"Part of my job is to keep people awake"
Interview with Bruce Cockburn
By Robert Pally

Bruce Cockburn is on his 27th album as strong and committed as ever. In the interview talks Canadian about writer blockade, music as product, helplessness and success.

Right: Bruce Cockburn, photo by Bobbi Wisby

E.C.: "You have never seen everything" is already your 27th album. Have you ever thought that you would come that far?

Bruce: I never thought about it at all. I don't make long term plans. So when I started in 1970, I had no idea where I would go. Its amazing to me that I have been able to do the stuff I have done.

E.C.: So you are taking it step by step?

Bruce: Well, really its about the songs. They determine what shape the album will take. In the same way that the lyrics determine what kind of music they want. I start with the words and add music to those. When I have enough songs to make an album we go into the studio. Off course there are expectations from the record company about how many album I do and all that. But that's all very short term.

E.C.: Do you never run out of things to say?

Bruce: Sometimes, or at least not always of things to say but the way to say them. That's interesting. There have been a couple of periods where the creative flow has stopped. One of those was at the end of the 80ties and the other one was before I wrote the songs for this album. It seems like every 10 years I need to take a holiday.

E.C.: So that helps!!?!?

Bruce: The first time I was quite nervous about it. I didn't know what would happen. I thought before I go back to school and learn a new trade I will give myself some time off in case its just a burnout. Within a week of my sabbatical I started writing the songs that ended up on "Nothing but a burning light" (1991). This time I wasn't worried about it because I had been through that previous experience. I just knew that I had to take some time off. I did that and it helped - and so did the arrival on the scene of Andy Milne. He approached me about co writing some songs for an album he wanted to do. I never really done that kind of co writing before so I thought it would be an interesting thing to try. I hoped that it would get creative juices flow again - and it did.

E.C.: From what you do you could be a protest singer. Do you see yourself like that?

Bruce: No, I don't see myself as anything in particular. I just write what I think is true. I write about all the aspects of life that seem interesting enough or touch me deeply enough. I don't sit there and think I better write a song about the rainforest or I better write a song about globalization. These are things that are on my mind and effecting me emotionally and therefore they end up in my songs. But it's the same process as writing a song about sex or about spirituality.

E.C.: At least from what you do you are close to what a protest singer was in the 60ties.

Bruce: I am not protesting again anything. I don't even know what that word means. I know what it meant in the 60ties, it meant Phil Ochs. But I am not Phil Ochs. In the 60ties it was associated with things that I didn't like very much. For example that song "Eve of destruction" (Barry McGuire) was the "typo protest song". Its one of the worst songs ever written, in my opinion. So, I don't wanna be like that (laughs). To me my job is to write about life and all its aspects. The human condition. So when I write about things we call political, and this album for instances "Trickle down" that's because what's happening is an affront to human dignity. And its putting our whole ability to survive on this planet at risk. I am addressing that because I think its important. You can call that whatever you want. Luckily for me I don't have to come up with terms for what I do (laughs), I just do it. So if you need to call it something, just go ahead.

E.C.: People need names and drawers for music.

Bruce: Journalist do, that's for sure.

E.C.: I admit, that's true. But people want to know what kind of music someone plays.

Bruce: I understand that you need to do that. My life would have been a lot simpler if I had been able to apply a label to my music early on. Its very eclectic music and I don't have a good thing to call it. I can't offer you an alternative (laughs).

E.C.: I still think that you are unique as a person. You and your music are real. Music in these days has become more of a product. How do you feel living in times like this?

Bruce: I don't care about it too much. It's a fact of life that I can't do anything against for one thing. When I started there were the People that I thought where doing "real stuff" and there were the people that were commercial. And in those days that was the language we used. It wasn't that they were manufactured the way they are now but they worked with the same mentality. They didn't have the system as refined. My friends and I were interested in the folk music in the sixties. We tried very hard to distance ourselves from commercial folk acts like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary. We looked down our noses at them and we didn't wanna be associated with them in any way. There was a kind of a underground quality about our whole scene. That's where I started. So it doesn't feel strange to be in the underground now. But I am less underground than I probably expected to be if I thought about it at all. There will always be a tension between the music as a commodity and the music as a means of communicating reality. If I come down on the side trying to communicate reality I am gonna be at odds with the commercial world. To a great extent I have to say thank you to my manager Bernie Finkelstein. Who has been able to navigate me through this waters all this years. I can make a living and I have a certain public and so. It's not obvious that someone like me would have that. I am not alone. There are others, for example Ani DiFranco, probably the most high profile artists, who is in a kind of a similar category like me. And there are other artists that are doing good things. I think, the more you get that corporate assimilation of culture and the exploitation of culture, the more you get resistant to it too. Because it gets boring. There is a whole of people out there that are totally bored with girl groups and boy groups. They are not the majority but there is enough of them that they can feed people like me (laughs).

E.C.: What do you think about Napster and Kazaa?

Bruce: I don't care too much about it. Really, I think that the young artist gonna figure out how to get paid. I don't think that its gonna be too far before we figure how to make it work. And I think in principal: music should be available to everybody. It makes sense. The problem is if artist can afford to make music you will end up in a dead end. Somehow we have to figure out how the artists get paid.

E.C.: What means success for you?

Bruce: That is also something I don't think about much. Success as an artist to me would be…….Well, in some ways I feel I got that already because I have the ability to do what I think I need to do creatively and make a living doing it. I don't use the word success in my own vocabulary but if I had to use it I would apply it to my growth as a writer and performer. When we finish a show and the audience liked it, that feels like success. We come of stage and whole room is full of good energy. Although that's a fairly fragile thing. But it happens often enough (smile).

E.C.: "You have never seen everything" contains some provocative and polemic songs. Is this the last means to express ones helplessness?

Bruce: Well, I suppose in a song like "All our dark tomorrows" its an expression of helplessness in some way. But I don't feel helpless. I feel like kickin ass (laughs). Part of my job is to keep people awake. Right now the way things are the kind of thing has 2 functions, aside of touching people and communicating. One of this functions is to keep people awake, to remind people that there are things they need to pay attention to. Everything around us, especially here in northern America is designed to kill our senses and kill our awareness of what's going on. And what's the other? Sorry, but I lost it. It might get back to me later.

E.C.: Some of the songs "You have never seen everything" sound pretty jazzy. This influence was there before but at least for me its more obvious now.

Bruce: Its partly because of Andy Milne. He is a young jazz pianist based in New York. Andy is a very gifted composer. His albums are very interesting. We wrote those 2 songs together, "Trickle down" and "Everywhere dance". We played them on his album and I wanted him to be part of my recording as well. Andy also played also on the title song. The jazz influence has partly to do with me getting a better musician. If I live long enough I will probably get a Jazz musician.

E.C.: What triggered the album title "You have never seen everything"?

Bruce: Off course the song with the same name. The song represents a kind of a response to a lot of dark things. All of the things in the song are real. I didn't make them up. The car accident that is described, for instance. I drove by that accident on the way home from the first day of recording my last album. I looked in the paper the next day to see what this spectacular accident was. A guy had killed his mother with a pitchfork. That is so surreal to me. A lot of the things in this song are like that. They add up to certain aspect of the world, a dark aspect. We can all be mislead by that darkness. How do you respond to that kind of stuff? Do you get cynical, fearful? All this things are essentially useless responses. What the song does in a kind of backwards ways is try to point to the fact that the light is there all the time, even if this terrible things are happening.

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