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A friend of mine recently made an interesting observation about the musician Bruce Cockburn. He noted how rare it was to find any photo over the years of Cockburn hanging backstage, performing alongside, or standing in the company of any fellow famous musician(s) from the same era. Almost every photo you find is the same ó Bruce and his guitar alone in front of a microphone. Itís a metaphor for how he has so singularly lived his life. Bruce Cockburn is true to himself, avoids trends, and has always put forward material that is marked by a profound sense of daring and duty.

Across 34 albums, Bruce Cockburn has made music that is often difficult to define. At times he sits squarely within the folk world. Then he migrates a bit to jazz and rock. And for some time now he has found a way to color his music with spirituality, a nod to his reborn Christianity. A world-class acoustic guitar player, he is known for having ďthe hardest-working right thumb in show business.Ē His abilities here have helped rank his talent at par with guitar legends like Bill Frisell, Django Reinhardt and Mississippi John Hurt. All of this will be celebrated in a forthcoming 50th Anniversary Box Set, where three previously released records have been remastered for vinyl. These records consist of his 1970 self-titled debut, a very spare and introspective piece of music, joined by two albums from the early í90s that have never been released before on vinyl: The Charity of Night and Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. Each album has been re-mastered by Bruceís long-time producer Colin Linden, and is pressed on colored vinyl. The five 180-gram discs are contained in original artwork sleeves adapted from the original designs by renowned graphic designer Michael Wrycraft, and reside with an individually numbered box signed personally by Cockburn.

This unique approach to celebrating his anniversary is just another demonstration of how Bruce Cockburn has always done it his own way. A large tour in support of this release was to begin in May. But like most concerts at the moment, it has been pushed off until the fall. We caught up with Bruce to talk about the release, his creative process, and where he thinks we will end up on the other side of this world pandemic. His responses were often framed with an endearing sense of humility defined by regular laughter, and offered rare insights into what life has been like for the last 50 years as one of the few real bona fide troubadours.

GOLDMINE: You have always been politically/socially active and ahead of the curve. Where do you think things will go on the other side of this pandemic?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, itís hard to predict exactly where itís going to go. I donít think that the quality of life in the world is going to improve because of this. One element of that has to do with democracy and who gets to have power and under what circumstances they get to exercise that power. That was already being eroded in this country anyway. Now I think that the threat of finding ourselves in some kind of authoritarian state is very real.

GM: In moments like these what is your approach to writing? Is the intent to make people feel better?

BC: Well, ďconnectĒ is more meaningful than ďbetter.Ē Of course itís nice to try and make people feel good, but thatís not the only way in which I want to touch people. For me, Iíve never operated from a particular stance, other than an artist trying to determine whatís going on and sharing it with people. So when I write about the stuff that people consider ďpolitical,Ē it comes about in exactly the same way as a love song or any other song. Itís not like I have taken a position and want to expound upon it. For me, it has to be organic. Iím not going around looking for issues to write about.

GM: This is an unusual way to celebrate this kind of milestone. Most 50th box sets span an entire career. This only focusses on three albums. Why?

BC: It came about because we wanted to do vinyl. The first album was an obvious choice because it was released 50 years ago. But with the other two it was interesting to put out something that had not been on vinyl before. I think they are among the best albums that I have made, and it just seemed appealing to put the focus on those records. If I happen to have a 75th anniversary, we can have a different mix of things. (laughs) But I didnít want to do a chronological ďbest-of,Ē because that would have been an obvious thing to do ó that made it less appealing to me. These two albums from the í90s are pretty much representative of a lot of what I do.

GM: They were remastered by your longtime producer Colin Linden. What kind of direction did you give him? Were you trying to sonically connect them at all?

BC: Yes, Colin oversaw the mastering. They sound great. The mastering that was done makes them sound better than they ever have. For me itís not important to make them match together in some way because they are in a box set. They match each other because itís me! (laughs) The first album is separated by a long period from those other albums. It sounds different, but it stands up really well. When I listen back to my previous work, and I donít spend a lot of time doing that, thereís the same sense of standing on the brink of some sort of threshold between the physical and spiritual world that pervades all of my stuff. So in a way thatís kind of the unifying factor. But I donít think we needed to go out of our way to do anything concrete with the sound.

In terms of making them contemporary, the í90s albums are already in that ballpark. We are pretty much dealing with the same technological parameters now that we were dealing with then. But they are bigger and richer because of the remastering. As for the debut, the vinyl sounds way better than the CD, and itís not just an aesthetic choice between the two. Itís just that the mastering that was done for the initial CD release wasnít very good. It was done in an era when CDs were new. So it just sounds 100 percent better than the CD ever did.

GM: You are also promoting last yearís release Crowing Ignites. There your acoustic playing is as strong as ever. How has it evolved over the years?

BC: Well, itís shifted a little. Evolved? I guess Iíd like to think it has. (laughs) Every now and then I hear some old thing thatís got stuff on it that I forgot about, and it makes me think that I havenít really expanded that much. When I listen to some of the popular stuff from the í70s ó like the stuff on Dancing in the Dragonís Jaws ó there are things that I would do differently. But I donít know that Iím a better player now. Iíve learned some other things since then, of course. But for every step forward that Iíve taken thereís the deterioration factor that comes into play, too. In general Iím no worse off.

GM: Why does it seem that Canada is so much more welcoming of acoustic music than the U.S.? Here we confine it to coffee houses and church basements.

BC: When I think of the American songwriters that I really appreciate, I think of Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco. Guitar was the thing in the era that I came up in ó everyone wanted to play folk music. We were very disdainful of people who played electric guitar unless they were Muddy Waters or Jimi Hendrix. It was just kind of the shape of things at the time. I was also always a jazz fan, so I had a great appreciation for the use of electric guitars as a jazz instrument. The road by which we arrived at songwriting was influenced so much by everyone from Woody Guthrie through Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan ó more that than by the electric stuff. But we were also big Beatles fans, and big Rolling Stones fans so we played acoustic versions of those songs, too.

There are differences between Canadian music and American music, even in this very globalized time weíre in right now. Canada would never produce a Tom Waits. It would now because Tom Waits has already arrived and evolved. But before that I donít think that he could have come out of Canada. At the same time, the states never produced a ďLeonard CohenĒ or a ďJoni Mitchell.Ē But you canít take this too far. We all grew up listening to American music. America gave the world rock and roll.

GM: How does your faith influence your songwriting?

BC: Itís complicated. It doesnít when it comes to an individual song, because for me writing a song consists of getting a good enough idea, running with it and trying to wrestle it in to something. Itís not affected by outside concerns. Iím aware that being labeled anything limits you to the people who are attracted to that label, and creates a barrier between you and people who donít relate to it. So if Iím called a ďpolitical singer,Ē I donít like it, and if Iím called a ďChristian singer,Ē I donít like it, either-even if both are sort of true. I donít want to only make music for people who identify themselves as Christians. I even resisted the label of ďfolk singerĒ for a long time, too, because folk singers were people like Pete Seeger, or they played bluegrass, and that wasnít me. When I made the album Night Vision, it was in reaction to having been over-identified in the media with this sort of pastoral romanticism that a certain part of the public was going around with. I didnít like being typecast like that. So I decided to make an ďurbanĒ record. It was a reaction to the sense of being pinned down. All of a sudden people were coming to the shows who wanted to whistle and stomp, which was shocking to me, because I had grown up in the coffee house atmosphere where you were supposed to be quiet and reverent toward whoever was onstage.

GM: You have always seemed to transcend trends or musical fads. You have also said that you arenít a planner, that you take things as they come.

BC: Itís the only thing that I know how to do. Itís fun to learn other peopleís songs now and then. When we were having live church services, Iíd go and sit in with the church band and get to play electric guitar, which was fun and it felt good. But as far as the core of what I do, I donít have any choice. This is how I see the world and this is how I understand how to make songs out of that. So thatís what Iím stuck with.

GM: 1984ís Stealing Fire album sleeve includes locations after each song. Is this where they were created?

BC: Itís where they were started, not always where they were finished. The content of a song doesnít always have to do with a place. But Iíve done that on all of the albums since the beginning. I just sort of adopted the habit from poets that I was fond of reading from when I was young. Sometimes it makes no difference at all where you wrote a song, but with other songs it does. I think an audienceís perception of a song like ďNicaragua,Ē for instance, is impacted when they know that it was actually written there. Or another example is ďWaiting for a Miracle,Ē where it means something slightly different, or the meaning is expanded if you put it in that context.

GM: Youíve covered a lot of musical ground, including soundtracks. How did you become involved with the childrenís show Franklin?

BC: They were interested in having me do a theme song for this show. It was in development and I was aware of the books, marginally. I had never done anything quite like that. In the end, it wasnít as much fun as I thought it might be, because it was kind of like writing a jingle. There was so much back and forth between me and the producers of the show over the use of this word versus that. Iím happy that I havenít had to make a career of that sort of thing.

GM: Your music has been covered by many well-known talents. Has any version surprised you?

BC: So many people have done my songs in interesting ways. The most is Michael Occhipintiís jazz version of a bunch of my songs. He put out an album that is all instrumental. Itís his take on those songs, and he really broke them down and reshuffled the deck in a very interesting way. So itís fun for me to listen to that.

GM: You celebrate a milestone birthday this year: 75 years. What do you hope to achieve/accomplish in your new year?

BC: The hope is that Iíll be able to do some live gigs. Recording songs is interesting and useful as is making videos of them now from my room at home. But itís not the same as sharing the experience of being in a place with people. Thatís when the songs really come alive.

~from - July 2020.

News Index

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.