Bruce Cockburn: Canadian songsmith up against a corporate world

Saturday 1st September 1990

James Attlee interviewed one of the best songwriters of the past two decades BRUCE COCKBURN.

Bruce Cockburn
Bruce Cockburn

At least the girl on the desk at the hotel knew his name - but then she was Canadian. "Bruce Cockburn is staying in this hotel? You don't say? Oh yeah, Bruce is real popular in Canada, mainly when he was playing bars in Toronto." That's fame.

The man in question is in the bar applying crazy-glue to his fingernails to keep them in one piece - he is doing a series of radio shows and the usual guitarist's wear and tear is beginning to take its toll.

In close up, 20 years on the road have left their mark on his face as well, but he still looks fairly youthful in his rock and roll threads - like a junior college professor dressed in leather. Appropriate really for a man who makes music for the head as well as the feet.

And what music it is too. Despite the lengthy career, or perhaps because of it, Cockburn today is performing and recording at the height of his powers. There can be few artists currently active who combine such memorable tunes with such incisive lyrics...lyrics that come to grips with social issues in a way that's both angry and compassionate. Of course these days its all the rage for pop word-smiths to come over concerned about all manner of (forest burning) issues, but it has to be said, Cockburn's been at it longer than most. Who else do you know who could write a song about the effects of the IMF's economic policies on the Third World, to a tune that you can't stop humming in the bath?

Why isn't the man famous, I hear you ask? Perhaps it's had something to do with his determination to continue recording with a small Canadian independent label throughout his career, with all the attendant distribution hassles that has brought around the globe. Perhaps it's because he doesn't jump through the media hoops - the rock press, apart from the occasional eulogy, has largely ignored him. Maybe it's the fact that his live appearances have been so sporadic in this country - two highly lauded shows at Greenbelt, the Christian Arts Festival, have won him a loyal cult following that is guaranteed to pack out his occasional club dates but little more. Cockburn completed a punishing World Tour in 1989 and has just released a superb live album.

Judging by the date sheet reproduced on the back of your live album, you were pretty busy last year.

"I was very busy, and as a consequence I'm not at all busy this year - except for these two weeks in Europe.
I'm not gigging at all; it's a kind of sabbatical year to get some writing done and let the accumulated baggage of the last five years or so drop off. Since about 1983 I've been on the go non stop - not all of it musical touring, some of it's been development related travelling in the Third World - but it's been a very intense period, so I'll forgive myself for needing a year off."

It must be hard to write new material when you're playing 12 countries in nine months.

"It depends how you're doing them. Last year it was impossible to write anything - I didn't even worry about it. Previous to that I'd been through a year like that and I got really nervous about not writing that time, but then after a while the songs just started coming. That seems to be the pattern now - to work for some intensive period and then do something else. In the previous case it was a trip to Nepal for a Canadian development agency that spurred the writing - finding myself in surroundings that were new and stimulating."

Your travels in the Third World have coloured much of your recent work. In retrospect would you see your first trip to Nicaragua in 1983 as seminal in your life?

"In a certain way it was, in that it crystallised the change in attitude that was already taking place in me. That was a move away from the luxury of being able to think that art and politics should not be mixed, and also that political action was of no value - that it made no difference.

"Nicaragua was a good example at that point of the opposite - people had taken things into their own hands and visibly changed them. I said to myself "here's some people with some confidence and some sense of hope'."

We've had our share of revolutions this side of the water in the last year or so. Do you think it significant that the new leaders emerging in Eastern Europe include so many artists - a playwright in Czechoslovakia, a violinist in Lithuania..?

"At least it's an indication of some kind of hopefulness because if a society feels comfortable being led by creative people that says something about that society. I'm not sure how long these creative governors will be able to make it work in the new democracies though, because they're going to be up against a corporate world and a corporate world has very little tolerance for creative thinking."

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