3 December 2019 - The audience at a Bruce Cockburn concert gets boisterous over “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” and reflective with the opening chords of “One Day I Walk” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” More than five decades into his career, Cockburn’s guitar craftsmanship and gravelly-to-smooth voice convey wide-eyed wonder, full-on fury and everything in between, delivering the mixture of opinion, observation and quietly stinging humor that characterizes his songs.
Listen to an hour long audio interview with Bruce
The CockburnProject has enlisted the help of John Peregrim to do transcriptions for us. Below find the transcription of this interview.
John Floridis: This is John Floridis. Welcome to Musician's Spotlight. Today we welcome back Bruce Cockburn.
John Floridis: This is John Floridis. Welcome to Musician's Spotlight. I'd like to welcome back Bruce Cockburn. Great to see you.
Bruce Cockburn: Great to be with you again.
John Floridis: Yeah. Good to have you here. We should tell listeners right away we're doing this interview backstage at the Wilma Theater in Missoula in Bruce's green room. It's kind of . . . it's a little grey but we'll . . .
Bruce Cockburn: It has a greenish tinge to it.
John Floridis: It does have a greenish tinge to it!
Bruce Cockburn: Most of them don't actually.
JF: As I was mentioning before we started the interview, it's been . . . you've been on a couple of different times; once with my former co-host Brian Copper. And also we did a phone interview, and that . . . we're saying that goes back over at least a couple of decades, so . . . It's been too long, and it's great to . . .
BC: I'll second that.
JF: Yeah, it's great to have you in Montana as we're recording this. brucecockburn.com is the name of his website [spells out the website address].
And “Crowing Ignites” is the most recent recording, and we're going to talk about that a little bit as well as a lot of things Bruce Cockburn. Bruce, let's just dive right in and talk about this most recent recording. And I fully confess I had forgotten that you had put this out, and so I did a quick, y'know, dive in this morning and just absolutely love it. Let's talk about how this came about a little bit, and . . . Another instrumental album. I know a little bit about this story, but fill us in.
BC: Yeah, well, we did an album a few years ago called “Speechless,” which was a compilation of previously recorded instrumental tracks with a few new ones added. And that turned out to be quite popular and well-received, and . . . we'd always . . . we'd been thinking - we being me and my manager - we'd sort of been talking in a casual way about maybe doing another instrumental album sometime. That's the . . y'know, the same idea because there was a lot of material left over that wasn't on that album, and then other things were recorded since that could be on a new one. And so we were gonna do “Speechless 2” . And so with that in mind, I started coming up with instrumental pieces to have some new material to put on it. And then the ideas just kept coming, and all of the sudden we had so much new stuff that the album took on its own life. So instead of being, you know, a sequel to anything, it's itself, it's “Crowing Ignites,” and not “Speechless 2.”
JF: Let me ask you this: with instrumental music, how do those ideas come to you? Are . . . is it . . . I mean the obvious thing that people would think of is that you actually have an instrument in your hands . . .
JF: I mean is that pretty much it? Or is, are there times when melodies come . . . talked to musicians recently who have . . . literally have melodies come into dreams, and they try to replicate that.
BC: I . . . y'know, that's happened to me once or twice over the decades [laughs], but it's not the common thing, and with instrumental music especially, it comes out of playing the guitar. With lyrics, with a song with lyrics, you might have . . . I might start writing lyrics without an instrument around. I might have a rhythm in my head that the lyrics . . . y'know, that'll give the lyrics some short of shape, but . . . with an instrumental piece, it's . . . they come from . . . from fooling around on the guitar mostly. From practicing, from exploring, from sort of saying “Well, what happens if I take this chord formation and I put it over there? And reverse this finger and that finger?” And, y'know, you just try things to see what comes out, and sometimes what comes out is, a motif that can be expanded into an actual composition . And so, that's the story of most of the pieces on the new album. There are two exceptions to that, which are longer pieces that were improvised in the studio, using . . . based on concepts that I went in with. So, I have a fairly large collection of “singing bowls,” and I wanted to use them. I love the sound, I can't play them myself on stage because I'm too busy playing the guitar. So here was a chance to kinda do something with that. And so we laid down a couple of layers of singing bowls, and a couple of other things - some orchestral chimes and some . . . y'know, a few bits and pieces of other stuff - and that, that became a piece called Bells of Gethsemene. But the other pieces on the album were [ Bells of Gethsemene starts in background ] kind of composed beforehand. So it a question of going in and playing them.
JF: Bruce Cockburn joining us here on Musician's Spotlight. Bruce, I want to ask you about the memoir. You're at least the third musician I've spoken to who's had [sic] written a memoir. I mentioned just a couple of minutes ago that I'd interviewed Ani DiFranco recently . . .
BC: Mmm hmm
JF: Of course she has one. I know I interviewed Shawn Colvin at a certain point, not long after she had written one. Can you just talk about what that process was like to, to dive into that and, and then how that . . . I know there's a little bit of a story as to how that affected your songwriting a little bit, or how you saw it.
BC: Well, yeah, it . . . I had resisted invitations to do that previously. Over the years, every now and then somebody would turn up and go “Okay, well, we'd like you to write a memoir. We'll publish it, and blah, blah, blah.” Or people would come up and say “I'd like to write the authorized biography, how 'bout it?” And it always seemed, in that case, it seemed like, “No it's my story to tell. If anybody's going to write it, it should be me.” And then uhhh . . . But it always seemed too soon. But at one point Harper Collins came along and said, you know, “We're interested in having you do a memoir.” And they were interested partly because memoirs became a “thing,” right? [ JF: laughs ] Everybody's writing memoirs . . .
BC: And , uh, and partly because I think there was a book called “The Shack” that was a huge best seller - it's a Christian novel, very explicitly Christian - and I get referenced in it a lot.
BC: And it sold like, I don't know, a hundred and fifty million copies [laughing] or some stunning number of books. I don't know, I'm making up the figures, but it was a very large number and it was on the New York Times Best Seller List for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. I think that they looked at that and thought “Hmmm, maybe we should get this guy to write a memoir.” And I don't think . . . I think they were disappointed actually . . .
BC: But they certainly acted like they were. But it . . . They presented me with the suggestion that I write a “spiritual memoir.” And I said “Well, what is that? What is a 'spiritual memoir'?” And “Well, we don't know, but you're going to come up with it ” [ JF: laughs] was the answer. So . . . “Okay, well, I'm game.” You know, and they - to put it in perspective - they made a generous offer as well. I mean that, you know, it just . . . A combination of that, of the fact that they appeared to be genuinely interested, and the timing, because I felt like at this point I was at an age where I had a story to tell.
BC: You know, I mean you can find coffee table books that, you know, a thirty year old hockey player's memoirs . . .
BC: . . . with pictures. Or, you know, a teenage rock star with the story of her life, right?
JF: Mmm hmm
BC: And I didn't . . . I never wanted to be a part of that world. And . . . But by the time this thing came along, I felt like I was . . . like I'd been around long enough to have something to say. So, I started bravely into it, and I got about a hundred pages in, and it was actually flowing along pretty well, talking about early childhood. The very distant memories was easy. But, when . . . as soon as I got kind of close to adulthood where life becomes more complicated, and where some of the witnesses are still alive and might be compromised, et cetera . . .
JF: Mmm hmm, mmm hmmm
BC: . . . it became very complicated and I just . . . I didn't know . . . I got stuck, I didn't know what to do. So I enlisted a co-writer, which was a friend of mine named Greg King, who's a journalist in California. And he . . . Initially I hired him to interview me at length on the tour bus after shows. We'd be on the . . . we'd get on the bus and I'd have had a couple of drinks and probably be having another one, and he would engage me in conversation and record all this. Which . . . And we got, you know, a lot of good stuff out of that. And, you know, so I had that to work with. But then when I got him to be the co-writer, that those things stood us in good stead. I sort of elevated him to that position when I realized that I was just not gonna . . . I didn't know where to go next with this thing, you know? How do you make a complicated life into a story when, when the memories are as complex as they are? Like they're . . . It's great when they're simple, graphic ones, like what you remember from your childhood. But, you know . . . Or if the memoir was specific like the, like Patti Smith's memoir, or others that . . . where you're dealing with a very limited time frame. Then, you can just go after that, and that would have been an easier task. But to tell a whole life story of my relationship with God, you know, in a . . . in a . . .
JF: Easy to digest form.
BC: Well, in a, in a comprehensible form, never mind “easy to digest!”
JF: Yeah, right, right!
BC: I just . . . You know . . . The reader can decide if it's easy to digest or not. But it's a . . . it was a daunting task. Anyway. But we got it done! And I'm very pleased with how it came out, so . . .
And where [sic - perhaps not this word?] that you asked about that relative to songwriting, and what happened there, was that . . . during the four years, basically, that it took to get the book written, I didn't write any songs because all the creative energy and all . . . any ideas I had were going into the book. So, at the end of that time, I'm sort of sitting here going “Well, am I still a songwriter, or am I, you know [ Stab At the Matter starts in the background ], a wielder of prose, now or something, right? So, umm, fortunately I turned out to be a songwriter still. [ laughs ]
JF: This is John Floridis. You're listening to Musician's Spotlight, and I'm speaking today with Bruce Cockburn. Bruce, I wanted to ask you about something, I'm sure, that comes up all the time when you have a . . . What is it? A fifty year career [ laughs ] at this point? I mean . . .
BC: Yeah, it is. About exactly.
JF: I don't mean to make light of it by laughing. I'm just like . . . kind of like, it's so incredible to have that kind of substance. The concept of revisiting earlier material . . . I mean when you have the material that is so precious, so special to the audience members . . . And I'm thinking “How do you even begin to address trying to balance out what you want to do as a musician with newer material, but also trying to, you know, honor that kind of connection you've made over the years,” you know?
BC: Well, yeah, it's a bit of a balancing act, but it's not actually that hard, I don't find it. The . . . maybe 'cause I'm just restless enough by nature that it's my own inclination to keep moving on regardless. But I do respect, and really, seriously appreciate people's attachment to those older songs. I . . . you know, I wouldn't be . . . I wouldn't have been able to sustain what I'm doing without that tension and attachment. But, you know, if I only did that, those people would become fewer and fewer in number over time. People would get tired of hearing the same old thing. “Oh, yeah, well we heard him last year and it was the same as the year before,” et cetera. You can't offer people that and expect them to stay interested, even though they think that's what they want sometimes. Most people are, at least in my experience with my audience, is that they're . . . they're also a little bit adventurous, and they, they want to hear new things.
JF: Mmm hmm.
BC: I mean sometimes people will yell our requests for “something new!” You know? And I, I . . . sometimes I have something new, and sometimes I don't, [ JF: laughs ] but it's nice to get asked! And, so, for me it's . . . I can't remember more than about 50 or 60 songs at a time.
BC: ... of the maybe 300 or so that I've recorded.
JF: I was going to say!
BC: So, you know, I've . . . if I want to do an old song that I haven't played for a long time, I've got to go back and relearn it. And sometimes it easy, and sometimes it's not because some of the guitar parts are kind of complicated, and I have a hard time . . . I would have a hard time relearning them off the record myself.
JF: Yeah! Well, the thing that hits me when I go to one of your shows is, it's not just Wondering Where the Lions Are or If I Had a Rocket Launcher, it's All the Diamonds. You know, these are the kinds of songs . . . People go deep. You know, the folks that have been, you know, moved and touched by your music for all these years . . . I mean, they go deep into, you know, we call “the album cuts.” At a Bruce Cockburn show it's not necessarily the ones that they've heard the most on the radio or something.
BC: Yeah, I mean - and, and, you know - over the decades, it's a relatively small number of songs that have been widely exposed on the radio, so, you know, there are people who want to hear those for sure, but as you say, people are attached to songs, I mean the album . . . All the Diamonds In the World was on an album called, “Salt, Sun, and Time.” Almost no one bought that back in the day. I mean it was the worst selling album I made to date, at that time. And, so, you know . . . I mean I don't concern myself very much with that kind of statistic, but it was noticeable and . . . But over time, you know, that song has really stuck and people are . . . people are glad to hear that whenever it comes out. There's a few others. Pacing the Cage, there's [ JF: Mmm hmm ] . . . is one like that on an album that . . . Pacing the Cage didn't get on the radio much. Certain songs just seem to hit people [Pacing the Cage from “The Charity of Night” begins in the background] where they live in some way. And it's not something I have much control over. I mean you always want to do that, of course. That's what the whole point is, is to communicate and share experience and feelings of people, and . . . But certain songs just seem to be . . . to strike that sort of chord, so to speak, and therefore stand out from the rest.
JF: We'll be back with more Musician's Spotlight and our visit with Bruce Cockburn.
JF: Welcome back to Musician's Spotlight and our visit with Bruce Cockburn.
JF: Bruce Cockburn joining us here on Musician's Spotlight. I'm going to tell listeners again, we're recording this interview backstage at the Wilma Theater and so if you hear little uh, extemporaneous sounds going on every once in a while, that's what's going on. We're backstage in the green . . . the grayish green greenish gray room.
BC: Yes! It's . . .
JF: It matches your sweater by the way to give a little. . .
JF: A little bit!
BC: Yeah. I think the sweater's a German Army surplus sweater, and it . . . the walls certainly . . . [JF: laughs ] you know, you could imagine yourself in a trench here. [JF: laughs ]
JF: As we record this on Veteran's Day here in the United States.
JF: Uh, Bruce, I mentioned we have some questions from folks who follow the program on Facebook. This one comes from Hannah from the Flathead Valley up here just north of, of Missoula. And speaking of tunes from past albums, she wants to know, “who would be the person you'd want to have champagne with now if it was the last night of the world?”
BC: Oh boy . . . my wife.
JF: [laughing] Good answer! [both laughing] That's good . . .
BC: I'll leave it at that. [laughing]
JF: Yeah! Now, here's another one also from the Flathead Valley. This comes from the Facebook page, “What is the best advice you've ever been given?”
BC: Boy. There's a lotta . . . I mean . . . in what area of life? If . . . you know, uh . . . “Sit down and shutup” was a pretty good piece of advice I had many, on many occasions when I was young. You know it's hard to put quotations marks around a particular piece of advice that, that had an effect, but, but lots. I mean I . . . . Somehow I learned to pay attention to what's around me? To pay attention to people. It could . . . It didn't come necessarily willingly, because I tend to be kind of self-absorbed as a lot of people who do creative stuff are. But I . . . And I think I got some of that from my Dad, and some of it from teachers I had. As far as practical music business advice, the best piece of advice I ever heard was “don't sell your publishing.” [laughs]
JF: All right, I like that!
JF: That's a wide range of good advice you've been gettin'.
BC: Well, you know . . . Because if you think about a whole life, it would be the same for everybody. You don't . . . You know you can get advice about your business, or advice about your education, or advice about this and that, but . . . but the advice that matters most is the advice of how to be a good human being. And what . . . I . . . You know, I don't know if I can remember anybody ever telling me a particularly pithy bit that helped me become whatever I am that passes for a good human being. I don't . . . I [phone tone in background] That's my phone telling me it's time for something. [both laugh] Probably the interview that we're doing. Anyway. It's . . . yeah, I'm sorry I don't have a more succinct answer for that one, but . . .
JF: Wendy from Missoula asks - I like, I like this one - “Can you recall and share any moments from your childhood . . . “ Maybe this is already covered in your memoir, I don't know. I should mention the memoir is called “Rumours of Glory,” correct?
BC: Right, that's correct, yeah.
JF: “Can you recall and share any moments from your childhood that sparked your sense of awe and wonder for the natural world?” Which she says is very evident in your music. I would agree with that.
BC: Yeah, I can, I can talk about that a little bit. My parents were always into being outdoors. I grew up in Ontario. It's a . . . . especially in that era it was a place with four distinct seasons and each of the seasons had something to offer in terms of outdoor involvements. And so, you know, we skied in the winter, and we canoed in the summer, and all this sort of stuff. When I got old enough, I went to summer camp in a Provincial Park in Ontario, that . . . a wilderness area that . . . where there was a real emphasis on canoe tripping. And so I'd spend chunks of the summer out in actual wilderness, you know, in the company of fellow campers and staff. But I really acquired a love for that atmosphere. And it . . . when I think of nature I still picture those lakes and rocks and trees of the Canadian Shield terrain. Later on, I, you know, I mean, having had that kind of basis, I . . . in the early seventies I did a lot of traveling across Canada by road and spent as much time as possible in the Rockies where it was, there was this incredible inspirational landscape that invited you to get into it and explore. So . . . it, it . . . but it was . . . in think just early exposure to that stuff that set the stage for appreciating it later when I was kind of more aware of what I was looking at and being in.
JF: Mm hmm.
BC: But there's always been a sense of - aside from the sense of space of the uncluttered nature of - even though actual nature is really cluttered with all sorts of details - it presents a simple face compared to urban life. And, even as a teenager, or before, I appreciated that and the sense of space. And the sense of there being a kind of [Bardo Rush begins in background] spiritual reality that was more evident in that atmosphere than in the hallways of school for instance.
JF: Bruce, Mike from Missoula asks this: “With songs like Call It Democracy and your focus on injustice and suffering in the world, and activism over the years . . .” Umm [laughs], “how are you keeping it together in these days?” These probably can be, like, any days, but he's asking specifically these days.
BC: Well, yeah, we all have our reasons for looking at these days with horror. But, how am I keeping it together? I don't know, I'm not sure I am keeping it together, but I . . .but, you know, I'm older for one thing, so my own personal investment in the future is limited. But, but I have a young daughter and I . . . I'm very concerned about her welfare, her future welfare. And I think about the world we're handing her generation - she's about to turn eight - and, you know, that . . . the world we're handing that generation, we're not giving them any gift there. And that's disturbing as all get out. So, you know, I . . . I don't know what we can do about any of this stuff. I mean the political scene is both a cause and a spin-off from a broader sense of [pause] entropy kind of enveloping the world, that . . . because, that the bizarre politics of America right now are reflected everywhere else you look in the world too . . .
BC: And it's going on all over the place. The same themes, and the same sort of devaluing of community and of the notion of democracy. What democracy meant to me as a kid being taught what that was. That's all under attack, and so, and I'm kind of attached to that notion of democracy. I'd like to see it not collapse, and other people are willing to give it up, but - and for various reasons - but you know, fortunately there's a lot of us that don't want to give it up and maybe we'll carry the day and maybe we won't. But, in any case we've got a litany of problems that we're gonna have to be contending with and, you know, we, we can't turn our back on it without paying a terrible price.
JF: Bruce, here's a little easier one. Maybe not easier, but maybe a little gentler question. “Your favorite movie?”
BC: Oo yeah, “Kill Bill” maybe, would be a contender. There have been a few, actually, over the years, but I generally lean toward violence and stuff. [both laugh] Actually, I say that . . . It's kinda true, but it's also not the whole picture. I . . . back in the day I was a big fan of Ingmar Bergman's films, and when I see those movies now, they still stand up. They're wonderful works of art. Especially, the . . . I mean, 'cause he was very late coming to the use of color, so most of his films are black and white, and they're so beautifully shot and lit and everything, ,and well acted, and well written, and so I, you know, . . . The movies, I suppose, that stick in my mind are old ones like that. Movies from the '60s and '70s, Fellini's movies and Bergman's movies. Movies made by the, that generation of auteur who, really were not operating on Hollywood principles, you know.
JF: Mmm, mmm hmm.
BC: And there's nothing wrong with Hollywood per se, I mean, well there are probably several things wrong with it. I mean Hollywood makes good movies nonetheless.
JF: Yeah, you started with “Kill Bill,” so . . .
BC: Yeah! You know, I mean there's. . . Hollywood's capable of making very good movies. And some of those have been powerful movies. “Hud,” was back in the . . . Paul Newman movie from long ago, is a great movie. And, you know there's always . . . it's . . . I pay less attention to movies now than I did because of having a young family. And, I don't get out much anymore, so . . . except when I'm on tour, and then I'm busy. But, it's . . . But I love movies as an art form. A movie that stayed with me forever, I talked about this in the book, was Polanski's “Repression,” uh, “Repulsion.” And, almost anything by Polanski . . . Actually, that isn't true. Half of Polanski's stuff is really great; some of it's not so great. But, “Chinatown” is a classic, wonderful movie for instance. That's . . . You know, those movies speak a kind of truth. Even “Kill Bill” in a way. I mean it's really, it's really . . . not what I would turn to for that inspiration, but, you know, there's . . . The way characters show up, and the, and the angles that you're invited to see life from by those characters, are worthwhile - when they're good.
JF: Mmm hmm. I like the . . . . just tossing out there that a lot of these movies involve violence. Because it's not something maybe somebody would have thought stereotypically, but you know, the darkness has to go somewhere, Bruce! So why not go [to your movies?]
BC: Yeah. I mean, I've sat through movies that were way too violent for my tastes. I mean the violence in some . . . in a movie like “Kill Bill” is comic book violence. It's . . . The implications of it are horrifying, but we don't really think about the implications because . . . And it's the same with the “Mad Max” movies. The . . . I had a day off in Philadelphia a couple of tours ago and we went to see the latest “Mad Max” thing, whatever it's called. And it's just a bunch of crazy vehicles racing across a desert. But ... They tried to be . . . they tried to pay lip service to sort of feminism in that movie, and it didn't really work very well, but it was interesting. It made for a more interesting movie in the “Mad Max” line, [both laugh] right? Because there were some women in it that were actually doing something instead of just being exploited and harassed. But, what stuck in my mind about that movie was how loud it was.
BC: I never been . . . I've never sat through anything as loud as that. But it was fun. And that, on that level the violence is just stupid, it's a stupid . . . By stupid, I mean it's stupid the way that drinking beer and watching, you know . . . professional wrestling is stupid [laughs]. You know, it's like . . . it's entertaining as can be for the people that like that. So that works for me. But if I want substance, you know, I wouldn't, I wouldn't send . . . I wouldn't go there looking for substance.
BC: But . . . But, but you do find that in, you know . . . Well, most of my references are old movies but, now because I don't get to see the new ones very often. But . . . And I also wonder if people are still making movies like that. Once in a while you read about something that's come out that . . . 'Cause I keep track of movies by reading reviews and synopses and whatnot. But [ The Groan starts in the background] I wonder, you know, who's out there doing that, that . . . the really meaningful stuff right now?
JF: Bruce Cockburn joining us here on Musician's Spotlight. One more question to kind of wrap things up. What are you doing for fun? This is kind of one of my stock wrap up questions. But, you know, outside of . . . you mention you have a young, a young child, you've got a family life back there in the, in the Bay Area, and you're on tour . . . Maybe some stuff that you're doing in between all that.
BC: There's not much in between! [both laugh] I'm afraid I don't really don't do anything!
JF: Catch some more Bergman movies!
BC: Yeah, well, I don't even get a chance to watch much TV or anything at this point. Iit's been a long time since I sat and watched whole movie, other than on a plane. But, so I don't really do anything for recreation at this point. I miss that actually, because . . . I miss having . . . I used to do a lot of sitting around wondering what I was going to do next, you know. And I miss that [both laugh] frankly, 'cause I don't get to do that now at all. You know, I . . . When I'm at home I get my daughter to school in the morning, and I pick her up at around five o'clock - she has after school programs that she does. And in between I get to do the things I do. And at the age I'm at half of those things are appointments with doctors [laughs] and whatever, and the other half are just mundane things that have to get done. And, and I try to fit some practicing in there and all that, so . . . I'll tell you how I have fun! I . . . On Sunday mornings, I go to a particular church and I sit in with the band.
BC: And I jam on electric guitar with the, you know, with the church band. And I have fun when I'm actually performing. This tour, uh, we're doing a duo thing. It's my nephew and I playing together, and I . . . he's playing guitar and accordian. And he's he's brought a really great thing to the music and, and uh, we have a lot of fun.
JF: “Crowing Ignites” is the most recent instrumental recording.
BC: Mmm hmm.
JF: And that's one I want folks to take a listen to. And it's “Bone On Bone” correct? Is the one . . .
BC: The one before that.
JF: The one before that, which is songs with words.
JF: And [See You Tomorrow starts in the background] brucecockburn.com is the name of Bruce's website. Thank you so much for making time to visit with us here on Musician's Spotlight. It's been a real pleasure getting to chat with you and talk shop a little bit . . .
BC: Well . . .
JF: Find out a little more what's going on in the world, Bruce.
BC: Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest and it's been an enjoyable conversation.
JF: Thank you
See You Tomorrow from “Life Short, Call Now” plays under JF's sign off.
Transcription by John Peregrim (March 2020)