30 March 2011 -
EDMONTON - In the opening notes to Small Source Of Comfort, his first new studio album in six years, Bruce Cockburn explains that he set out to do something different, something "electric and noisy."
But that never happened.
Apparently, he never found the element of isolation he needed. Personal priorities ó spending time with his American-based girlfriend, and his restless spiritó interceded.
"Itís important to be able to move with the changes," he notes. "All of life is like that. What are you gonna do? Sit around and cry or work with what youíve got?"
So fans will just have to settle for another of the beautifully crafted, largely acoustic sets of socially and politically astute songwriting that they have come to know and love from the Canadian folk-rock icon. At 65, he has more than 30 albums to his name and enough awards and honours to fill a garage, including an Order of Canada distinction.
Despite the serious look of his publicity photos, Cockburn turns out to be a more easygoing conversationalist that you might expect. He admits heís more of ďan urban personĒ despite the artistic need for isolation, and he values "the feeling of openness and vulnerability" that comes out of travelling.
"I am someone who gets bored easily, particularly with myself. Iím restless, and creatively itís sort of necessary to keep experiencing stimuli that trigger your emotional responses. Thatís how your creative process gets fired up."
On the phone from his home outside Kingston, Ont., heís taking a break from rehearsals with the rest of his touring trio (American violinist Jenny Scheinman, Toronto percussionist Gary Craig). Theyíre also on the new album, produced by Colin Linden with a few other musicians and lots of Cockburnís own gorgeous guitar.
Small Source Of Comfort offers much in the way of poetic imagery and insight, right from the opening hooks on The Iris Of The World. But it also has a few quirks.
Case in point, Call Me Rose, a song in the first person about former U.S. President Richard Nixon being reincarnated as a single mom with two kids, living in the slums. Itís some of the oddest evidence yet that Cockburn has a sense of humour.
"Itís the weirdest thing. I pay a lot of attention to my dreams but I didnít dream that song. I woke up and it was conscious in my head like it had been dictated to me. Iím not suggesting that I was the victim of an alien abduction or anything, but it came from somewhere in my brain that I donít normally have access to when Iím awake. All I can relate it to is that the (George W.) Bush administration had a little campaign to try to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. Itís about power and redemption, I guess."
So if Cockburn can envision Nixon reborn as a poor woman named Rose, is there any chance that he himself might reincarnate, perhaps as a politician?
"I guess, if I have to pay for my sins, then I might have to come back that way."
Cockburn canít recall that politics was a frequent topic of dinnertime conversation when he was a kid growing up in Ottawa, though his parents did instil a certain awareness of civic responsibilities and the importance of voting.
"That set the stage, but my personal involvement with politics really stems from starting to travel and meeting people where politics really did matter ó native people, for instance, or going to Italy in the 1970s when the Red Brigades were active. There was a sense of chaos all over that was very different from the relatively bland liberal atmosphere that I had grown up in."
After Cockburnís first recording came out in 1970, it was only a matter of time before such experiences would have an effect on his songwriting.
"It opened my eyes to the idea that the political world was as real as the rest of life and it expanded the horizons of responsibility that I felt already. Without getting pompous, I think that responsibility is kind of central to art in general. The job of an artist is to tell the truth as you understand it. Itís also perfectly permissible to make fluffy entertainment if thatís what you want to do."
If any one song gave him a reputation as a political activist it was the 1984 hit single If I Had A Rocket Launcher, inspired by meeting Guatemalan refugees in war-torn Central America. In 2009, he travelled to Afghanistan, to visit his brother Capt. John Cockburn, a doctor serving in the war zone, and to entertain the troops. The trip inspired two memorable tracks on the new album, including an instrumental called The Comets Of Kandahar. Another song, Each One Lost, was written after he witnessed a ramp ceremony, the Canadian Forceís way of saying goodbye to two fallen soldiers.
"In a certain way, they exhibited that same subdued, very dignified response to pain that I had first witnessed in the Guatemalan refugees years ago. I guess maybe Iím a sucker for that because it really affected me as strongly as being with those refugees did. Maybe itís because they were young Canadians. In some ways, I felt like they were my kids, but it made honouring them on that occasion even more poignant."
On a more directly personal note, Cockburnís mother died last August, and another instrumental Lois On The Autobahn imagines her driving off into the afterlife.
Has witnessing death at home or abroad left him more reflective?
"You know from the get-go that youíre gonna die. I donít look forward to it but I think Iíve written my own epitaph a whole bunch of times in my songs."
Cockburn can take his own small source of comfort from a legacy of songs that provokes people to hum along and to think, but he has no thoughts of retiring. After all, there are still unexplored ambitions, his "noisy" album, and maybe an album of covers.
"I donít take things for granted but itís worked out for me so far."
~from © Copyright (c)The Edmonton Journal