Bruce Cockburn headlined the grand opening of City Winery Napa on April 10, 2014. Here are my preview and review in the Napa Valley Register, and my extended interview with the legendary Canadian folksinger.
DK: You’ve been touring for over forty years. Can you talk about how you stay fresh?
BC: Well I like what I do, that is part of it; it’s a big part of it actually. Like any other job, it has its ups and downs, but I am basically very happy to be able to do what I do for a living. You know, certain songs come and go. That’s another thing that fluctuates. Occasionally a song will just feel too stale to be able to pull it off with the necessary amount of conviction, and I’ll just have to let it lie for awhile. Generally after a period of time, from a few months to a couple of years, things come back. Sometimes on any given tour before it starts, I’ll be looking at the repertoire in a casual kind of way, just thinking if there is something else that I haven’t done for a long time that people would get a kick out of hearing.
So there are these kinds of little changes that happen. And from there, it is really just night to night. No matter how dragged out I might be, which I occasionally am getting to a gig, once I get on the stage and it is just between me and the people that are there, that goes away and it is replaced by what I perceive as a collective energy that happens with all of us in the room together. Then that gives it life and without the audience there it would be totally boring. I mean to sit around and play the songs to myself is useful, I do it all the time because I’ve got to keep in practice, but it is not satisfying the way it is when there is someone listening.
DK: Do you have any particular routine that you do to prepare to walk out and perform?
BC: Yeah. It is a pretty mundane ritual but basically it involves drinking a couple of glasses of wine and gargling with warm salt water.
I spend a lot of time sound checking which not all artists do. Some people don’t like to sound check. Some of the people that I know, for instance, will do the quickest possible sound check and get out of there, but I like doing a long sound check.
A guy who knew more than I did way back when I was first starting to play professionally—before the first time I played in a big place with a band, in a big theater, opening for Cream, and I was kind of nervous—he said, “What you do is you come in and you do your sound check, and while you are here, while you are doing your sound check, you just look around and feel the place and make it your home.” And so I started doing that and I continue to. I like to spend a lot of time doing a sound check partly because it is a good warm-up for me, and the older I get the more arthritic my hands get and the more warm-up I need. That piece of advice has been a guidepost for a long time and that is my way of making myself feel like I belong in the place I’m in.
DK: Do you have to be really intentional about taking care of yourself physically around your voice and your hands?
BC: Well yeah, the short answer is yes. The longer answer is, I pay more attention to it now than I used to.Especially the hands, I used to take that pretty much for granted.But you know in the last decade, they’ve gotten a little stiffer and it takes a little longer to get them going. I can still do what I need to do but it is different from how it was. I don’t do much about it really other than a couple of glasses of wine.
It is the voice, actually, that is the thing I spend more deliberate time before a show with. I don’t do anything for my voice in the meantime, like in between tours, but when I’m preparing for a show I do that, the gargling routine.I just try and clear it all out and get it loosened up. I don’t think my voice is the thing that people come to the shows for, but it has to be able to carry the tunes and so I work at it to make sure it can do that.
DK: I was watching your Pacing the Cage DVD. In there, Jackson Browne is sort of in a state of amazement about your guitar playing.He is a pretty exacting musician himself.I don’t think he is easily impressed. Could you talk just a little about your guitar playing, how your styling evolved, who you might identify as your influences?
BC: The original influences were—well, the very first thing was Elvis’ band, Scotty Moore who played guitar with Elvis. I didn’t know his name at the time when those records were new. I was completely captivated by that guitar playing and by rock and roll in general., the rock and roll of that era. So Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens, Duane Eddy, all that stuff. That was the music that made me want to be a guitar player.
So it starts there, but then very soon after that I started taking lessons. I got introduced to a broader range of music than I had listened to before, including jazz. This is still early and before I was out of high school, I had been introduced to folk music, country blues, and ragtime, this whole world of stuff that kind of all melded together. So at the same time that I was listening to what was then considered to be the cutting edge of jazz—this was in the early 60’s—I was also listening to Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The music, especially of the folk spectrum, that was offered was the stuff that I was most interested in, and so I absorbed a lot of guitar, a lot of right hand guitar stuff from Brownie Mcghee and Mississippi John Hurt.
Then on top of that, because I was listening to all the jazz and and eventually ended up going to music school to study that, the left hand part of the guitar playing got much more complicated than what those older guys that I mentioned were doing. The most distinct way I can describe what I do guitar-wise is an amalgam of that early acoustic blues kind of playing with a lot of elements of jazz and reggae and other music that came along, and rock and roll.
DK: There have been, obviously, themes in your song writing: politics—by that I mean politics in a broader sense, world affairs—and spirituality and relationships. Can you say anything about the content of your writing these days?
BC: The most recent songs are the songs that are on the most recent album (Small Source of Comfort, 2011). I’ve been working on a book. It is almost finished and it is going to come out in November. It’s a memoir like the rest of the world is doing. All the energy that would have gone into songwriting, all that word energy, has gone into the book, so I haven’t written any songs. I look forward to getting back to that slightly different mind modality that songwriting represents, because the book is beginning to be a pain in the ass.
The songs on that album, like the rest of the my songs, really come from various experiences and reactions to things. There is one song in particular, Each One Lost, from my visit to the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. There is an instrumental piece that is titled with an image from there. The rest of the songs on the album are kind of the usual hodgepodge of spiritual concern and observation and just kind of reactions to human stuff that I’m confronted by.
The one exception to all of that, I suppose, is Call Me Rose, in which I assume the persona of Richard Nixon having been reincarnated as a single mom living in the projects. I’ve never written a song like that before, and I probably never will again but but I woke up one morning with this song in my head, and I have no idea where it came from. Well, I do have an idea where it came from but I don’t know for sure. It came at a time that there had recently been what I perceived to be a media campaign promoted by conservative interests in the US to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. It just had all the ear marks of a PR campaign that someone had a budget for and when the budget ran out and it didn’t take, they just dropped it. So that is probably what put Richard Nixon in my mind.
DK: Each One Lost is a song I actually find hard to listen to because it is so painful and it feels so true and universal. It is at the same time incredibly simple and incredibly powerful. I looked at your recent set lists, over last year or two, and I noticed that you don’t do it live very much.
BC: No.For the same reason as you don’t like to listen to it. I like the song.I’m actually pretty proud of that song but I also find it painful to sing. It is the same with If I Had a Rocket Launcher, those are hard songs for me, because I have to go where I was when I wrote them.
DK: I didn’t want you to think that I didn’t like Each One Lost. It hurts to hear it and that is because it is so effective. There are very a few songs that have that kind of power.
BC: You know I cried for days after I wrote it. Every time I sang it, I couldn’t finish because I would be in tears. The event itself was so moving. That is really where the song gets its power. It is talking about something that is deeply painful for the people involved. These are people who signed up. The Canadian Army are not conscripts, these people signed up for that shit. But it is still brutally painful.
DK: Another question about distraction from song writing, other than trying to write a book. You are a relatively new dad. To what extent does that change your musical life?
BC: Well, it changes everything. It changes the amount of time I have to practice in a really big way, which is unfortunate but that is a fact of life. It makes that end of things less comfortable because I have to struggle for my little bits of practice time to get enough, you know. Otherwise it’s good. Other than that and the lack of sleep.
I mean it is kind of like no country for old men. I don’t have the energy I had for this when I was in my 30’s but I have a lot better perspective on it. The material world or whatever doesn’t matter as much as it did when I was younger. And issues in general, I mean everything, you have a different perspective on everything.
DK: Do you think that being a new father is likely to influence the content of your musical writing?
BC: I wouldn’t be surprised. The real answer to your question is I don’t know. I never really plan the content of my songs until I get an idea and start to run with it. So since all the ideas I have started to run with in the last couple of years have gone into the book, I wait with bated breath to find out what I will actually do once the book is out of the way, and I can go back to being a songwriter.