Bruce Cockburn Interview: Small Source of Comfort

By: Matt Warnock

Growing up in Canada, I was first exposed to Bruce Cockburn’s playing and songwriting through a cover version of his classic song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by the then little-known band, The Barenaked Ladies. The song grabbed radio airplay and steady airtime on Much Music, helping to launch the BNL’s careers, while at the same time, also exposed countless people such as myself to the music of one of Canada’s greatest artists.

Throughout his long and storied career, Cockburn’s music has touched the hearts of many people, both for his beautifully written lyrics and music, as well as the poignant messages that many of his songs portray. His music is entertaining, but often with a deep message intertwined into the lyrics, bringing a level of art and soul into his songs that makes them both captivating and timeless in nature.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Cockburn has just released Small Source of Comfort, his 31st studio album, which features an array of songs written over the past five years, as well as one song, “Gifts,” that was originally written in the late ‘60s but has never previously been recorded. The album is just what one would expect from any Cockburn record. The songs are incredibly well-written, each song is creatively arranged, and the guitarist-vocalist is at the top of his game throughout.

As well, Cockburn spent time in Afghanistan during the writing period for his latest record, an experience that helped inspire several of the songs on the album. For those who know Cockburn’s work outside of music, in the humanitarian realm, this is no surprise as he has spent time in war torn parts of the world over the decades, meeting with people and helping to raise awareness in these global hot spots.

Guitar International sat down with Bruce Cockburn to talk about Afghanistan, Small Source of Comfort and the Barenaked Ladies.

Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn Photo: Kevin Kelly

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Matt Warnock: Your latest record is your 31st studio release, quite the accomplishment. Do you find that you need to search out new experiences to keep the flow of inspiration coming in your songwriting?

Bruce Cockburn: The motivation is always there. There’s something in me that wants to write songs, but the trick is to get the ideas. That really depends on circumstances more than anything. The general rule is that anything I encounter that triggers a strong emotional response will end up in a song one way or another. Whether it’s a matter of the heart or something that makes me angry, a nature scene that’s very moving, or anything else of this nature can be a possible trigger.

In the case of this album, it’s a collection of songs that I wrote over the past five years, since the last album, with the exception of one very old song. I was traveling a lot during this period. I wrote this one in North America more than anywhere else, but I did go to Afghanistan which influenced several of the tracks on the album.

I’m reluctant to attach songwriting to those types of trips because those trips are always about something else. To go someplace where there’s so much pain as a source of song material, I don’t think I can do that. On the other hand I’m happy when I get a song from one of these trips, which was the case on this trip.

Matt: When we see videos from Afghanistan here on the news, it’s a war-torn country where fighting is still going on and it looks very dangerous. What was your experience when you were there and did it differ from what we’re shown here on North American news outlets?

Bruce Cockburn: I don’t think it was so different, but my circumstances were different from what a person living there would experience. I’ve been in war zones before in Africa and other places and I’ve always gone with people that knew their way around, so I never felt like I was in danger. In this case I went with the Canadian Forces on a moral building trip with some sports people and other musicians.

We went on a week-long trip to the Kandahar Airfield. While there, we were taken out to some of the forward operating bases, which is where, if there is a frontline, that’s where it was a year ago when I was there. At the time, command was being transferred from the Canadians to the Americans. So my view is very different, it was a reporter’s eye view in a way, but I wasn’t talking to the Afghan people, I was talking to Canadian soldiers and soldiers from other countries that I ran into.

This is different from what I’m used to. Normally I’m on the other side of things. I’ve never been involved in action of any kind, but I’ve been where you can hear it in the background. In this case, we didn’t hear anything, but we met “our people” that were out there dealing with it on an hour by hour basis. We were issued helmets and body armor in case of snipers or whatnot.

But the feeling you get from flying over the desert at 75 feet in a Chinook Helicopter is unbelievable. So we were very aware of the pain side of it, but there was also the excitement of being surrounded by all the technology there and to be able to fly to the forward bases in a helicopter with high-ranking officials.

It was pretty amazing. We’re in the middle of all this trouble and having fun. I’ve had that experience in other places such as Nicaragua in the ‘80s. There was suffering going on but the people wanted to have fun, even in those situations. You’d show up with a guitar and people would want to hear music. It sounds oxy-moronic to talk about having fun in a war zone, but in fact, wherever possible people do have fun in war zones. So, that was another stretch of that experience for me.

The reason I was there is that my brother is a doctor in the Canadian Forces and he was doing a six-month tour over there at the base. I thought that it would be a good excuse to go over there and see him as well as visit the troops at the same time.

Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn Photo: Kevin Kelly

Matt: After being over there, and then also being aware of the sentiment on the war in Canada, what is our take on how the Canadian people feel about the war right now?

Bruce Cockburn: My sense is that people are not supportive of the war. The troops would like them to be, because in order to do a job like that properly, they need the support of the people back home. I think they believe that given long enough, in this case a generation, they can win the war, but I don’t think so. This is the prevailing belief among the soldiers and they’re basing this belief on their experiences so you have to respect that. But, I’m not sure it’s so winnable.

Like other Canadians, I feel a great affection and sense of personal relationship with those young Canadians that are over there. You want them to come home. You want them to get the best support they need to do their jobs over there. I feel a strong support for the troops, but I don’t believe most Canadians are supportive of the mission.

Matt: You mentioned earlier that there is a very old song on the new album, that would be “Gifts,” which was written in 1968. Why was the time finally right to record this song after having written it 43 years ago?

Bruce Cockburn: I haven’t sang that song in front of people for decades. When we did the first album, back at the end of the ‘60s I was singing that song in my shows. At the time, Bernie Finkelstein kept trying to get me to record the song, and I told him I was going to save it for the last album. After a while it just kind of disappeared. When we started to record this album I thought it’d be cool to bring back “Gifts” but not tell Bernie. I also felt that at this point you never know. 2012 is rolling around and I’m not getting any younger etc. etc. [Laughs] So maybe there will be another album or maybe there won’t. It’s not a prediction of any kind. I just thought it was time to get it on record.

Matt: What was Bernie’s reaction when he first heard it?

Bruce Cockburn: He heard all the other songs and then “Gifts” starts up, so he turns to me and says, “Is there something I should know?” [Laughs]

Matt: On your upcoming tour you’ve already sold out a handful of shows in the U.S. Being an iconic Canadian artist you have a strong following there, but have you always had this kind of popularity in the U.S. as well?

Bruce Cockburn: It’s slightly complex and goes up and down over time. The first real boost in people being aware of me in the U.S. was the 1984 album Stealing Fire . Then, when “If I had a Rocket Launcher” came out and was on the radio all over the place, my audience in the U.S. grew from there. We toured because all of a sudden that was feasible, and have gone back ever since. The audiences are smaller than in Canada depending on where I am in the country. Most of my audience is on the West Coast, the Northeast and the Four Corners area and it’s been strong over the years.

Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn Photo: Kevin Kelly

Matt: When I was younger, I hate to admit this, but I was first introduced to your music through the Barenaked Ladies’ cover of your song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Were you aware of the Barenaked Ladies before they covered your song and what was your reaction when you first heard their arrangement?

Bruce Cockburn: It was interesting. That came out on a tribute album, so it was all these primarily Toronto artists doing my songs. When I first heard the album I was disappointed because the production value wasn’t very high and I didn’t like some of the arrangements. In the case of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” their version was so radically different that it took some time to get used to.

Back in the day when I was first starting out we made a very sharp distinction between “real” folk music and commercial folk music. We didn’t approve of Peter Paul and Mary and we didn’t approve of The Kingston Trio. People that were on the radio getting hits with what we considered watered down versions of our music. But, if you were a young kid then and you’re looking back now, all you remember is what was on the radio. When we were kids in the ’60s we were looking back at the ‘30s and what was on records then, guys like Woody Guthrie and so on. It was mythic.

So for them looking back at the ‘60s and early ‘70s this was mythic, and this was how they chose to arrange the song. When I heard it at first it was shocking, because it sounded so much like those records that I distanced myself from in the ‘60s. After I while I realized that it was totally legit and I’ve ended up playing it live with them on several occasion and it was fine. I got over myself. [Laughs]

Matt: You’ve had a long and very successful career writing and performing the music that you wanted to play, you never gave in to commercial interests. Were there ever any moments when you were approached by labels or management to do a more commercial record and did it ever cross your mind to do something that would sell more but be less artistic?

Bruce Cockburn: It’s never really been out of the picture, but the art comes first. I write the songs the way I feel they should be written. When a song starts to sound that it might be radio friendly we won’t throw away that possibility when we’re in the studio recording it. But, that’s never a concern for me when I’m writing a song, it never crosses my mind. If it’s already close to that then sure, let’s go there, but for me the lyrics will dictate how they want to be treated and I’ll go from there.

Over the years there have been different conversations with people on the subject, some more heated than others. [Laughs] It’s never been insurmountable pressure. Just record companies felt that they couldn’t do their job because I wasn’t bringing in enough money, or that they could imagine something that I wasn’t interested in doing. The only time that we really did something like that was in the early ‘80s when everyone was into releasing singles so we released “Coldest Night of the Year” as a standalone single. It got some attention, but the song’s about a winter’s night and unfortunately when they got around to releasing it, it was spring. [Laughs]

It didn’t stay around because no one wanted to play that song in the spring. But, since then it’s become a seasonal song on oldies radio during the winter, but it was a failure as a single at the time. That was the only time we tried something like that. I liked the way it came out, the song was great and we didn’t try to make it a too commercial or anything. Maybe we should have, it might have done better. [Laughs]

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