13 November 2017 - After wondering if heíd ever write a song again, one of the most enduring and contemplative singer/songwriters of our time delivers more brilliant music.
Even the word "prolific" is an understatement for rare artists like Bruce Cockburn.
The thoughtful, brilliant Canadian singer/songwriter just released his thirty-third record, Bone On Bone, another superb piece in a magnificent career that has spanned fifty-plus years. And at the age of 72, Cockburn ó who was just inducted into the Canadian Songwritersí Hall of Fame this past September alongside Neil Young Ė shows no signs of burning out or fading away.
But a few years ago in a rare twist of almost-tragic fate, Cockburn found that writing songs for a new record, which would be his first in seven years, wasnít coming so easy. His mightily abundant supply of songwriting chops, fueled by his deep spirituality, went momentarily dry after he exhaustively poured all of his creativity and energy into his 2014 memoir, Rumours Of Glory. Stunningly, he wasnít even sure he would write another song.
"When I came out of writing my book, I wasnít sure if I was gonna write anymore songs Ďcuz it had been so long," Cockburn said as he embarks on an extensive US tour which brings him to The Birchmere on Tuesday November 14th. "Itíd been four years since I wrote a song, so I wondered if I still knew how to do it. (Writing the memoir) was more work than I expected, and all the creative juice I had went into the book, I wasnít prepared for it. So at the end of all that, it was like, ĎWell, maybe Iím gonna be a songwriter again, maybe I wonít.í I was hoping I would be, I was hoping that I would write more songs, Ďcuz in my gut I didnít feel like that was over. But I also wondered if itís really meant to be that I should be doing something else. It wasnít a negative feeling, really, it was just kind of a question."
Cockburn first credits inspiration from an unlikely source, in the form of a surprising request from a legendary fellow Canadian, for getting him back in gear, getting the juices flowing, getting him writing songs again.
"I got an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary film that was being made about [Canadian poet] Al Purdy," Cockburn said. "It just seemed like a gift, you know, hereís this guy who wants me to write a song, and I donít even know him. And over the years Iíve done very little of writing on demand like that, Ďcuz itís sort of the opposite of how I normally operate, but in this case, the idea of writing about Al Purdy seemed like a good thing. The offer was wide open, it was like, ĎWell, you can take Purdyís poems and set them to music,í which would be very difficult actually because theyíre not that kinda poetry. Right away, I got the idea, the image came to me, of this homeless guy who is obsessed with Al Purdy and rants his poems out on the street. The song just went from there. It was like, ĎIíll give you three Al Purdys for a 20 dollar bill.í And what would this homeless guy be saying when he wasnít ranting Purdy poetry? So ultimately, itís a question of looking around for things."
And given Cockburnís lifelong passion for activism, it was also the new regime in the U.S. that helped rejuvenate his need to express himself through song.
"I donít think Iíve had a conversation with anyone in the past year that didnít mention Donald Trump. Right now, as a nation, the U.S. is polarized and so fragmented. Everybodyís just in shock, ya know? But when I write, itís not that intentionalÖor deliberateÖI just react. When I write a song, its Ďcuz I got this idea. An idea comes, and I think I can run with it, and thatís what I try to do. So, itís not like I sit around thinking, ĎHow do I express how disturbed I am at whatís going on in the United States?í But once the ball was rolling, it just kept rolling."
In inimitable Bruce Cockburn fashion, the songs from Bone On Bone have that extraordinary depth and thought and complexity that are staples of his work. Take the breakdown of his process for writing the catchy but startling "Stab At Matter" for example, itís a description which opens a window into how Cockburn often comes up with themes for his often miraculous music.
"The original Stabat Mater is a Latin hymn from the 1300ís or earlier, maybe the 1100ís, itís ancient," Cockburn passionately describes. "In Latin, ĎStabat Materí means basically that the ĎMother is standingí or Ďstand there, Mother.í Itís really about Mary standing at the foot of the cross, watching her son die. It intrigued me, so I started obsessing over the phrase Ďstab at matterí. It just seemed to offer all kinds of possibilities and what came out was what you hear. Itís the destruction of ego, or the inevitable destruction of the stuff we surround ourselves with, depending on how you wanna look at it. Itís based on the notion that you donít grow very far spiritually without getting your ego heavily in check. You waste a lot of energy, we all do, when being attached to things that do get destroyed. Or that just have their deaths built in. So itís kinda getting free of all that. And I donít know why it took that musical form, the words just seemed to want that. Thatís how those things go."
Cockburn credits the intense experience of writing his memoir for providing the basis for "States Iím In" which, along with a nod towards his disdain for the current administration, is also deeply personal.
"I donít think there woulda been a song like ĎStates Iím Iní without having written a book. Youíre standing back, taking stock, and it gave me a sort of perspective on things. In a certain way, ĎStates Iím Iní is a sort of encapsulation of the whole book. The song itself is not entirely autobiographical, Iíve never been a card shark. But it represents places Iíve been in myself and in the exterior world also. From being in war zones to watching beautiful sunsets over the Pacific. The sun going down in the West, over the ocean, is perhaps the most current thing in there. The sense of the divine creeping up at the end, like welling up. The whisper that has all that power at the end of the song. You could see the song as kind of a depiction of the dark night of the soul, in a metaphoric way, cos it starts with sunset and ends with dawn. I donít know."
And as far as his induction into the Canadian Songwritersí Hall Of Fame, Cockburn was ushered in with a memorable speech by fellow CSHOF member, the legendary Buffy Saint Marie. "Buffy made the most lovely introduction to me that appeared to be just off the cuff and went on at some length longer than I thought she would, but she was great. It felt good to hear all that, and to have her do that." Being who he is, Cockburn is typically humbled with the honor, but admittedly also very thankful for the welcome affirmation of his exceptional five decades of musical masterpieces.
"It means very little to me that I actually have an award per se, I donít collect those things on purpose. But the best thing about it is that itís a measure of how much attention people have paid to what I do, and I really care about that. Thatís really the complement in there. Thatís the positive reinforcement, which is very strong. I really appreciate that people have been listening and have attached importance to what I do. Not every artist gets that. So Iím grateful for that."
Bruce Cockburn performs Tuesday November 14th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305.
~ from Midliferocker.com