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In conversation with Bruce Cockburn

By: | August 7, 2015

The legendary Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist talks colonialism, warfare, music as activism and his hopes for the upcoming federal election, in advance of his performance at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival Saturday in St. John’s.

Bruce Cockburn during the recording of his 2011 album "Small Source of Comfort". Photo by Daniel Keebler.

Few Canadian musicians have earned as much respect and admiration as Bruce Cockburn.

The 70-year-old singer-songwriter has recorded 31 albums and has a lengthy resume of awards for his music and social justice work. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1982 and received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 1998. In 2001 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the following year into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame.

Cockburn has six honorary doctorates, including a 2007 Honorary Doctor of Letters from Memorial University. He also earned a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

He recently married, moved to San Francisco and is raising his three-year-old daughter with his wife.

Pacing the Cage, a documentary film about his life, music and politics, was released in 2013. And last year his memoir, Rumours of Glory, was published by HarperOne.

On Saturday Cockburn will perform at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in St. John’s.

In advance of his trip to Newfoundland, he spoke with The Independent from his home in San Francisco about his life, music, activism and politics.

In conversation with Bruce Cockburn 

JUSTIN BRAKE: You’re living in San Francisco now. What’s it like living in a state that’s running out of water?

BRUCE COCKBURN: [Laughs] Well, you wouldn’t really notice it in the city. There are parts of the state where it seems to be pretty obvious, but there are also people claiming that it’s not really running out of water — that it’s a scam to raise the price of water. But I’m not sure, I hear a lot more of there actually beig a shortage, and certainly there hasn’t been any rain anywhere, so I think it’s pretty genuine.

Like I said, in San Francisco you don’t really notice it; the city is surrounded by water for one thing, and I think we’re insulated from the effects of the drought. The drought is very noticeable inland, when you go into the central valley where the agriculture is mainly placed, and then it becomes noticeable. And that’s where you hear the largest comments and complaints coming from.

JUSTIN BRAKE: It’s hard to know, when you see produce here in Newfoundland that’s grown in California, whether it’s ethical to buy it or not.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Those farmers still have to make a living, so to the extent that it’s not corporate— [Laughs.] I mean, I’m not sure there’s anything that isn’t corporate, but there are a lot of people out there growing stuff and the industry employs quite a lot of people, so whether the water is running out or not, people still have to grow food. It could be argued that the way the water’s allocated is at times unethical for sure, but there’s also a whole lot of water that gets diverted to L.A….and especially to southern California. But certain elements of the agricultural [industry] seem to use more and have more clout in terms of containing that use than other sections. It’s still all unfolding here. It’s been going on for three years now, this drought, so if it keeps going like this it’ll become way more noticeable I think than it is now.

JUSTIN BRAKE: So how is your life in San Francisco? I know you have a daughter who is three years old. And your wife, who I understand got a job in San Fran—and that’s how you ended up there. What is your life like in California?

BRUCE COCKBURN: It’s pretty much like life anywhere else with a three-year-old. It’s not so much the place as the circumstances that determine what your life is like. We live in an apartment in San Francisco — it’s an alright place to live, [but] we don’t get out much because we have a three-year-old. I get out on tour from time to time; I’m doing a little bit less touring than previously because I want to be home. But only a little bit less; this has been a pretty busy summer and spring. So, you know, life goes on. It’s not very different than what my life was like when I was living at my house near Kingston, Ontario, or when I was living in Toronto.

JUSTIN BRAKE: I just watched Pacing the Cage — I hadn’t seen it yet, so I watched it to prepare for this interview. And I really enjoyed it and want to talk to you about some of the themes that emerged in the film…around your music and your life and your politics.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Sure.

JUSTIN BRAKE: The first one is how time and experience intersect in your music. You’ve said that while you acknowledge similarities that can be heard on your earlier and your most recent albums, there’s also an entire lifetime between them that can be heard. You’ve been making music for 40 years — how has that lifetime influenced your music, lyrically: how you write, and what you write about?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well it’s hard to know. All of the songwriting was suspended for the three years I was writing [Rumours of Glory], so it’s only been since that came out last November that I’ve been able to think of myself as a songwriter again. I have a couple new instrumental pieces and maybe three new songs — two for sure, maybe one that may or may not be finished. So it’s a little hard to say.

There’s never been much of a pattern to where the lyric ideas come from. You can see it with hindsight of course, but if I’m involved in anything that’s really sort of emotionally intense, whether it’s a first-time exposure to third world conditions, or whether it’s a love affair, or whatever it might be, that’s obviously going to show up in the songs. And the emotional flow that’s going on will trigger the writing of songs. It’s between those kind of events — it’s just catch-as-catch-can and the ideas come from wherever they come from.

Having said that, there’s certainly an effect I can see if I look back over all the stuff, a difference between the way I approached writing in the beginning and the way I do now, for one thing. And that differs in the circumstances that produce the songs. So in the ‘70s there was a lot of travel across Canada, and not very much outside Canada — so until late in that decade you get stuff like How I Spent My Fall Vacation that talks about touring in Italy and Japan and so on, but really most of the 70s stuff is about Canada and about spirituality, and to some extent love songs and other things.

But then in the 80s there’s a lot of travel, the kind that produced If I Had a Rocket Launcher, or and Call it Democracy. Those encounters with third world reality that initially were really quite shocking, and eventually the shock factor wears off because you become familiar with what you’re going to encounter. But that kind of content showed up a lot in the songs from the 80s.

In the 90s it kind of swung back toward the personal again, and there’s a bunch of love songs and the effects of personal life experiences and spirituality starts to show up. In the 80s it wasn’t the downplaying of the spiritual side of things, but it was I suppose in a way more of an exploration what that spiritual reality means in the day to day, like how do you apply your spiritual understandings to the state of the world, basically?

And at this point, like I said, of the three songs I’ve [recently] written, assuming that third one actually is finished — that one’s about Detroit, and the other one is the product of an invitiation from some people in Toronto who are trying to rehabilitate the late Canadian Al Purdy’s A-frame house in rural Ontario as a kind of artist retreat. So they’re putting together a CD to raise money for that and they asked for a song from me having to do with Al Purdy, so I came up with something, and it was actually a godsend because that was the first invituation like that that came up after I finished the book. So I felt like this was a gift that will force me to get back into the songwriting frame of mind, and it’s a little too soon to say whether it really did that, but I think it did.

So the point of all this is, the content of these songs comes from wherever it comes from, and at this point I expect to make a next album but I don’t know what’s going to be on it.

JUSTIN BRAKE: You were raised in a non-religious family from what I understand, and at a certain point in your life turned to Christianity…which you’ve been quite open in talking about. Earlier in your career you were writing about social justice, and in [Pacing the Cage] you said, “the job of everyone, regardless of their occupation, is to affect the world in whatever positive way they can.”

I’m wondering where that sense of duty that you’re expressing—maybe that you feel, that you write and sing about—comes from? Does it have roots in your faith or your spirituality? Or would you say your spirituality evolved from that felt sense of duty?

BRUCE COCKBURN: I think it’s the first one, if anything. But I think that I owe that point of view a lot to my parents, and to [my] teachers. When I used to go to summer camp…they were always hammering into us when we would go on these 100-mile canoe trips in the northern Ontario bush: always leave your campsite better than you found it. And that sort of ethic was just repeated over and over again, and it just sort of seemed like the right way to be in the world.

 I  am where I am because those things were done, and I have to acknowledge that. And if there’s something I can do to improve the situation then I feel like I should do it.  

So I think really it’s that kind of thinking that set me up for being receptive to the issues that might fall under the heading of social justice, specifically with Native people, for instance, when I started to travel across Canada in 1970. Up to that point I’d never met an ‘Indian’ who I knew was an Indian. I mean, I might have met people who didn’t say so, but I knew nothing; all I knew about Indians was Tonto. So in Manitoba and elsewhere I found myself meeting a whole lot of others — other songwriters, artists and whatever — who happened to be Native and have had an extremely different life experience growing up. These were people my own age and it was an eye-opener to discover the kinds of experiences that they had and the kinds of racism that you saw taken for granted everywhere. It’s less of an issue, at least in the cities now, I think. But it’s still there.

So an old song from the 70s, Red Brother, Red Sister, talks about that. The whole history of the original inhabitants of North America and how we interfaced with them — our ancestors, I should say — coming here from Europe, primarily. It’s such a tragic history and one that you can’t ignore; I think it’s a mistake to ignore — let’s put it that way. I don’t feel like I’m personally responsible for the things that were done any more than I feel responsible for the things that the Iroquois did to the Jesuit missionaries or whatever. But at the same time, I am where I am because those things were done, and I have to acknowledge that. And if there’s something I can do to improve the situation then I feel like I should do it.

JUSTIN BRAKE: It’s interesting that you brought that up. Everything that exists right now in what we call Canada exists because of that colonial legacy, which many would say is still going on today, still—

BRUCE COCKBURN: —Yes. The rhetoric around it is different, and the economics are a little different, but basically it’s the same. I mean, I think it’s probably down to human nature — any kind of entity that has power wants to use that power for its own gain. And then of course there’s the people that don’t have power who want to get it. And that’s all tied up with money and everything else. So the principles haven’t changed and the tendencies among people haven’t changed, so it’s something I think we all have to be paying attention to.

JUSTIN BRAKE: You traveled to Afghanistan a few years ago, in 2009, and met with the troops that were serving there — and I understand your brother is in the Canadian Armed Forces as well.

BRUCE COCKBURN: He was, yes, but he’s retired from the forces now. But that was what triggered my going there, was the fact that he joined the Army and got posted there. So it was like, well, if he’s going then I’m going. [Laughs.]

I don’t have skills or a fitness level the military could use, but I managed to get myself involved in a morale-boosting group that went over there. And I was impressed with our people; I didn’t know what to expect. I was looking forward to it because, of all the times I’ve been in or near war zones, I’ve never been among Canadians, never been among people I could really communicate with. So that was exciting to me, to be able to hear what people have to say, how they felt about what they were doing or just what they were doing in general. It was great. I came away pretty impressed, but the likelihood of that mission being successful seemed slim — and I’m kind of understanding that. It’s a loaded thing; on one hand you can’t have a country that just behaves utterly lawlessly in this globalized world that we live in. But at the same time, how do you deal with the presence of a country like that? Is it by invading them and taking them over? Is it by nuking them? Is it by working something out in a more gentle way? And I suppose, if there’s a way to work things out gently, then that’s obviously the first choice. But anyway, I don’t know. I could go on.

JUSTIN BRAKE: You did an interview with the Ottawa Citizen last year and I pulled a quote from it because I thought it was interesting. You said:

I have had a difficult time convincing my lefty friends that this was important. This was to right a wrong … that can’t be ignored. 

I sort of agree that you can’t have a country in the world these days where people go around throwing acid in women’s faces simply because they want to learn to read. There are some cultures that don’t deserve to persist. 

There are aspects of the Afghan culture — here I am Mr. white man talking about it — the admirable traits deserve promotion and the opposite ones deserve suppression or removal. 

That’s true of us too.

That last part I guess goes back to the persisting colonialism that exists in Canada and the oppression of First Nations Peoples here. You’ve spoken out against violence in your music before, but you’ve also expressed the inclination to respond to violence with violence — and I’m thinking Stealing Fire and in particular If I Had a Rocket Launcher, and I know there have been other songs as well. Do you think in some cases that responding to violence with more violence is the only way to correct an injustice, and is that the feeling you have about the War in Afghanistan and Canadian troops there?

BRUCE COCKBURN: The short answer is no, I don’t think that violence produces justice. It might in the short term at least lessen injustice that somebody’s perpetrating on somebody else, but what I think about that kind of violence really comes from observations in Central America and Mozambique, and that there are times when there was no choice but to fight. I mean, literally no choice — you either fight or die. So do you take the ‘turn the other cheek’ point of view and just die? OK, I can decide that for myself; I might think that’s the right way for me to go. But I can’t make that decision on behalf of my daughter, or on behalf of my friends; they have to make their own decision that way. If somebody came and threatened my daughter, I wouldn’t think twice about fighting back. And that’s a reflex — there’s no philosophical justification for it and maybe none is required.

There are circumstances where fighting just seems to be inevitable, and I don’t think the invasion of Afghanistan is such a circumstance. I think it’s more complicated than that. But I do think that there has to be — and it’s not just Afghanistan, if you talk about people throwing acid. It’s happening all over India in massive numbers, and it’s happening over a whole lot of Asia — seemingly countries where there’s a large Muslim presence, and I’m not sure whether that’s fair or not, because I don’t think it’s an exclusively Muslim practice in India by any means. But all of that part of the world seems to want to do that, and in India it’s not just about subjugating women — it’s women doing it to other women as well. So how do you address that? It’s utterly abhorrent, barbaric behaviour being carried out by people who should know better in this world. How can you be a human being and not know better than that? But I’m not them. I don’t live in their culture and I don’t know what they have to deal with. But at the same time, you can’t just say, oh, they do that over there and it’s OK.

The acid-throwing was just a case and point. There’s all kinds of bad things that get done in the world, including here. There’s lots of ways in which women are abused in North American culture, and in which especially poor people are abused in North American culture. We can’t hold ourselves apart from that kind of stuff, but at the same time whether we have the right to judge or not because of our own failings, it’s still wrong. So you don’t make a wrong better by saying, you go ahead and do what you gotta do [and] I’m going to just do my thing over here. It has to be addressed because the world is the world — it’s this little ball and we’re all on it. We’re too close to each other for that stuff to not be addressed.

JUSTIN BRAKE: The question of whether or not it’s right to make judgments of other cultural practices and values and so on, versus militarily intervening in other countries’ affairs — you acknowledged the hypocrisy of having problems here in Canada. Of course we have the major problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women, colonialism of course. There are lots of major human rights issues right here at home, and of course more [Canadian] Afghanistan veterans have died by suicide than actually died in combat, so we obviously haven’t taken care of the people who we did send to Afghanistan.

BRUCE COCKBURN: No. It’s disgraceful, actually. The hypocrisy runs very deep. It’s all over the whole political world, but our particular government at the moment has the burden of what to me is the very reprehensible mistreatment of the people that they got so gung-ho about supporting. I mean, Harper was so pro-war, so pro-military, for a minute or two. And then it ceased to be expedient or it ceased to be something for him, and all of a sudden: ‘Oh yeah, we’re not going to get those new helicopters after all, we’re not going to get this, we’re not going to get that.’ If you’re going to have an Army — which it’s hard to imagine a major country in the world not having one — you’re asking people to go out and take major chances on our country’s behalf, then give them what they need to do the job. What kind of crap is that? [Laughs.]

JUSTIN BRAKE: The question I was leading into there was, in light of the fact that we don’t look after our veterans and we have major human rights issues here in Canada, do you feel we have an obligation to address those before we engage in military operations elsewhere in order to tell other nations and cultures how they ought to be doing things?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, in a perfect world that would be how it [should work], but I think it’s never that clean and tidy. It would be great if you thought you could actually get that done in a reasonable amount of time, and then be able to turn your energy to doing good elsewhere. But that just doesn’t happen — the world is messier than that. So in the meantime I think you have to look for a balance, I think you have to look for some kind of healthy perspective there.

 I  think it would be naïve to assume that any government anywhere is ever going to do things for altruistic reasons. I don’t think governments work like that any more than business works like that.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to go to war, first of all, without some extremely serious consideration because it’s a horrible thing. But if you decide you’re going to go—I think it would be naïve to assume that any government anywhere is ever going to do things for altruistic reasons. I don’t think governments work like that any more than business works like that. I think that once in a while when government’s adopt policies or make moves that have a kind of humanitarian or altruistic spin-off, it’s only a spion-off. We didn’t go to war in Afghanistan because the Government of Canada was outraged at the treatment of Afghan women. It happens that that’s a component of it, but really those choices are made based on politics and power and money, more than on anything else. And you might drum up popular support if you can whip people up into some kind of fighting frenzy based on notions of humanitarianism and rescuing somebody, but that isn’t why we were there.

But it is a side-effect of us being there, and to me…it’s just the fact that we as human beings can’t countenance the evils that other people do anymore than we can countenance our own. So the fact that we might have some issues doesn’t mean that we can’t be addressing other people’s issues if it can work, if there’s some possibility of something good being done. I don’t know.

It’s easy enough to just start hating people and think that they should be out of the picture. I don’t take back what I said about aspects of certain cultures that seem to have no justification, in my worldview at least. The world doesn’t need people who do that kind of stuff; the world doesn’t need some ultra-orthodox Israelis stabbing people in a gay pride parade. I mean, who needs that shit? It’s there. I don’t know that the answer is to try and round up all the Israelis who might do that — in fact, I’m pretty darn sure that’s not the answer. But you can’t ignore it.

JUSTIN BRAKE: In the film you were asked about the environment and you said, “We’re f—ked.” [Laughs.] Pretty succinct, frank statement. You’ve had four decades to experience and reflect on the power of music, not only to communicate things but to change things. And there’s also another great quote from the film where you said:

It’s hard sometimes to feel like anything you do has any meaning, and when we all do it together it at least crates the illusion that it is meaningful, and you go away with that illusion and it kind of energizes you. And it may not be an illusion, of course, and we may get lucky and a decision-maker may actually be influenced by what goes on in things like this.

On the issue of music and activism … the things you saw when you went to Central America we’re [now] able to see on the Internet with the click of a button. We can stream live television feeds from almost anywhere and watch injustices going on all around the world. You would think there might be more of a protest music movement going on, or in arts more generally. But mainstream and popular music has no time for these injustices—

BRUCE COCKBURN: —No, and it never has. The mainstream of anything is essentially commercial and it’s going to offer what sells, or what could be marketed to someone else’s benefit. I mean, there are people who feel that protest is inappropriate no matter what, just because it’s not the place of musicians to do that sort of stuff. There are people who genuinely hold that point of view. I don’t, but there are those who do. And some of those people live in places where if you stick your head up out of the sand, someone chops it off. So, they can be forgiven for thinking that way. But some of them don’t live in places like that and they just make a choice, and everybody’s allowed to choose how they’re going to live.

 An individual song isn’t going to change the world, but a whole bunch of people singing about an issue and encouraging people to feel the truth of an issue might result in some sort of demographic of resistance that would then affect the choices that the politicians make. And I think that’s what we hope for.

But I think there’s a lot of stuff going on. At the grassroots level there’s all kinds of protest [movements] and all kinds of interest in issues, certainly among musicians and I guess in the rest of the population — but it doesn’t get the media coverage unless Bono does it, or somebody very high profile. But the cumulative effect has weight, I think, over time. It remains messy, everywhere you look.

An individual song isn’t going to change the world, but a whole bunch of people singing about an issue and encouraging people to feel the truth of an issue might result in some sort of demographic of resistance that would then affect the choices that the politicians make. And I think that’s what we hope for. That’s what the Occupy movement almost was, and to some extent actually was — the bankers got around that stuff, but it was a close one and it made a lot of people pay attention, and it was also the result of a lot of people who were paying attention, who were being affected by things or were empathizing with those who were. It’s the empathy — I guess that’s what songs can do, and what musicians can do. But I think a song is stronger if it comes from your own experience than if you write about theory, and that’s true of the stuff you see on the media.

Yes, you can go online and you can watch ISIS cut people’s heads off, and it’s outrageous and horrifying — but it’s not the same as being there, by a long shot, and it’s not the same as knowing the people who are involved by a long shot. You could meet those ISIS guys that turn out to be really nice, you could hang with them and talk about God and stuff and they’ll be great, chances are. But then they go and do that — it’s a very complicated thing. But if you’re going to be an artist writing about stuff like that you kind of have to know what it is. There’s probably a million exceptions to what I’m about to say, but I don’t think you can really produce art that’s just about stuff you’ve seen on TV. I think you kind of have to have a feel for it.

JUSTIN BRAKE: Last question for you. Are you following along with Canadian politics, with the federal election coming up?

BRUCE COCKBURN: In a general way, yes. There’s a lot of day-to-day stuff that I don’t get to see, but in a general way, yes. And I think we’ve got to get those buggers out. [Laughs.] If you want an opinion in a nutshell, that’s what it comes down to. One can wish for a stronger alternative to what I see there, but in the absence of that stronger alternative just get them out of there, because they’re damaging everything in sight. It’s like turning your house over to a tribe of termites. That’s what these guys are, so get them out.

Bruce Cockburn performs at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival on Saturday, Aug. 8. For more information, including ticket prices, visit the festival’s website.

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