One of the most prolific singer-songwriters to emerge from the ‘60s, Bruce Cockburn is also one of the most eclectic, very likely the most honest, and certainly the most overlooked. His steady output—be it reggae, jazz, rock, blues, folk or country—never dissolved into the solipsism that plagues breakout success. Instead, Cockburn sang about injustice and condemned imperialism, without sounding sanctimonious. And while other contemporaries had moved south to the United States to advance their fledgling careers, Cockburn always remained committed to being a Canadian artist. His faithfulness was rewarded when he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.
Upon the release of his 31st studio album, Small Source of Comfort, PopMatters had the opportunity to talk with him about his new record, his career, and even Justin Bieber.
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Let’s talk about your new record first, Small Source of Comfort, and the title. I’ll bite; what is your small source of comfort?
It’s actually a line from one of the songs, a song called “Five Fifty-One”, that says in it, “a small source of comfort, dawn was breaking in the air, you don’t take these things for granted when you think of what’s in need of repair.” So we’re grateful for this thing that came up, but we’ve also been messing with things to such an extant. So it has an ironic application, but if people want to think of the album as a small source of comfort they’re welcome to.
I noticed you meted credit, in the sleeve, to the NYPD and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. What was their contribution to the record?
All the credits are directed at entities that actually had something to do with the making of the songs. There’s a reference in “Iris of the World” about crossing the border, so that’s the Homeland Security part of it. And the New York Police Department also figures in that song, “Five Fifty-One”, where in the middle of the night there’s a pounding on the door: “What’s going on in there?” And, in fact, nothing was going on but my neighbor had said there was. So they get some credit in there.
What is the actual drive you’re alluding to on “Iris of the World”?
Most of the time I was driving between Kingston, Ontario and New York. For several years my girlfriend was living in New York, so I was commuting, though commute isn’t the right word. I was making frequent drives from my house down to Brooklyn. A lot of the imagery from that song is a product of that driving. But I’ve done so much driving over the years that long-distance drives figure a lot in this album. Not just that song, but in “Boundless”, for instance, there’s a lot of that kind of reference.
Do you do a lot of writing on the road, literally?
I don’t do enough writing to be able to say that I do a lot of it anywhere, in any particular place [laughing]. But it can happen on the road and historically it has. It’s less of whether I’m traveling or not and really whether I’ve encountered something that affects me emotionally to get the process going. And then, whether I have a quiet space to focus on it. But that can kind of happen anywhere under any circumstance, as long as those two requirements are met.
So there’s no static routine you employ to write?
No, not really. I tried for a while way back, decades ago, to be “disciplined” and write something every day and write in my notebook. I did that for about a year, and at the end of the year I had about as much usable stuff as if I had just sat around waiting for good ideas. So that was the end of discipline.
There are a significant number of instrumentals on the new record. How did those come about?
I’m not sure why that is. They came about very differently than the songs with words, where I can always start with lyrics and then find music that suits it. Without the lyrics then it’s really just what comes out of the guitar while I’m messing around. I’ll discover something, and an idea then leads to another idea leads to another idea.
There are also a significant number of collaborations. How did those pairings happen?
I’ll take Jenny [Scheinman] first. Well when she’s not on the road she does a weekly Tuesday night gig at this little club called Barbès in Brooklyn. So she asked me to do a couple of those with her and we had so much fun doing that. Then we got approached to do a demo for a film that was in need of some music, after the director had come to one of our shows and thought it might work. So we collaborated on that for a couple weeks, but it came to nothing in the end and they didn’t use our music. But we came up with a lot of great ideas during that time and I felt, I don’t know what Jenny felt like, but I felt that it stretched in a positive way. To be working with somebody as distinctive as she is and as creative as she is, we had enough of a common background, a common language, I was hoping she would be a big part of this album.
And of course the other collaborator on the record is Annabelle Chvostek, who is a former member of a group called the Wailin’ Jennys. She approached me one day and asked if I would be interested in writing songs with her. I hadn’t written anything in a while, and I hadn’t done very much collaborating of that sort over the years, but I was familiar with her music from the Wailin’ Jennys. So we got together and I contributed a few lines and we got talking back and forth before we arrived at the final version [of “Driving Away”] you hear on the record. After we did that I thought, “That worked well we should try another one!” So I came back in with a bunch of lyric ideas that didn’t really have a proper fit and we got together and came up with “Boundless”.
One of my favorite tracks is “Call Me Rose”. You hadn’t been listening to John Adams’ Nixon in China had you?
I’m aware of its existence, but I’ve never heard it. I had friends go see Doctor Atomic once in New York and I heard the music on the radio, which is amazing, but I’m not familiar with the music of Nixon in China. I’m not really sure where that song did come from. I woke up one morning and it was just in my head, almost complete in the form that you hear it. The lyrics, I’m not sure where that comes from. From your sleeping brain, you know?
When that song was written—it was a few years back—someone from the Bush administration, not too long before that, had campaigned to bring back the image of Richard Nixon. There were all these pronouncements being made by various pundits in the press that he was the “greatest President ever” and that he was misunderstood and all this baloney. And the interesting thing was nobody bought it.
They kept doing this for a couple months and then all of a sudden it just disappeared; which suggested to me that somebody had paid to get this campaign going and once it hadn’t born fruit just cut it off. I was pleased to see that the American public was not taken in. As those of us who can remember, other than the fact that he made a very important gesture in terms of establishing communications with China—there’s no taking that away from him—he was a crook and a scumbag and no one should think otherwise.
The fact that he was also an intelligent man doesn’t really mitigate the crookedness, or the carrying on of the war, etc. etc. The idea that you could bring him back as the “greatest president ever” was absurd. So I suppose somewhere in there I might have been thinking, “What would it take rehabilitate actual Richard Nixon?” Not just his image. So in the song he’s re-imagined as a single mom living in the projects. I guess it’s kind of like Groundhog Day.
Perhaps in a similar tactic conservatives are currently lionizing Reagan more than ever.
Reagan at least avoided being caught in a sleazy scandal. Whatever else was going on he managed to stay away from the crookedness. I think he understood that his power came from other people. I don’t think Nixon understood that at all. In spite of the fact that Reagan was guilty of all kinds of policies that led to serious human rights abuses and lots of death and mayhem, he came across as a reasonably honorable guy. I’m leaving out the part when he ratted out his colleagues during the McCarthy era [laughing]. I guess we have to factor that in too, so maybe he wasn’t better than Nixon.
Tell me about visiting Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the inspiration for writing “Each One Lost” and as well as the instrumental, “Comets Over Kandahar”.
“Each One Lost” I wrote the day after I got home. My week in Afghanistan was a very short trip, but it was a powerful experience.
Had you traveled to a war zone previously?
I’d been to several war zones before, but never with the Canadian forces—always with NGOs or non-profits that are doing work in third-world countries. I was in Central America in Nicaragua during the contra war, and I was in Mozambique during their civil war. And if you traveled in Italy in the late 70s it was like being in a war zone because people kept pointing guns at you everywhere you turned. So I’m not exactly a stranger to that kind of atmosphere.
But this was the first time that I had been on a Canadian base and I was excited about that because it’s nice to have a sense of what my own country is doing and what these young Canadians are doing. These young people, these young Canadians, are at the age, right now, where they kind of feel like kids and make you feel a kind of solidarity with them. But I was excited to be able to go and see them working and experience what it felt like to be there, even for just a short period of time.
My brother, who is only a few years younger and has had a career as a doctor for most of his adult life, joined the army a couple of years ago. He got sent to Afghanistan for a six month tour. When that happened I thought, “Well here’s a chance to visit, a connection. It would be really cool to be able to go over while he’s there.” So I asked what he had to say about it, and he liked the idea because somebody from here wants see what he’s doing there.
So we badgered the army and they let me join this morale boosting group that was going over there—just some musicians and some sports people and various others. We went and performed for the troops at some of the operating bases and rode in some helicopters with a couple of gunships escorting us. As tragic as war zones are, there’s an adrenaline factor that’s kind of addictive.
Other than the dead and the wounded—of course they’re not numerous by global standards but they’re numerous enough if you’re looking at it from the Canadian perspective, and there’s nothing fun in tragedy—the fact is that the people who are not dead are capable of having fun. And the rush of sitting in that helicopter, flying over the desert, looking out at a machine-gunner, at the landscape, was a precious experience. It was exciting and stood in short contrast to the seriousness of what’s really going on.
That seriousness was brought home with me—the subject of “Each One Lost”—when our group became part of a ramp ceremony honoring the remains of two young Canadian soldiers who had been killed. On our way into Afghanistan we stopped at a NATO base in Dubai for a few hours for a plane change. As we were getting ready to board our plane from there to Kandahar, another transport plane came in from there with the bodies of these two soldiers on board that had been killed that day.
So we were already on the runway and became part of the ramp ceremony and it was a bit of a nightmare. I tried to capture that in my song.