Boundless: An Interview with Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn
Small Source of Comfort
True North

Above: Press photo. Photographer unknown.

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.

“The Comets of Kandahar”

Describe to me the scene for which you wrote “The Comets of Kandahar”.

Well an instrumental piece isn’t really about anything, but you have to come up with names for these things. So the title came from something one of the Canadian soldiers said to me while we were standing there watching — what I learned was kind of a nightly pleasure for a lot of people on the base — the jet fighters taking off constantly, twenty-four hours a day, for missions or patrols. They go off in pairs, thirty seconds apart, and after dark you can’t see them; you just hear a roar. But a moment later you’ll see the flame, from the tail cone, coming out of the fighter. And that’s all you can see. There’s this glowing purplish cone flying across the sky. Everyone stops to look at this because it’s a beautiful sight. So there we are standing, a bunch of us, and we’re all looking at it, and the soldier standing next to me said, “The comets of Kandahar.” So that became the title of the piece.

The song sounds very light and buoyant. Like the imagery in title, in the context of war it’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Yeah, it’s a paradox. I’ve found that in war zones while there are terrible things going on there are also beautiful things going on — not enough to mitigate the terrible things though. You don’t go to certain wars so you can have a vision like that or support wars for that reason either. But the fact is that, whether it’s in Nicaragua in the early ’80s or Mozambique, I’ve discovered that the troops fighting the war had a sense of humor, and they were glad to see us, and some of them had guitars. I was with Sandinista soldiers on this occasion, and I also visited a couple of other bases in Nicaragua. I think in a way that the closer you are to acknowledge that you could die, or the awareness of death, the more important it is for the individual to have fun. It’s not like sitting around thinking, “Well how am I going to go have fun today?” But if you look and see the beauty around you, whether it’s a leaf or the dust storms that come up somewhere, all these things that are a part of what could be a very threatening landscape become beautiful in themselves.

Finding small sources of comfort you could say.

Yeah, I suppose so.

I also wanted to ask you about “Gifts”, the last track on the record. You wrote the song in 1968. Why record it for the first time now?

“Gifts” was just a short little one-verse song that used to close shows in the 60s. After a few years I had more songs and it kind of fell out of the repertoire and never came back for a long time. But in 1969, when we were recording the first album, Bernie Finkelstein, who was my manager but also did sound on those records, asked, “What about that song ‘Gifts,’ should we put that on the album?” I didn’t really feel like putting it on the album. I though it was fine without it and so I just said, “I’m going to put that on the last album.” And at that point, obviously, none of us knew how many records there would be. So here it is, 40 years later. I don’t know whether this is the last album or not, but it feels like it’s getting to that stage in things where you don’t know for sure. I mean this could be. My hands could stop working or you never know what could happen. It won’t make this the last album, but I thought, “Let’s put it on there just in case.” We did it in such a way that we didn’t tell Bernie until he was listening to a playback of the whole thing. We got to the end and Bernie says, “Is there anything I should know?” And we all just had a laugh and I said, “No, no! I did it just in case.”

In the album notes you cite an initial desire for an “electric and noisy” record with “gongs and jackhammers” and distortion. Can we expect something like that in the future?

It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s possible. I still need to get that out of my system. It’s definitely there in me to do it, but it requires the right setting. You can’t be sitting around a bunch of apartments surrounded by a bunch of loud amps. So it’s become difficult to put something like that together, but it could happen still.

Getting completely off the subject of your records, I have some questions to get off my chest. What is the etymology of your last name?

It’s Scottish, and it actually translates as “rooster creek”. “Cock” is as it is in English generally, but a “burn” in Scottish dialect is a creek. So it’s a place name like so many people’s names that identify someone according to a place. If it was an English name it’d be pronounced “Cock-burn,” but as a Scottish name the c-k in the middle becomes a sort of guttural sound. So it just got kind of shortened over the years or centuries. Sometimes when I went out the bar girl would start making fun of going out for “co-tails”. So this is what I’ve been living with.

I imagine it was not always an easy childhood.

[laughing] You know my dad, when I was a little kid in grade school, he said to me, “Do kids ever call you Coke? When I was little in grade school the kids used to call me Cokeburn.” If they had called me Coke I would have thought that was just fine, instead of making the obvious jokes that they did make. But it says something about the difference in generations, from his to mine. Of course it’s gone much farther than that now, the difference in the way kids talk and the way people think

Did you play hockey as a child growing up in Ontario?

I played hockey for one year. I was a terrible skater and I could only skate while I was holding myself up with the hockey stick. So as soon as I took a swing at the puck I fell down. So it never got better than that. I skied a lot. That was the thing that we did as a family.

Nordic or alpine?

Both, because at the time it wasn’t yet as differentiated as it is now. But the places we went skiing didn’t really have these large hills compared to Western North America; just a hill to learn and do some downhill skiing. But they did have miles and miles of trails, so we used to mix it up and do downhill in the morning and then cross-country skiing in the afternoon. In those days you didn’t have different skis; you just adjust the binding so that the heel could come up.

You were a glaring omission in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic ceremonies.

Yeah, I kind of noticed that too! [laughing]

Why the snub? Did they think your politics were already aligned against the Olympics and you wouldn’t accept?

I don’t know what they thought. You’d really have to ask Bernie about what kind of approach we may have gotten. Steve [Dawson] produced an album of covers of the Mississippi Sheiks on which I participated and he tried to put together an evening — a Mississippi Sheiks cover concert basically. So that was the closest that I came, and I don’t know if it happened or not. I’m not sure if there was ever really any more talk than that. I did think it was kind of funny that everybody seemed to be there but me.

So you didn’t necessarily agree with those who were criticizing the presentation of indigenous culture during the games?

There’s always some controversy around stuff like that. I think the organizers went out of their way to offset that by including a lot of Native American stuff in the eventual ceremony. Generally speaking, these things are touted as a great benefit to the city for the foreseeable future, but after it they’re paying off the enormous debt from it. I think that will be true with Vancouver too. It certainly was with Montreal.

The Olympic stadium in Montreal has simply become a huge liability for the city.

Down there everybody calls it the Toilet Seat. I think it’s a nice stadium, I guess. I used to go by it when I lived in Montreal. The people who love these events are the developers who make the quick buck building all this stuff.

There’s a significant amount of myopia required.

Yeah, willful myopia. It’s not that hard to look at the precedents, the other cities who have done something similar, and all of them have had the same problems. It just seems to be something that’s agreed that certainly brings visibility to a place globally. But it disrupts and changes the face of where you are. Who does it benefit? It benefits the contractors and the developers and nobody else really.

Back to Ontario. I know both you and Neil Young are from very near each other in Ontario and you’re both nearly the same age. Have you been able to form any sort of special bond over this?

Not really, no. I met Neil after Buffalo Springfield had come apart and he was starting his solo career. He used to come by and play this local coffee house where I hung out. So I talked to him a few times. That was a very interim phase for him. I was in Toronto and in that scene, but not really at the same time that he was.

Finally, I must ask, and only because you’re Canadian and tremendously affable, what are your thoughts on Justin Bieber?

[laughing] I don’t know much about him. I wish him well. The little bit that I’ve seen of him, most of it performing and a little interview here and there, he seems like a very reasonable young guy and I hope he does okay. But I’m not a fan of that music. Good for him if he can do it.

He seems proudly Canadian so I don’t anticipate him defecting, for what it’s worth.

We think of Neil as a Canadian and Neil as a Californian. We think of Joni Mitchell as a Canadian and Joni as a Californian. Leonard Cohen, well I don’t know where Leonard lives now, but he’s lived all over the place. That’s not to take anything away from their Canadian-ness, because I think you can see it and hear it in their music and everything; that is, define Canadian. But it had been a situation where an artist who wanted to get any kind of attention at all had to go to the states; you couldn’t do it in Canada. You could start in Canada, but if you wanted to get on the radio you had to go to the states and then come back because there was no music scene in Canada — or rather music business. There were lots of people playing music, but the majority of people playing music want people to hear it.

There are exceptions, like Paul Anka. Paul Anka went to the states, to New York. He was from Ottawa, younger than me, and there he was. Well maybe he was a couple of years older, but anyway it doesn’t matter. But that could happen. It was a rare thing. But then all of a sudden all these Canadians were saying, “You know what? It isn’t bad coming from Canada. Look at Joni and Neil” and all these people that were doing well. The inferiority complex kind of evolved into national pride. Combined with CRTC regulations and all that, it was a very creative community in the music industry which allowed people to get heard. Back then, being Canadian — those of us who decided to consciously stay in Canada — it wasn’t that we were anti-anything else; it was just ridiculous to not be able to do what I wanted to do in my own country first, and then go somewhere else. At that time it was really important to me to hang around in Canada and do whatever could be done there before looking elsewhere. After a decade or so of that I did start to go outside of Canada. It mattered to me that I was from Canada, but I don’t think it mattered much to anyone else — at least not outside of Canada.

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