Bruce Cockburn has been making and recording music for more than 50 years, releasing his first, self-titled LP in 1970. He’s released 38 albums, combining folk with jazz and worldbeat, even releasing an instrumental album, Speechless. His most recent album, O Sun O Moon, came out earlier this year via True North Records. His music has tackled a number of spiritual and political issues, always remaining topical and vital.
Bruce Cockburn plays the Warner Theatre in DC on Friday, June 9, along with fellow singer-songwriter Dar Williams.
I caught up with Bruce by phone from his home in California, where he now resides, to talk about his career, making music, parenthood, and a number of other topics. Originally, as he shared, he attended music school with the intention of becoming a jazz composer, but he dropped out amidst the influences of the mid-’60s. Listening to his music, especially his guitar playing, you can hear the influence of his professional training in his style and in the sophistication of his melodies.
Over the course of a 50-plus year career, everyone changes, and Bruce is no exception. When he first started out, he told me, his music was “very derivative,” which is common amongst writers in all genres and mediums. I mentioned that, along with derivativeness, beginning writers have a tendency to insert themselves into their work. He countered that songs, unlike stories, don’t tend to produce the same identification with the narrator, saying “I don’t assume the ‘I’ in a song is me.”
Speaking of derivativeness, I mentioned that, contrary to an assertion from Rodney Crowell, it’s not that no one else can write like Bob Dylan. Rather, the problem I suggested, is that Bob has doing the Bob thing for so long, and doing it so well, he’s largely exhausted that space for anyone else. “Sometimes,” Bruce said, “Bob seemed like he was just doing Bob. But the last record [2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways] was great.” He also said that part of what makes Bob great is his “wide knowledge, not just of American music but of things like baseball.” Subjects like baseball, I suggested, can allow the audience to connect, as opposed to more esoteric material — part of the secret of writing is that you have to draw people in.
Stream O Sun O Moon by Bruce Cockburn on Spotify:
Bruce bemoaned how derivative much of music is today, and how many “artists” make songs that are highly self-referential, boasting about their wealth and success. (I didn’t say this during the conversation, but I am reminded of a story about Stevie Van Zandt telling Bruce Springsteen, sometime in the ’80s, about how no one had any interest in his problems as a very wealthy, very successful person.) Especially because of the influence of social media, “people want to be stars rather an artists.” I agreed, mentioning how literary journals have been dealing with an influx of AI-generated content, because people want to be published, rather than being writers.
Bruce and I also talked about parenthood, and the experience of being a parent at different stages of life. Bruce has a grown daughter with four children of her own, but he also has an 11-year-old daughter. The experience of parenting in his late 20s and 30s has been very different from being a parent in his 60s and 70s. When he was younger, he was concerned that commitments to parenthood would “compromise my career.” These many years later, he said, “my career is established,” and he feels that he is a better father. This didn’t surprise me, as my relationship with my own father has improved greatly since he became financially secure and retired and is no longer anxious about his career. (I don’t imagine Bruce had this level of anxiety, but my father had frequent panic attacks that he was going to get fired, which was quite disconcerting for me as a child to witness.)
I was fascinated to learn that, like many who came of age in the 1960s, Bruce was an avid reader of the science-fiction author Harlan Ellison. Harlan came up when I mentioned a statement he made to the effect that “yes, everything bothers me,” which isn’t a particularly great way to go through life. I suggested, and Bruce agreed, that you have to learn to not get worked up about 95% of things in life, to save your energy for the roughly 5% of things that you really care the most about.
Bruce’s show with Dar Williams promises to be a great evening. If you enjoy folk or singer-songwriter music, it’s a night you shouldn’t miss.
Bruce Cockburn performs at the Warner Theatre on June 9.
w/ Dar Williams
Friday, June 9
Doors @ 7pm