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“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 October’s 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 didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t want to write on demand like that.”

Bruce’s 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 don’t say, ‘I’m going to write a song about land rights, or rain forests, or some social injustice.’ It doesn’t work like that. It’s because I’ve encountered something that needs to come out, and that makes what I do different from propaganda. It’s a hands-on thing, so if I don’t know about a thing I won’t write about it.

“To me it’s 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. It’s really about fitting the music to the words. The comparison I’d use is that it’s 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. “It’s usually in my head - I don’t really put anything on tape - but there’s a very specific guitar part around which the song’s written. And, although it sounds grandiose to put it this way, what I’m bringing into the study is a composition, it’s 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 it’s not a motivating factor for me. It’s 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 October’s issue left at the bottom of the pile, or can order it from their website at

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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.