The Coolest Musician On Earth
18 November 1999 -- This is how Bruce Cockburn is described by Peter Bate in the British magazine Making Music. In an interview in Octobers edition, Bruce discusses his approach to songwriting, his cult status outside Canada and his early years in the music business.
Soon after his band The Children supported Jimi Hendrix (a huge influence on the electric side of what I do) at Montreal in 1968, he turned down a job offer from Elvis Presley-songwriter Aaron Schroeder. His idea was that I should be a staff songwriter in his company and he would teach me how to write hits. I could sit there in an office on a salary and churn out hits week after week. It was a glorious future he was promising - but it didnt appeal to me. I didnt want to write on demand like that.
Bruces writing has subsequently proved to be less contrived than that of a professional hit-maker, and certainly more personal. If I sit down to write a song I dont say, Im going to write a song about land rights, or rain forests, or some social injustice. It doesnt work like that. Its because Ive encountered something that needs to come out, and that makes what I do different from propaganda. Its a hands-on thing, so if I dont know about a thing I wont write about it.
To me its about trying to understand what I can of the human experience, distil that and pass it on in some truthful way to anybody else that cares to hear about it. Its really about fitting the music to the words. The comparison Id use is that its a bit like scoring a film. You have a collection of images and ideas, bits of story and characters that need to be supported by the music.
This method can be a challenge for the musicians with whom he collaborates. Its usually in my head - I dont really put anything on tape - but theres a very specific guitar part around which the songs written. And, although it sounds grandiose to put it this way, what Im bringing into the study is a composition, its not just a melody and a chord chart. The other musicians have to work around that and fit themselves into it, which presents interesting challenges, especially for the rhythm section.
Despite having patron-saint status in Canada (not his words), Bruce is still relatively unknown outside his home country. In terms of getting the numbers of the audience beyond a certain point, it would be very nice if it happened, but its not a motivating factor for me. Its the quality of the contact that matters more than numbers.
Making Music is available free from most music shops in the UK. British Bruce Cockburn collectors may find a copy or two of Octobers issue left at the bottom of the pile, or can order it from their website at http://www.makingmusic.co.uk/.