Bruce Cockburn discusses new music and his inspirations
Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn released his first album 50 years ago, in April 1970. Thirty-four albums after the self-titled “Bruce Cockburn” disc, the celebrated musician has released an all-instrumental recording this year, “Crowing Ignites,” on the label he’s been with from the start, True North. Cockburn’s accolades include 13 Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys), and induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s received eight honorary doctorates, and his memoirs “Rumours of Glory” was published in 2014. Cockburn’s interest in activist issues and causes has taken him around the world, and he’s been involved in such organizations as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Friends of the Earth. His performance at the Fairfield Theater Company was originally planned for May, but was rescheduled for Nov. 4, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Cockburn recently took time out to talk about his musical career.
Mike Horyczun: When you’re on tour, how do you choose what songs to perform from this enormous body of work you’ve accumulated over five decades? Do you ever go back and listen to your early material?
Bruce Cockburn: Nobody wants to hear a show of nothing but new songs. There are the obvious ones that people have become attached to, but around that, I’ll go back and listen to the old material. Every now and then, I’ll stumble across a song that I’d forgotten about that might be worth learning and doing.
MH: How do you know when it’s time for a new album? Your latest, for example, is an all-instrumental recording.
BC: I generally just wait until I have enough material. The instrumental albums are a little different. The ideas for the pieces come out of jamming, basically, stumbling on something that feels like it could be developed into a bigger entity.
MH: Who are some of the guitar players that you admire?
BC: For a while I thought I wanted to be a jazz player, but I never really developed the chops or the ability to play two-five chords. But the influence remained and was strong. So from that quarter, there was Wes Montgomery and Gabor Zsabo, they’d be the two biggest ones, but legions of others, too. From the folk side of things, the biggest single influence was probably Mississippi John Hurt, and Mance Lipscomb, those kinds of country folk blues people. I listened to Ralph Towner. Pat Metheny is really good. I mean, there’s so many beautiful players.
MH: Who were some of the songwriters who influenced you?
BC: I was more influenced by writers, by printed word writers, than by songwriters. But certainly in the beginning, Bob Dylan was a huge influence. Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, lyricists who selected things that made songwriting come alive instead of just ‘Moon in June’ rhymes over standard tune changes. When I heard Dylan and that kind of generation of songwriter, I thought, yeah, maybe I want to do that too.
MH: How important is it for you to write about things that you’ve experienced?
BC: The writing process is always triggered by accident. I want to write about what’s around me, because that’s what I can think of to write about. I’m not good at coming up with teen love songs. Hopefully, the intention is to go around with a mental state that’s receptive to noticing what’s around, visual images, little bits of this and that, a snippet of conversation or whatever. Sometimes it’s really just noticing what’s around, and I try to put that in my songs.
MH: You live in San Francisco now, but when you’re in Canada, are you recognized for your music?
BC: It never was like tabloid material. But it was more of an issue when there were lots of videos out in the ’80s and through into the ’90s, big time. But even then, it wasn’t that bad. Once I was riding my bike down the street in Toronto, and somebody yelled out from the sidewalk, ‘I hate your music.’ Which I thought was kind of funny.
MH: Are there any goals you want to achieve at this point in your career?
BC: I’d like to survive long enough to make another album, which is about the only goal I’ve ever had. I’m not a goal person. I want to be good at what I do. That’s a goal. But it’s ephemeral. There’s no set of goalposts for that. It’s an everyday thing, right? You just try to not screw it up.