. I learned from my friend Garnett Rogers, that you also are a very good marksman [BC laughs and makes an unintelligble comment in the background]. And I was wondering if those two things, in your mind, somehow work together. I, I . . .as a guitar player myself, I could start to see that when Garnett mentioned it the other day when we were chatting.

BC - Y'know I don't . . . I mean it's interesting that he would say that. But to me, I didn't get involved in competitive shooting until the end of, well, 'til the very late 80s, and so it wasn't a part of anything that happened before that. But I did discover . . . I actually, sometime in the 80s, I can't remember exactly when, I lost most of the sight in my left eye because of a fungus infection I picked up somewhere. And . . . so I discovered that rather, because . . . and I'm left handed, right? So I . . . anytime I had tried to do anything involving aim - throwing a ball, shooting a bow, shooting a gun, whatever it was, I could never hit anything [laughs with RK] Never get anything to go where - it's plain dark - whatever, I could never get anything to go where I wanted it to. But when I lost the sight in the left eye, because I was assuming that because I was left handed that I'd be aiming with that eye, I suddenly discovered that I'd been right-eyed all along. And that can happen, you can be left handed and right eyed, and whatever. But . . . So all of the sudden I found that I could aim at things and hit them. And it sorta went from there. I discovered that a friend of mine who owned a guitar shop that I had frequented for years was into competitive pistol shooting. And, y'know, he said Why don't you come to the range one day and see what it's like. That appealed to me for various reasons, and so I went with him and sure enough it was fun and I just got further into it from there, so . . . And I spent maybe over a decade, twelve years-ish, quite deeply involved in competitive shooting. And then, I haven't done it for years now, but that took me through from the late eighties into the two thousands doing that, and I've . . . I got a lot out of it actually I think. And I don't . . . But I don't know how much of a relationship between that and the creative side of what I do. I think it was exciting for me to discover a) that I could hit something [RK laughs] that I was aiming at, and b) that I actually liked competing when I felt like I could actually pull it off. I've never seen myself as a competitive person, and I've always avoided any kind of whiff of competitiveness that comes into the music scene, which it does. And not so much among the musicians, although it can be there, but more from the business side. It's like Well, you have to sell more records than so-and-so. Well, surely that person who started like ten years after you shouldn't be getting more of an audience than you [RK laughs] after all this time. And you hear this stuff from people. And I've always kind of resisted that way of thinking because it seems counterproductive and inappropriate to. . . to what I think music's all about. But I discovered there was actually fun to be had, on the level of a game, like the shooting stuff, in a competitive way. And so, y'know, there was discoveries involved.

RK - We're talking with Bruce Cockburn here on Downtown. Now you've been an outspoken activist for your entire career. I heard somebody recently say what we're experiencing now with this COVID-19 pandemic could be a preview of coming attractions, because we've failed, certainly here in the United States, we've failed to properly address the issue of climate change.

BC - Well, that failure, pretty much, is a worldwide one. Some countries have made more meaningful gestures than others in that . . . in the direction of addressing that. But most of us haven't. And basically we live in a world that is at the service of transnational corporations, global corporations. I mean it's not quite a feudal system, we're much better off than if it were that. But it's kind of, in a gentle way, kind of like that, so y'know, the aristocracy are these CEOs and their . . . and the faceless stockholders, which is a lot of people. I mean this is the difference between us and a real feudal system is that a lot of average quote-unquote people own stock in these corporations and want to get paid on that, but . . . and expect to. But the fact is that that is, I think, the biggest single factor in keeping everybody from addressing environmental issues or even from acknowledging that there are such things. 'Cause they . . . all that money plays a very strong propaganda game. For one thing, they can buy scientists, and they do, and they can buy politicians, and they do, and . . . et cetera. Y'know, I mean whether it's overt or kind of a systemic relationship that exists between money and politics, et cetera. That's . . . it works like that, so . . . So, basically, nobody's doing enough, and we probably won't because I don't see that system changing, although it's taking a little bit of a hit right now with the virus going around and everything. But, but I don't think the hit is going to be big enough to actually change the system. I'm not sure what the system should be. I don't have . . . I don't have a . . . an agenda that way or I'm not promoting any particular set of ideas. I just think that it's pretty obvious that the way things . . . that keeping on running things the way we have been is going to result in much bigger disasters than what we're currently looking at.

RK - Well, Bruce, we've enjoyed your music for many, many years, and appreciate all you do by using your platform to try to make the world a better place. We really appreciate you making time for us this afternoon, and wish you continued good health and success.

BC - Well thank you very much for that, and it's, it's, yeah, nice to spend the time with you.

RK - Thank you again. Bruce Cockburn with us here on Downtown.

~Transcribed by John Peregrim.

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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.