5 September 2019 - The Amazon rainforest is burning. Children are being held in makeshift camps at the southern U.S. border. And Bruce Cockburn is getting ready to release his second all-instrumental album.
Given the circumstances, some fans might expect something more topical from an artist who has made his career singing about social, political and environmental issues — often through the lens of his Christian beliefs, which he adopted in the ’70s. And the Canadian singer-songwriter has fielded that question more than once from fans and journalists about said instrumental album, “Crowing Ignites,” due out Sept. 20.
“The choice to do an instrumental album really wasn’t dependent on what’s going on around (the world),” Cockburn said recently from his home in San Francisco, a little more than a week ahead of his headlining performance at the 23rd Sisters Folk Festival on Saturday. “It was just a choice that seemed like a timely (thing) in terms of my own arc, you could say I guess. It just seemed like a good time to make an instrumental album.”
Not that Cockburn isn’t concerned with what’s going on — he brought up the Amazon fires specifically. But as he pointed out, he’s already written that song: “If a Tree Falls,” from his 1988 solo album “Big Circumstance.”
“For a while, it was not newsworthy because it looked like people were kind of getting it together,” he said. “But now, it’s a highly visible disaster for us. But I don’t really feel like I have to write another ‘If a Tree Falls’ because it’s already there, and it talks about the same things and the same issues. Actually for a while, it was not so appropriate because the rainforest destruction was about planting soybeans and stuff, but then, they’ve gone back to putting in cattle now.”
As far as the current political situation in the U.S., another topic he gets asked about often, Cockburn would rather not go there.
“I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump; he gets enough attention; he doesn’t need mine,” he said. “We all know what we feel about it. I doubt there’s very many Trump supporters coming to my shows — it’s possible there’s some. People who’ve heard my music know where I stand on these kinds of things, and I’m singing the songs. I mean, I’m not ruling out anything either in saying this; it’s not like a policy of mine not to talk about these things. It’s just that there’s so much blather going on and so much of that kind of echo chamber thing.”
He’s more interested in presenting a unifying message (“What needs to be found is a bridge, or a bunch of bridges, really,” he said), which should be a key part of his set at his first Sisters Folk Festival.
Unusually for the festival, which runs Friday through Sunday at 11 venues in Sisters, Cockburn will only play once, outside the Sisters Art Works building. The festival organization recently purchased the building through an ongoing capital campaign, creative director Brad Tisdel said.
“In the fall, we’ll start offering some programming, whether it’s workshops or after-school programming,” Tisdel said. “We’re really trying to serve an adult population, as well as underserved youth.”
In July, the organization welcomed new executive director Crista Munro, who will help oversee this year’s festival. The organization announced it would seek an executive director earlier this year after eliminating Managing Director Ann Richardson’s position.
The rest of the festival’s 52 performers this year have multiple sets or workshops throughout the weekend, including Peter Rowan and tejano rock band Los Texmaniacs, who perform together Friday as well as separate sets Saturday; folk/world duo Rising Appalachia, which performs Friday and Saturday; and Québécois group Le Vent Du Nord with four sets Friday and Saturday. (See the full schedule at sistersfolkfestival.org.)
“The experience of seeing great artists in small venues is one of the things that I think sets us apart as far as the festival goes,” Tisdel said. “Those venues are such beautiful environments as well, that I think it really lends an opportunity to see some really remarkable performances in a beautiful setting.”
Cockburn’s set could include some of his new instrumentals alongside well-known hits in the U.S. such as “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Touring in earnest behind “Crowing Ignites” will begin in Nashville the day it releases.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s gonna be yet,” Cockburn said.
While many of “Crowing Ignite’s” songs were inspired by specific things, they are open to interpretation as instrumental pieces, Cockburn said.
“The inspiration’s a tricky thing to assign to instrumental music, because it’s not really about anything,” Cockburn said. “It’s about what I discover on the guitar and feelings. It’s a little bit hard to say.”
The album was initially conceived as a direct sequel to 2005’s “Speechless,” a collection of instrumental songs pulling from Cockburn’s many solo releases since his self-titled, 1970 debut, supplemented with some new material. In the time since the record’s release, Cockburn recorded three more solo albums, including 2017’s “Bone on Bone,” which netted the songwriter his 13th Juno Award, for Top Contemporary Folk Album of the Year.
“There’s a whole bunch more pieces that hadn’t been collected together from other albums now, and then, I thought, OK, I’ll come up with two or three new pieces and then we’ll have ‘Speechless 2,’” Cockburn said. “But I ended up with so much new material that it wasn’t that anymore; it became its own thing.”
That title holds a personal connection to Cockburn’s family. It’s a literal translation of the Latin motto found on the Cockburn family crest: “Accendit Cantu.” Cockburn said his father and brother uncovered the crest while researching family history in the ’90s.
“Initially, ‘Accendit Cantu,’ the English version of that that we read, was ‘music excites,’ which just seemed like, that’s so cool,” Cockburn said. “Here I am doing music, and that’s the family motto. But then, I came across another English version of it that was, ‘he arouses us by crowing,’ or a phrase like that. It became obvious that neither of those things was an actual translation of the words, so I translated it myself using my translate app. What it literally says is ‘crowing ignites.’ And you can interpret that in a bunch of different ways.”
Cockburn wrote the album’s 11 pieces over a span of about a year. “April in Memphis” was written on Martin Luther King Day this year (the title references the date King was assassinated), while “Easter” was appropriately written on Easter Sunday last year. Meanwhile, “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley” finds Cockburn inspired by Scottish bagpipe music.
Two pieces, “Seven Daggers” and “Bells of Gethesmane,” were constructed in the studio. The former builds up mournful acoustic guitar, baritone guitar played by Cockburn’s longtime producer Colin Linden and haunting bells, while the latter incorporates Tibetan chimes, cymbals and singing bowls.
“It was fun to do both those pieces really because the sense of discovery was mixed right into it all,” Cockburn said. “That happens if I’m sitting by myself coming up with a piece in a room. There’s a bit of this bloodhound-on-the-trail feeling that comes with getting an idea and chasing it down.”
~ from BendBulletin