Interview: Bruce Cockburn

(March 2009) In the 20 years I’ve spent interviewing musicians, there have only been a handful that I’ve been truly excited to get; Gene Simmons, Mr. Dress-Up and Bruce Cockburn. Having first discovered his music when I was a fledgling folk performer in the early 80’s, I, like so many others, cut my teeth imitating his acoustic guitar style while singing his gentle poetic lyric in coffee shops and on street corners across Canada. Later, Bruce began performing electrically with a band and singing a new kind of lyric, one that spoke to the issues today’s world faced, and again, like many others, I was inspired to follow his lead and sing out about injustice. 26 albums, countless awards, made an officer of the Order of Canada, a million zillion miles of road and Bruce hasn’t lost his stride for a moment. He’s been covered by everyone from the Barenaked Ladies to Anne Murray, George Hamilton V to Jerry Garcia and his latest solo live CD “Slice O Life” reminds us why…
I first met Bruce in 1982 and was thrilled to be speaking with him 27 years later, even if he did forget about calling me…


Mb: You lost track of what day it was!? You must be performing a lot!
BC: My apologies. I’m actually in San Francisco right now. The tour hasn’t started yet. We’re busy out here with various things. It’s been a bit hectic. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff going on but of course the big thing is the new album. It’s been finished for quite a while but its exciting for it to finally come out.
Mb: I bet. Tell me more…
BC: Well, it’s a solo live album and it’s the first of that kind of album I’ve done. There’s been other live albums, but they’ve all been different bands. Over the years there’s been a minor agitation among the audience to have a solo album because I’ve always gone back and forth between working in a band context and doing solo shows. The solo shows have quite a different effect than the band shows and I guess some people wanted to be able to take that home with them. That’s what we’ve tried to do with this album. It was recorded last spring and we worked on it through the summer and now it’s going to come out.
Mb: Being solo, did it feel like a throw back to recording your first records?
BC: Not really. because I’d done so much solo playing over the years. It was different from the first album. The first album was done in 3 days. In that sense it wasn’t so different because that album was based on me going into the studio and playing the song. We didn’t get fancy with it at all, even by the standards of the time. This time of course we had all the technology. We had Colin Linden who recorded and produced the album and did an excellent job of executing the recording part of things. He used a lot of different mics and we had many tracks of me to play with. We had fun mixing the album, but there was a lot of weeding to be done because we recorded 10 shows. So there was basically 40 hours of music to go through to pick out the performances. That was a long and arduous process for me because I found myself getting quite anal about the performances, like, “We can’t use that one! It’s got a mistake in the third bar.” In the end you have to forgive yourself because it’s part and parcel of a performance. Nothing’s ever perfect.
Mb: I imagine there are so many fans that long for the old sounds, the solo acoustic, singer songwriter sound. What have you enjoyed the most? The earlier bare-bones or the band productions you released later in life?
BC: It’s really all good, you know? It’s just different. To me the big distinction is between live and in the studio and once you’re in the studio whatever you do becomes a technical exercise. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle only you start by designing the puzzle, cutting it up and then putting it back together.
Mb: Can that be a distraction?
BC: No, not really. It’s just a totally different thing from playing live, where it’s very immediate and everything happens in real-time and in the moment. In the studio you could operate that way. You could decide to use the first takes of everything you record, and actually a lot of times over the years we have done that because they’ve turned out to have the best feel or whatever, but you still have to take what you’ve done and turn it into something you can present to people.
Mb: I wonder about the moment you turned electric and added the band; “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw”. Did you think “It isn’t so much about the song anymore as much as it is about both the song and the sound?”
BC: In a certain way that’s true. It’s always been about the sound, of course, but it is a different process. It’s comparable to playing solo or playing with the band. I play the same thing essentially but when you add the other instruments to it, it sounds really different and it has a really different impact on people. You try to go for the essence of the song. You want whatever works about that song, but it is possible to mess that up. It is possible to over produce stuff so you lose that. When I made my first album my intent was to have it as “unproduced” as possible. I remember saying to Bernie Finkelstein, who had just founded True North Records, “If there’s a producer, I don’t want a producer who will try to make it fancy. I just want it to sound like what I sound like when I play for people.” But what happens when you get familiar with the studio is, you have this huge pallet of colours that’s available to you that isn’t there when you’re in a solo situation or even with a band live. The temptation is to use that pallet, and why not! It’s all tools for creativity.
Mb: Let’s change gears for a minute and talk about your political career.
BC: If you call that a career… sure. (laughs)
Mb: You’ve been so involved in getting a political message out through your songs, and I wonder what made you think to do that. Do you still think that way?
BC: Well, it came about gradually. In the beginning I thought it was totally inappropriate to write songs about political things because I guess it was just something I grew up with. Some kind of liberal notion that art and politics shouldn’t mix and that art would be tainted by any intrusion of the political. Over the years I changed my feelings about that, partly because of travels. Well, very much because of travel’s actually. Traveling in Latin America, for instance, where there’s a tradition of singing political songs. It’s part of the pop culture. You realize in a lot of places in the world you can just ignore politics, but the politics will come up and whack your head off in the night! So maybe it’s better to be paying attention. So all this combined with the idea that you could actually make good art of political material was something I got from the singer songwriters of Latin America. I realized the proper distinction for me was not between art and politics but art and polemics. I think a song that is intended to just be propaganda is not worth writing for me. But if the song is springing from your own emotional response to the thoughts you’re having, then it’s possible to make art out of that. That’s the chief criteria for me. I’m not the kind of song writer that sits down and says “OK now I’m going to write a song about Stephen Harper” (laughs) What triggers the writing process is an emotional response to something, I’m outraged by something or I’m saddened by something or excited by something and those feelings produce songs. I’m just trying to tell truth as I see it. They’re not based on ideological affiliations or anybody’s dogma, they’re what I’ve experienced myself.
Mb: I’m sure a lot of people became politically aware of Latin America because of your music, and you as a catalyst, helped grow the trend of that awareness… and what do you do when people then come to you asking for your help on issues?
BC: You’re right, that’s exactly what happened. How do I deal with it? A lot of people are doing a lot of work around a lot of different issues or a lot of different aspects of what I feel to be the two real issues in the world; the way we treat each other and the way we treat the planetary system we depend on for survival. Everything else is an off shoot of one of those issues. There are a lot of people trying to make things better in the world and if they ask for help and they seem to know what they’re doing and I have the time and the logistics can be worked out, I usually say “Yes” to those sort of things. There’s just so many worthy things that need support. It’s hard for me to see myself as an activist, or anything much more than a big mouth, but that big mouth can help some of the genuine activists get the work done. So, I like to do that when I can.