How Bruce Cockburn recharged his songwriting

Four years ago, Bruce Cockburn was wondering if he was still a songwriter.

After more than 300 songs, including many international hits, and more than 30 albums, the globally renowned Canadian singer-songwriter and pioneering guitar player has come to exemplify song-writing. But Cockburn found himself in a new place after the publication of his autobiography in 2014.

“The chief change was that I hadn’t written any songs for a long time — that’s where the question came from,” Cockburn told the Townsman, on the phone from San Francisco where he now lives. “It had been three or four years since I wrote anything that you could call a song.

“Does that mean that I move on into some other creative endeavour, which in the context it would obviously be prose writing.”

Cockburn’s memoir, “Rumours of Glory” (after a song from his 1980 album “Humans”), takes us on an intimate journey through his remarkable life of faith, activism and ground-breaking music over the past five decades. Cockburn offers readers a commentary on his life and work, and the stories behind his song-writing and best-known songs.

Nonetheless, Cockburn’s immersion in other than his usual medium of songwriting unleashed a completely different creative process.

“Writing a song is a short term phenomenon,” he said. “Even if it takes a relatively long time, sometimes, to put all the pieces together, the actual time spent working on it, for me, is minimal compared to writing prose. You either get an idea or you don’t.

“If something isn’t connecting or developing as an idea, then my tendency is just to wait for another idea, or to hunt through my notebook to see if there’s something that will take it somewhere.

“But with a book … you’ve got to sit down and work at it and get it done. That to me at times was a lot of fun, in the same way that when you’re writing a song, you sort of feel like a bloodhound on the trail of an idea, chasing it down. But a lot of time it was just a lot of lack of sleep, sitting up late working on this thing.”

Cockburn says he doesn’t hunger for a repeat of that experience, although he isn’t ruling it out either.

“If at some point in the future it seems like volume II of a memoir, or if something else occurs to me — but it’s nothing I’m actively thinking about.”

* * *

All writing is communication — but Cockburn revealed much of himself in such a different way in his memoir than through the poetry of his songwriting.

“People hear a song, and by definition, as with any art form … people bring their own experience to their encounter with that piece of art, and their response to it will be shaped by how they perceive it through their own filter,” he said. “It’s true of a song, and it’s true of a book too, but there’s so much more of a specific nature in a book.

“And part of the challenge of writing a book is to make it that way so that there’s less room for alternate interpretations.

“Whereas with a song, of course I want people to understand what I mean, but I also know from experience that their response is going to be whatever it is. With a book … there’s a greater need — and I made a greater effort — to make sure that what’s in the book is as clear as it can be.”

* * *

It wasn’t until after the release of the memoir, and an encounter with the late Canadian poet Al Purdy (1918-2000), that Cockburn’s songwriting reared its head again. He was invited to contribute some music to a documentary about the poet’s life and times (“Al Purdy Was Here,” 2015).

“So I said ‘well, this is the test.’ If I say yes to this, and I come up with something, it will be evidence that I’m likely to be a songwriter again, and if I don’t it will be evidence to the contrary. So I said yes, and what came out was “‘Three Al Purdys.’”

“Three Al Purdys” is a song that includes a spoken word component that’s drawn from two poems— one of Purdy’s early ones from the depression era about riding the rails across Canada, and the other is a much later piece, a philosophical speculation about the origins of language and its connections with spirituality.

Cockburn set out to read through Purdy’s collected works, but got an idea right away — a homeless guy who’s obsessed with Purdy’s poetry and who rants at people on the street with that poetry.

“It seemed like a good image for the coyote cheekiness and Purdy’s empathy with the working man,” Cockburn said. “It seemed to fit, so the song started from there. I immediately thought of that image, of a guy saying ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdy’s for a twenty dollar bill’ — so what else would he say?’”

The song “Three Al Purdys” proved to be the seed for Cockburn’s most recent album, “Bone on Bone.”

“Having discovered the songs that came out of Bone on Bone, I decided that I’m still a songwriter,” Cockburn said.

The album went on to win Cockburn his 13th Juno Award (he won his first Juno — Canada’s highest music award — in 1971).

* * *

The band coming on tour with Cockburn will include musicians who recorded on “Bone on Bone:” Gary Craig and John Dymond as the rhythm section, and Cockburn’s nephew John Aaron Cockburn on accordion and guitar.

The material for the shows isn’t fully determined, but will feature a representative range of Cockburn’s songbook, including massive, familiar hits from the past, songs like “When A Tree Falls In The Forest,” “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” “Wondering Where The Lions Are” … Any audience, of course, expects, if not demands the familiar, the hits. A performer is likely of two minds about this expectation, Cockburn included.

“There are the songs that people have taken to heart, and of course that’s very complimentary to me, that anybody has done that at all about anything that I’ve done,” Cockburn said. “It’s not like I’m kind of grudgingly putting out these songs, I’m grateful for the fact that people want to hear them. But you can only sing a song so many times before they get stale — and sometimes you to have to let them lie fallow for a while. There was a period right after 911 that I didn’t play ‘If I Had A Rocket Launcher’ at all, because it just seemed like it was playing to the wrong sentiment.”

Even so, a Bruce Cockburn show generally “gets kind of hung on a framework of those familiar songs and whatever else I can think of that could work.

“The songs that I feel I’m obliged to sing in every show, I go through periods where I’m kind of sick of them, but I try to do them justice anyway, because people … have paid money and they want to hear what they want to hear. Which is fair enough.

“But I like to keep a bit of ferment going there. So there may be those ‘standards,’ for want of a better word, that will show up in almost every show. But around that is a rotating or fluctuating mix of whatever else is out there of the older stuff. That keeps it interesting for me.”

* * *

Then there’s the question everyone wants to know about every songwriter — do your lyrics come first, or the melody?

“It’s a lyric, almost always,” Cockburn said of his songwriting. “I can’t think of a single example, except for the instrumental pieces, of course. If I stumble upon a melodic riff like that it’s likely to end up becoming a guitar piece rather than a song. But because I can play with music more easily than with words, I don’t get word ideas as often or as clearly — generally there’s more labour involved with the lyrics.

“So I’ve never been comfortable bending lyrics to fit a melody. Some people can do that very well, but for me it starts with the lyrics, and it’s sort of easier to create music that provides a bed for those lyrics. That’s the general approach.”

That being said, Cockburn is working on a new album — an instrumental album, due out in September.

Bruce Cockburn plays the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook, Thursday, August 8, 2019. Tickets are available at the Key City Theatre.

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