Returning with a remarkable new album and kicking off a major new tour, veteran singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn brings a freshness and forthrightness to this latest chapter in his storied career. The 12-time Juno winner and recent inductee to the Canadian Songwriter's Hall of Fame may have seemed a bit quiet since 2011's Small Source of Comfort, but 2014 saw the publication of his autobiography, Rumours of Glory: A Memoir (named for his 1980 song), he's a father anew, and 2017 brings us Mr. Cockburn's very strong follow-up, Bone On Bone: 11 tracks of grit and grace standing as one of the finest albums of the year.
It’s a pleasure and an honour to speak with Mr. Cockburn about Bone On Bone — his 33rd album (!) since his eponymous 1970 début — and a little bit about life.
“Those circumstances impose a different kind of routine on my day, in a big way, from anything I had dealt with for decades,” Bruce laughs, referring to his book and his daughter. “Life for me, the day to day, in this era is quite different from what it had been for a very long time, maybe ever. In a certain way, I’m a soccer mom. That’s a new experience for me.”
With Bone On Bone and its imminent tour in full swing, I ask if Bruce decides when to make an album, or if the album tells him when it’s ready.
“A little of both. My part of the decision was harboring the intent. When I finished the book, I wondered if I was ever going to write any more songs, because I hadn’t written a song for three years, which is the longest I’ve ever gone since I started writing. I just had no ideas; all the creative energy went into the book. It was like: ‘Am I going to write songs again, or not?’ And it turned out: ‘Yes, I am.’”
Yes he is, indeed. Bone On Bone launches with the blistering “States I’m In,” and robustly tears through folk, rock, ballads, even gospel — with Bruce Cockburn’s familiar voice more seasoned, but instantly familiar, gazing within, and without.
Extremely charming on the new album is “3 Al Purdys,” a song Mr. Cockburn composed for the Canadian documentary, Al Purdy Was Here (about Canada’s “unoffical poet laureate”), noting with a knowing laugh: “He started the whole thing, for this album.”
Bruce further confides: “I wasn’t well versed in Purdy’s work at all. I was aware of him, but I’d paid more attention to some other Canadian poets.” Referring to his invitation to participate in the doc, alongside such luminaries as Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood, he reasons: “It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to kick start my song thing again.”
Adding that Purdy was of his dad’s generation, “sometimes funny, sometimes not,” Bruce got into the collected poems, and the resulting song — I’m sensing a clever reversal on “Aqualung” — grew from there: “I just pictured this character who was a homeless guy, who is obsessed with Al Purdy’s work, and rants it on the street: ‘I’ll give you 3 Al Purdys for a 20-dollar bill!’”
Sample Bruce Cockburn’s Bone On Bone above, or listen in full.
I ramble a bit about the environmentalism, consumerism, and other themes in Bone On Bone’s excellent track, “False River,” and how the urgency of its concerns doesn’t feel rote or prescribed.
“I hope always to avoid the formulas,” Mr. Cockburn explains quite simply. “Sometimes you can't quite, but it's more interesting when you don't go there, you know.”
Bone On Bone closes with the gospel standard “Twelve Gates to the City,” and I ask Bruce about its theme of inclusivity.
“I learned it from Reverend Gary Davis, and Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry, and I’d always kind of liked it. When I went to learn it, I listened to their records a bit, and a couple other people’s versions, and it only had the one good verse: “There’s three gates in the east, three gates in the west...” — that verse seemed to fit the title and the chorus of the song. The other verses that people would sing were kind of stock gospel verses.
“It’s the kind of message that’s everywhere, but I didn’t want to repeat it, particularly. So I wrote two new verses for the song. I felt maybe I was being slightly presumptuous in doing so, but at the same time, it’s kind of the folk process, to do stuff like that. And it seemed to me the point of the song — the image comes from the Bible, of course, from whatever part of the Old Testament it is, Leviticus: the Holy City has these twelve gates — one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, so that made it inclusive. The implication of that is that everybody’s welcome here. The Israelites were only thinking of their own circle, but in the current world, it seemed like a message that was a good one to put out there.”
And finally, because Mr. Cockburn grapples with world issues -- political, religious; church and state -- I ask him, especially these days, how an artist balances urgency with panic.
“Panic's never far from the surface,” chuckles Bruce. “But what do you do about it? There's nothing to be gained by giving in to it. There's also nothing to be gained by trying to bury it and pretend it's not there. We all come into life traumatized -- for one reason or another; to one degree or another -- and that trauma shapes your life, in some way. It's good to pay attention to it, but without becoming completely obsessed by it.
“I think it's just trying to write from the heart, and it's been a long road learning how to do that, because my upbringing was not one that encouraged speaking from the heart. It was kind of Victorian values: stiff upper lip, and you don't lay your crap on somebody else. There was also the subtext that speaking from the heart is expressive of a state of vulnerability, which can cost you -- emotionally, at least. Over the years, part of the writing process for me -- unconsciously, mostly -- has been to get past that, and just say what's there to be said. If you listen to yourself, it's there.”
Images and sounds courtesy of Bruce Cockburn
Bruce Cockburn: Official Site