Music Notes: Cockburn’s Cosmos

by Steve Houk

Bruce Cockburn has used his ever-evolving faith and passion to craft brilliant music for 40 years. 

(Photo by Kevin Kelly)

(Photo by Kevin Kelly)

Talking to the brilliant Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, you get the standard share of chit chat about what he’s up to, when we might get a long awaited new record (he’ll finally be able get to it now that he has wrapped up his memoir) and what’s the skinny with the current tour (he starts it off solo followed by a month playing with his trio, including a gig at the legendary Birchmere on August 21st).

But one thing is certain about a conversation with Cockburn: he never wallows in everyday musician minutia. Mention his faith as it relates to his songwriting, for example, and whoa, you’re hit between the eyes and the brain with some of the most thought-provoking revelations that you’ll ever hear from anyone, let alone a world class musician. Check this out.

“When I read the news and look around at a lot of the crap that goes on in the world, it doesn’t seem like a very loving place,” Cockburn said. “But somehow the cosmos is filled with love. And whether you attach that to a set of religious beliefs or not, or whether you want to view it in strictly materialistic terms, it’s the action of cosmic rays on your microtubules…or whatever…it doesn’t change it.  And I feel like what’s good about that, from someone else’s point of view, is because I’ve been given the ability, such as it is, to write songs, and I can share it with people whose skepticism parallels my own. I didn’t grow up in a faith – it’s different for people who grew up believing.”

That pretty much defines Bruce Cockburn. You ask a question and you get…an answer. He is just like that, very down to earth and affable, yet also existing somewhere high up in the cosmos, wielding his masterful songwriting and guitar playing gifts in an ongoing ethereal journey into the depths of man’s faith, spirit, struggles and triumphs. And lucky for us, he’s been passing on his passionate visions to his audience for 40 years now through a sweepingly poetic and majestic tapestry of rock, jazz and folk landscapes. It’s material that certainly rivals the overall prowess of fellow Canadian songwriting icons like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, though unlike them, he’s remained just under the radar of the masses. But he is equally revered by those who have taken the time to drink in his brilliance.

Cockburn, 69, has quietly spent the last four decades creating his own brand of unique and unforgettable music, around 25 albums worth, that spans the spectrum of moods and topics, from love to war; from human rights to the environment; from wondering what he’d do if he had a rocket launcher to wondering if a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear it? No matter what the genre, theme or style, Cockburn has put his indelible and unique stamp on it. Lucky for his fans, right now his personal footprint is as prominent as ever, with an excellent film bio “Pacing The Cage” recently out on DVD. “There should have been somebody in the film who said ‘Ahh, the guy’s a piece of shit’ to give it an edge,” Cockburn quips, “but given that’s not there, it went pretty well I think.” His aforementioned memoir “Rumours of Glory” is due out November 4th.

Cockburn is a product of the musically and politically explosive ’60s, where after a brief stint at the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston, he spent time in a couple fledgling Canadian bands, and then in 1968 branched out on his own; he’s been flying solo ever since. But that was no surprise to Cockburn, who could see the songwriting on the wall early on.

“Toward the end of the [’60s], I felt like I had this body of material that just sounded better when I did it alone than with any of the bands that I was playing with,” Cockburn said. “And I was getting tired of the noise. It was a combination of the sort of fatigue that comes from having to compromise musically all the time, and having no money. I realized that as well as this core group of songs sounding better solo, that I’d be more mobile and flexible and able to do everything that came up. I knew that I was gonna quit at some point, and step out on my own, and that’s kinda what happened.”

Since his humble beginnings in those struggling bands warming up heavies like Cream, Jim Hendrix and the Lovin Spoonful, but never gaining traction, the solo Cockburn has built a sizable core following worldwide with exhaustive touring, intimately addressing subjects both very personal and  highly political, while also becoming a passionate advocate for a myriad of important causes. But it’s almost impossible to say what Bruce Cockburn is more accomplished at: writing incredibly well-crafted songs, singing in a distinctive voice unlike any other, or playing  like a virtuoso on guitar. Well, a variety of guitars actually. The first time I saw him live back in the ’80s in NYC, he was surrounded by 10 to 12 emerald green guitars of different shapes and sizes, and he played every one of them better than the one before. It was a stunning introduction to what has become a 30-year Cockburn fascination.

As for the Cockburn songwriting process, it begins with his luminous and expansive thoughts and images, and then the glorious music he creates becomes the bed the lyrics lie upon. “It starts with words, and then the music has to create a field in which those words can exist,” Cockburn told me from California recently. “I often compare it to scoring a film, where you have images, you have situations, you have whatever that needs to be supported by the music, but not distracted by it. That’s the challenge and that’s the starting point of how to go at it. I’ll play around with the guitar as much as I can and things pop up. Sometimes it’s just the lyrics sitting there, and then I just grab a guitar and start hunting for things that work.”

Cockburn is in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and is a member of the Order of Canada, accolades he certainly appreciates. But amid the high recognition and adoration from his devoted fan base, Cockburn has grappled with big questions, like those surrounding his perspectives on religion, of which there is a thread throughout some of his work. Ultimately he chooses to use his music to start the conversation and then let others finish it to see how it affects them, rather than foist his opinions on the listener.

“My parents did their best to teach us to be Christians, but their faith was not deep,” Cockburn said. “They tried and they dropped away from it themselves and so did we. You get all the trappings, the language, and the imagery, but not the meaning. I had that in common with most of my peers, and most of us had this skepticism about traditional religion. So my own experience, to the extent I can convey that, can say to people, hey look, there’s more to this than we thought, and it’s worth paying attention to. Even in the most materialistic world view, there is still that capacity for ecstasy in the face of the scale of the cosmos.”


Bruce Cockburn appears Thursday August 21st at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt Vernon Ave, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for and his own blog at He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind.

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