At a certain point in his career, Bruce Cockburn decided that if he wanted to be a “serious” writer of songs he needed to get … well … “serious.” That led to a year of emulating other “serious” writers by spending each day putting pen to paper.
At the end of that year, he learned something.
“I didn’t have any more usable songs than I would have, if I had just waited for the good ideas to come,” he said in an interview. “So I dropped that policy and just waited for the good ideas and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Seems to have worked out just fine.
In fact, the Nepean high alumnus has just released his 33rd album Bone on Bone and will be inducted formally into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on Sept. 23 with Neil Young and the seminal Québécois artists Beau Dommage and Stéphane Venne at a ceremony in Toronto. That’s right after his latest tour rolls into town for a show at the National Arts Centre.
At 72, the multiple JUNO winner is still doing what he does best, but nobody ever said it was easy.
“I don’t feel like I have all that energy but it seems to keep going anyway. So why stop? I certainly don’t take it for granted. The body is aging, the brain is aging, all that stuff.”
It’s been awhile since the last recording was released. In between he churned out a memoir of his life so far called Rumours of Glory. That effort left him drained and dry.
“When I finished the book,” he says, “it was on my mind whether I was going to write any more songs. I had been working on the book for three years and hadn’t written anything else.”
But after a period of time the songs started coming again and there was eventually enough for an album and a few instrumental pieces and bits and pieces that were not included on the record.
“So there is reason to think it will keep going. But I don’t take it for granted because stuff gives out.”
Writing, for Cockburn, is very much dependent on inspiration.
“Sometimes good ideas come from having a certain kind of intention. I’m not the kind of writer who says ‘I’m going to write about topic X.’ It has to wait for an idea but once the idea is there, then I do pursue it” in a rigorous and vigorous manner.
“Sometimes I’ll be somewhere and I think, I really want to write a song about this but it’s more I hope I write a song about this. You put it out there and sometimes the idea comes. That’s as close as I get to planning.”
His instrumental pieces are written with his hands.
“Once an idea or a motive comes and is established I’ll hunt around for things to go with it, but the initial impulse comes from the hands when I am practicing or fooling around with the guitar.”
Bone on Bone the album is named after Bone on Bone the instrumental piece.
The cover artist for the CD found that title funny, Cockburn said.
“I told him the title … he’s a pretty funny guy … and he goes, ‘Oh sexy!’ and ‘kinky this and that’.
Cockburn had to disabuse him of that idea by saying “it’s about not having any cartilage. It’s about arthritis. But it’s a good title, it has a bit of a snap to it.”
He does say the album has “more spiritual stuff on it than other recent albums,” although, it’s “not exclusively that. It’s kind of from everywhere, it’s me being alive in the world today.” That spiritual sensibility shows up in songs such as Jesus Train, Twelve Gates to the City, Looking and Waiting and Stab At Matter, echoing in the title at least the Stabet Mater.
“I have always believed that my life had a direction, that it was not something I had to decide on. I make all kinds of decisions and choices but in the broader sense, there was a direction coming from outside, coming from God basically.
“Frequently I’m distressed because I can’t understand why I have to go through this s**t, but God said so.”
But the fact is, he says, it all has worked really rather well.
There are 11 songs on the record produced by Colin Linden. One of them is called 3 Al Purdys, a tribute to the poet and ranconteur. Cockburn participated in a fundraiser to preserve Purdy’s home in southern Ontario and few years back.
Cockburn today calls San Francisco home. He’s there because his wife has a job there. It’s where they are raising a daughter called Iona. But you get the sense it’s not necessarily a comfortable place.
The U.S. is a “crazy place” today, Cockburn says.
“I feel closer to the centre of the craziness than when I was living in Canada. In some ways it would be very nice to move back to Canada, but I am committed to be here for the time being.
“It has struck me that we Canadians live in the one pocket of sanity in the western hemisphere.”
But like songs that don’t always come, Cockburn believes Canadians shouldn’t take their current national sanity for granted.
As someone who wrote a song about picking up a rocket launcher, Cockburn is politically attuned.
He believes there is energy to the debate in the U.S. and elsewhere, but he worries that people who oppose President Trump are just offering resistance.
“I’m happy for that. But at the same time we have to offer something more than resistance. Resistance means you give up. I’d hate to see that. What we are not seeing is someone offering an alternative leadership. One hopes it will come out of this ferment.”
Now that Bone on Bone is up for sale and people are praising the msuic, is there a sense of relief?
“Absolutely. There are always questions. We finished the album a few months back now and I’m going ‘Gee, I wish we had done this or that or the other thing.
But that’s nature of making music from scratch, he says.
One neat aspect of this album and tour is the fact that his brother Don’s son, John Aaron, has joined the merry band.
‘It’s an interesting connection and it certainly feels good” to have him on board.
The Ottawa show will feature the new album, some hits and some other older songs that are more obscure. The set list might change so he wasn’t sure what would make the Ottawa lineup at the time of the interview, but he did mention one tune from the album Big Circumstance released in 1988 called The Gift and another from the album Further Adventures Of released in 1978 called Rainfall. Both of these seem to fit the times, he says.
“Sometimes these things will just pop up out of the murk of time and want to return again.”
Cockburn says he does like coming back to Ottawa “my family is there and it’s part of my history for sure, but I have never really felt that anywhere was home. Home is out there somewhere.”
Bruce Cockburn with Terra Lightfoot
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca