11 September 2017 -
Canadian singer-songwriter, guitarist and activist Bruce Cockburn has been described a "spiritual poet", an "iconoclast" as well as the "Bob Dylan of Canada".
With a career spanning almost half a century, Bruce Cockburn is an ever-evolving artist, who has undergone many stylistic shifts. He is a consistently meticulous guitar player and a skilled lyricist. His music blends folk, rock, pop and jazz, and his lyrics address human rights, environmental issues, politics and spirituality.
His 33rd album Bone On Bone is out on September 15th, 2017, which coincides with his induction into the Canadian Songwriterís Hall Of Fame and the launch of his longest touring schedule in decades, with a stop in Montreal on September 19th at Club Soda.
Bruce Cockburn is a 13-time Juno Award winner and an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is also a Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee and a recipient of the Governor Generalís Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canadaís highest honour in the performing arts. In 2011, he welcomed the birth of his daughter and in 2014, he released his critically-acclaimed memoir Rumours of Glory.
I spoke to Bruce about his new album, osteoarthritis, Jesus, the search for God, the state of the world weíre leaving to our children and his upcoming tour.
Your new album flowed out of an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary film about the late Canadian poet Al Purdy. Why did this set you off on the writing of your album and how much of an influence is Al Purdy in your lyrics?
Heís a considerable influence on the lyrics of the song called "3 Al Purdyís", which includes the recitation of pieces of his poetry. Otherwise not.
That song was the first to be written. It came after an extended period where I hadnít written anything at all Ė at least no songs. I wrote a book, which is a whole different kind of thing. That enterprise took up all the creative juice that would have gone into song.
When the book was published and I didnít have to think about that anymore, Iím standing around wondering if Iím going to write any more songs now because itís been four years since Iíd written anything. When I was in the midst of this period of uncertainty, the invitation came along to write a song for that film. I said ďyesĒ, because I felt like if it works, it would get the process going again and put me back on the songwriting track. I was very glad to be able to get that song and have it work, and Iím very grateful for the ones that came along afterward.
What are your main inspirations for your new album, as well as the overarching themes?
The inspiration for all my songs is life as I experience it. Thereís no particular theme. Iíve never been the kind of writer who sits down and plans out what Iím going to write songs about or how to put together an album around a particular idea.
The album acquires a type of thematic content because the songs come from a particular period in my life. Thereís a certain kind of unity and feel Ė to some extent lyrical content Ė that reflects whatever I was going through when songs were written. Out of that stew pot of experience, thereís a fairly noticeable spiritual bent, which is not new and not unusual. But there have been times when itís been less an obvious part of songwriting as itís been on this album. Thereís that and thereís how it feels to be in the world the way it is right now.
In the film Pacing the Cage youíre asked, "Are you more of an optimist or a pessimist?" and you rapidly reply, "I think weíre fucked". I know youíre a social and environmental activist and have a 5-year-old daughter. I have a young child as well and Iím worried about what the world will look like when she has her own kids. Do you feel the same way about your young daughterís future, perhaps more than with your first daughter (who is now 40 years old)?
Yeah, I think so. Iím not sure if itís more because 30-40 years ago there was a lot to worry about as well. It feels like itís more precarious now than it was 40 years ago Ė the state of the world, that is, and the state of the world as something that Iím handing on to my child. I found that when my first daughter was born, the sense of responsibility became very strong, but that Iím somehow responsible for at least to whatever degree Iím complicit in perpetuating this stuff we see around us.
When youíre going hand this world onto your kid, you better make it the best one you can. At the same time, you want to prepare your child for what theyíll have to deal with. Thereís a balance that has to be found between keeping things in hand and preparing for the inevitable Ė or what might be the inevitable.
I feel like the world is actually coming apart. I donít have enough confidence in that opinion to sell it as a prophetic message, but thatís how I feel. I look around and it looks like entropy to me. One of the songs, "Cafť Society", mentions that: the word "entropy". If you want to look at it from a religious point of view, it looks satanic. It looks like the forces of chaos are really flexing their muscles. The effects of that are far more noticeable than any antidote that might be offered in spiritual circles.
Flapping lips of flatulence bellow "vote for ME"
Everything is spinning in the looming entropy
Ė Cafť Society
I believe there is that light. Even if itís a faint hope, thereís the hope that enough people will be motivated to act out of a sense of our interrelatedness to each other and the planetary processes that keep us alive. If enough people get that and start living from a place of understanding that, then it will have an effect.
The title of your album and the title track is Bone on Bone. Bone on bone usually refers to osteoarthritis, when you have no cartilage left between joints. What is the significance of ďbone on boneĒ?
Youíre right. Thatís exactly what Bone on Bone refers to. I have hands like that. My finger joints have no cartilage left and some other spots like that too. Itís interesting because most young people donít think about that. The phrase ďbone on boneĒ doesnít mean anything to them.
Micheal Wrycraft did the album artwork. In one of our first phone conversations, he asked me what the title of the album was going to be and I told him: Bone on Bone. And there was a pause, and he said, "Ooooh, sexy." I said, "No, Michael, no. So not sexy." But thatís what it is, and it seemed like a good title for a guitar piece using those fingers.
Does the osteoarthritis in your hands affect your guitar playing these days?
Yes, it does. I donít think it affects it in the way that anybodyís able to hear yet. Eventually, it will. I hope I donít have the presence of mind to quit when that comes around. But at this point, Iím getting away with it.
There is religious and spiritual content to many of the songs on the album like ďJesus TrainĒ. Youíre on the ďJesus TrainĒ: who is Jesus and what does he represent?
If you asked me this in the 70s, I would have given you an answer that was compatible with church teaching. That he was the incarnation of the divine on earth, that he lived how he lived and died how he died, etc. etc., and returned from the dead. Over time, that mental picture weakened, and I was not convinced of the reality of that Ė but not of what he stands for.
Lots has been written on these kinds of questions. In a certain way, the Jesus story echoes older stories from other cultures in the area, from ancient Egypt for example Ė these kinds of messianic figures that appear in various cultures and at various points in history. I have trouble with the exclusivity and the historical facts of whether or not there was Jesus.
I never lost interest in having a relationship with God, but what that relationship is supposed to consist of has come under question. But that search has led around. After decades of not being a church-going guy and for a long time not even thinking of myself as Christian, here I come back around again and now I do go to church. Iím not quite sure if Iím a Christian or not, but Iím thinking a lot about that.
Who is Jesus? Heís a representation of the divine. Whether heís the only one or the best one is up for discussion. Part of my picture of Jesus is kind of a Jungian archetype, a collective animus. I donít know if thatís right either. This is all subject to revision and drastic change with whatever next step is in front me that I havenít taken yet.
Where did the song ďJesus TrainĒ come from? Is it a metaphor for the spiritual path?
The song "Jesus Train" just popped out of me in church. It popped out having a dream in which there was a train that was definitely a spiritual presence: a powerful, armored locomotive. Looking back at the dream, it just seemed like that was the Jesus Train. It then ended up being a song.
Thereís a lot of power in that train. For me, the image is not one of blissful meditation or feeling in tune with the universe. This is: ďget on this train and charge through whatever landscape you have to charge through to get where youíre going.Ē Because itís a train, you donít have to fight your way through yourself. Youíre on a vehicle that is going to take you there, no matter what.
Standing on the platform
Awed by the power
I feel the fire of love
Feel the hand upon my shoulder saying "brother climb aboard"
Iím on the Jesus train
Ė Jesus Train
Over your almost 50 year career, whatís changed the most and how have you evolved as an artist?
The biggest change I notice is in my body. Iíd like to think Iím a better artist and Iím deeper into what I do. I have a keener sense of what makes a good song than when I started. Certainly in the beginning, my sense of what a song was, was really a product of all the songs Iíd listened to rather than the ones Iíd written.
At this point, when Iím writing a song I can be critical of what Iím writing at the same time as I can be excited about it. I think in the beginning there was only the excitement and not the criticism and not the ability to stand back and say: "Is this really going to work? Is anybody going to understand this?" I donít want to be ruled by my anticipation of peopleís response to the song because thatís not how you make art. But, at the same time, the album is out there for people to hear so you want to make it to some extent accessible.
This is your longest tour in decades. How are you feeling about getting back on the road?
Iím very excited about it. This tour is paced in a different way than what used to be normal because of my daughter primarily Ė because I have a family I want to maintain a relationship with. I donít want to go out for six weeks at a time and come back for two, and then go out for another six, which is the way we used to do things when we had a new album.
But I havenít stopped performing. This tour will be done in 3-week chunks with more time in between, so I get to have a family life at the same time as I get to do the touring. Iím very excited to be getting back on the road, especially with a band because almost all the work Iíve been doing for the last number years have been solo. Itís going to fun to have a real extra oomph on stage.
Bruce Cockburn performs at Club Soda on September 19th in Montreal. Doors open at 7 PM, show at 8 PM. Tickets: $53.25 to $55.25.