During a career that stretches back to the late 1960s, Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has explored introspective mysticism and political protest within a musical framework that encompasses everything from classic folk fingerpicking to a dizzying jazz/folk/rock hybrid. A dazzling guitarist and poetic lyricist, Cockburn is the recipient of numerous Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy), and has experienced the dubious glories of Top 40 hits and MTV airplay. He’s yet to release an album that is anything less than beautifully played and lyrically challenging. These days he splits his time between Canada and the U.S. and dreams of Richard Nixon. Paste caught up with Cockburn, discussing the release of Small Source of Comfort, his 31st album.
Paste: The song that I suspect will elicit the most commentary on your new album Small Source of Comfort is “Call Me Rose,” where you envision Richard Nixon reincarnated as a poor single woman with two kids in the projects. Can you tell me what inspired that song?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, you’re probably not going to like the answer. Honestly, it came to me in a dream. I woke up and the song was just there, pretty much fully formed. That’s only happened to me once or twice in the past. The first verse—the one where Richard Nixon is reincarnated as a poor single woman with two kids—was definitely right there when I woke up. And I couldn’t even tell you precisely what inspired it. I think, at the time, there may have been an effort underway at the U.S. State Department to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon, so that may have been in the back of my mind. But who knows? It was a strange experience. Songs don’t usually come to me that way.
Paste: What’s prompted the emphasis on instrumentals over the past few albums? You’ve always incorporated instrumentals as part of your music, but it seems like the past few years, with Speechless, the all-instrumental album, and the five instrumentals that appear on Small Source of Comfort, that there’s been a greater focus. Is there anything behind that?
Cockburn: I don’t know. It’s probably too early to call it a trend. We’ll see what happens. I usually start with the words, and then build the songs from there. But there were a number of songs this time that just came out as instrumentals. And, as you say, I’ve always incorporated instrumentals in my albums. But there were just a few more of them this time that presented themselves that way. Playing with Jenny Scheinman might have had something to do with it. She’s a wonderful violinist, and several of those instrumentals emerged through those collaborations, just playing off of one another.
Paste: She’s great. Let me ask you a little more about Jenny. I wasn’t familiar with her work before this album, and I was really impressed. I know she’s worked with Bill Frisell in the past, and you’ve worked with Bill as well. Was he the connecting point for you?
Cockburn: Not directly. I think the first time we met was at a Mountain Stage concert. I was on the bill, and Jenny was playing with Rodney Crowell. So that’s the first time I saw her. The next time was in New York. I was dating a woman in Brooklyn, and we were passing by The Village Vanguard in Manhattan, and it turned out that Jenny’s name was on the marquee. So we listened again. And I really liked what she was doing. So just through that process—listening to this great jazz violinist, getting to know her a bit—we decided to collaborate on this album. She’ll be playing with me on this upcoming tour as well.
Paste: You’re known, for better or worse, as a very serious songwriter. Obviously, songs like “Call It Democracy” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” have contributed to that reputation. But on the new album you have a funny take on our busy lives (“Called Me Back”), and the line about the Nixon/Single Mom selling her memoirs in “Call Me Rose” made me laugh out loud. Is this a looser, more fun-loving Bruce Cockburn we’re seeing?
Cockburn: [laughs] Yeah, maybe. Maybe I got all that angry young man angst out of my system when I was an angry young man. But, you know, I’d like to think that I’ve always incorporated some humor in my music. Even some of the early albums from the ‘70s had songs like “The Blues Got the World by The Balls” and “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse.” So I don’t think it’s necessarily anything new. And honestly, a lot of the angry, political stuff has already been said. The players change, but it’s still the same world, you know. So maybe this time I decided to take a little more lighthearted look at the darkness. But it wasn’t anything conscious on my part.
Paste: You noted in the press materials that you had anticipated that this album would be raw and electric. It turned out introspective and acoustic. Can you describe your songwriting process, and what might have prompted the changes from your original intentions?
Cockburn: I did think, initially, that maybe it was time to mix it up sonically. But there’s no formula here, and you just have to see where the songs take you. And we ended up with an acoustic, fairly introspective album that isn’t all that different from what I was doing in the 1970s. Some of it was just my physical and geographical surroundings. I was spending a lot of my time in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, and there was just no opportunity to turn up the volume without incurring the wrath of the neighbors. You work with what you’ve got.
Paste: Two of the songs on the new album were written out of the experiences of your recent trip to Afghanistan. How did the trip to Afghanistan come about?
Cockburn: Well, it was just a short trip that happened three years ago. It only lasted a week. And it came about because of my brother. He’s an emergency room anaesthesiologist, and he signed up for a 6-month tour of duty with the Canadian army in Kandahar. He pestered on his end, and I pestered on my end, and eventually the army agreed to the visit. And I hate to say it, given the serious circumstances, but we had a lot of fun. But there were some serious moments, as well. The day we arrived in Afghanistan, at the staging area, we watched a plane come in bearing the coffins of two Canadian soldiers who had been killed. And we were privileged to witness what they called the Ramp ceremony. And, you know, there were recorded bagpipes, and prayers, and tears. It was difficult.
Regardless of how you view the conflict, or whatever your political views, it was very evident to me that these soldiers were doing the best they could do, making the best out of a place where they didn’t want to be. And that ceremony really helped to put it in perspective. You think, God, these kids could have been my kids. And the song “Each One Lost” came out of that. It was a good visit. It was hell. I’m glad I was there.
Paste: I’d like to ask you about a song that goes back 13 or 14 years now, a song from your album The Charity of Night. I want to ask you about “Strange Waters,” which is a song I come back to again and again, at least partly because of the startling imagery and the twist in the title. There’s a biblical reference there, as you know, but you take the imagery of one of the best-known Psalms and change it from “still waters” to “strange waters.” Can you comment about that song’s meaning to you, specifically in light of the spiritual imagery that you use?
Cockburn: Okay. Well, if you live a life where you’re trying to figure out what the existence of the divine means, and trying to live in accordance with that, my experience has been that you’re going to encounter a lot of beauty and a lot of weird shit. And that song was an attempt to come to grips with the weird shit. You’re right that it references the 23rd Psalm. But I hadn’t encountered still waters. I had encountered strange waters. And my take is that it’s going to continue to be strange. It’s funny that you brought that up. I hadn’t been singing that song, but I just recently started singing it again. Maybe it’s because I’m very aware of the strangeness these days.
Paste: Following up on that idea, during the course of your career, you’ve written time and time again about your travels to foreign locations—Japan, Italy, Central America, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. It’s also evident that those travels have impacted your understanding of and appreciation for different cultures. And yet your early albums were marked by mysticism and introspection. I realize that these issues are never completely clear-cut and black and white, and they’re not in your music either, but was there a turning point in your life where you chose to shift the focus from a sort of inward isolation to a more outward engagement with the world? And if so, what brought about the change?
Cockburn: You’re correct that there was a turning point. It coincided with my divorce in the late ‘70s. You know, that just turned my world upside down. It was something I never expected, never thought would happen. And then it did. And I had to make some major adjustments. Up to that point I’d mostly been living in the country, living inside my head. And I realized then that introspection had gone as far as it was going to go. I needed to get involved with people. I needed to be where people were. So I moved to Toronto. And shortly after that I started getting involved with organizations where that travel became a way to get more connected. Of course, there’s a balance in all this, and I’ve never totally lost that introspective side. This new album was recorded at least partly because I realized that I needed to find that self-reflective mode again.
Paste: You’ve been at this for more than 40 years now. During that time, your music has obviously evolved and adapted. But how do you think you yourself have changed during that time? What parts of the guy who recorded High Winds, White Sky and Sunwheel Dance are still there? What parts have changed? What would the Bruce Cockburn of 1970 have to say to the Bruce Cockburn of 2011? What would the Bruce Cockburn of 2011 have to say to the Bruce Cockburn of 1970?
Cockburn: [laughs] There’s nothing like summarizing a life! Well, I think the Bruce Cockburn of 1970 would say, “Oh, my God, what are you doing?” And the Bruce Cockburn of 2011 would say “What an idiot!” You know that cliché about youth being wasted on the young? It’s true.
When I think back on it, the Bruce Cockburn of 1970 wasn’t very good at being with people. I didn’t communicate very well, and I didn’t understand others very well. But deep down I’m still the same person. I’d like to think that I’ve grown up. And so much of this is just living life, learning the lessons that are common to everyone who gets older. It’s still unfolding. I’m not done. I hope that I can learn to be more kind.