24 Seconds with the great Bruce Cockburn
Bruce Cockburn performs. GETTY IMAGES
Bruce Cockburn is one of Canada’s elder statesmen of song. Joe Leary spent 24 Seconds with the iconic Canadian singer/songwriter.
24: You’ve been doing this for 40 years and have released 30 albums or so. Does it seem like you’ve really been at it this long?
BC: It depends on where you start counting. I kind of date my professional career from the beginning of 1966, which makes it 50 years and 31 albums officially but some of them are compilations. It’s been quite a run so far and it doesn’t seem like it’s over yet, which I’m grateful for.
24: I was surprised to learn that back in your group era, your band Olivus actually opened for Jimi Hendrix and Cream. How did that come about?
BC: The bands I was in were rock bands and they varied stylistically. The first band was sort of ‘Beatles-y’ oriented singer/songwriter band. I’m kind of understating it somewhat — it was a broader range of stuff than that makes it sound but just for the sake of the conversation that was The Children in Ottawa. I was in a couple of other bands and then I went to Toronto and joined the band that was originally called The Flying Circus and then became Olivus. That band opened for Jimi Hendrix in Montreal and for Cream in Ottawa but the band couldn’t make up its mind — the organ player was a big fan of Garth Hudson and would have like our group to go in the direction of The Band and I wanted to be more like Frank Zappa and the drummer and bass player were coming from an R&B place. We had all of those elements in there and I injected as much psychedelia as I had the chops to pull off I guess, as the rest of them were willing to accommodate. Actually we got reviewed in a Montreal paper and the guy said that if it had been anybody other than Hendrix and Soft Machine that we were opening for we would have ended up stealing the evening; which I think is a measure of how much that guy smoked (laughs). We opened for Wilson Pickett in Toronto and the audience was not into our kind of music at all; two songs in their yelling at us and shaking their fists. That was a short set. We didn’t have very many gigs but the ones we did have were kind of spectacular.
24: Did you feel confined in the group environment and want to go solo?
BC: When I dropped out of Berklee School of Music and joined that first band, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what my direction was supposed to be. The only thing I knew was it wasn’t was I was learning in Berklee. So I joined this band and I started writing songs in earnest at that point. By the end of the sixties I had a little body of songs that I liked better when I played them alone than with any of the bands that I had been in. The songs were the product of trying to write for each of the different bands so there was quite a wide variety but the ones I liked best just sounded best when I just played them. I was also getting tired of big long, wanky guitar solos; not tired of playing them particularly but tired of hearing them and I thought that I probably wasn’t alone in that and I thought there must be an audience for the kinds of songs that these represented; basically what’s on the first two albums. I went solo and initially just played little gigs in little clubs and it kind of expanded from there.
24: The music business you embarked upon is completely different than the one we see today. Back in the day one needed to be signed to a label and the record label needed to get radio play. What do you think of the way the business is today?
BC: Well it’s certainly different. I’m not involved in it enough at the starting level to really have much of a say to the extent of what the difference is and the fact that there obviously aren’t record companies offering record deals and if they are, it’s extortion to the extent of publishing and so on. Unless you’re the type of artist who’s really aimed at mass commercial radio, you’re on your own basically. That was to some extent the same back in the day because in Canada at least, there weren’t very many record companies; in fact there were no Canadian record companies other than independents that weren’t interest in Canadian talent at all in the sixties. One or two people maybe leaked through in spite of that; Bobby Curtola from Thunder Bay had a hit; the Beau Marks from Montreal had a big hit around the world in ‘Clap Your Hands’ and Paul Anka of course but that was really rare. It took awhile for there to be enough momentum in the Canadian scene; it took the CRTC regulations in fact to get the business going to push radio to play Canadian stuff and it worked. I’m not really in favour of government intervention but it worked.
24: You were one of the artists getting radio play before it became mandatory.
BC: I was getting a limited amount of play before those rules came into effect but I’ve never been motivated by stuff like radio play or awards or that whole end of things but there are people and really legitimate artists who really do think about those things. For me it was all about the songs about living a life that would allow me to find fodder for the songs in a way. I didn’t think of it consciously like that but that’s what it amounted to. So I didn’t want to get in on playing the success game for wont of a better way to put it. Luckily I hooked up with Bernie Finkelstein and he did want to play that game so it kind of worked out because he was very good at that and is still and I was able to offer him enough ammunition that he could play the game well. What artists now are facing is something that’s pretty intimidating in a way because it’s not hard to get your stuff out there; everybody can make a record in their bedroom and put it out but to get anybody to notice it to be able to make a living off of it is a whole other thing. In other words; like getting paid. It’s one thing to have your song everywhere but how does that translate into making a living and I don’t think anybody’s really figured that out yet. Maybe I’m behind the curve and there are theories now that can be applied. I hope so because otherwise it’s not a very attractive picture. The thing that’s missing from the equation is money and to me the important thing about the money is the ability to pay musicians. Not every record wants to be made in a bedroom. Sometimes you want to make it in a good studio; sometimes you want to have an orchestra or horn players or something and where do they come from? Somebody has to pay for that and traditionally it was paid for by record companies who then got their money back from selling the records to the public. That only works for a very few people now. The audience is being deprived of a great variety of stuff that they might like. I feel for people starting out. I remember when the coffee house era ended, suddenly there was an absolute sense of rooms in which people really listened to the music. In bars people were noisy and it changed songwriting because the songwriters couldn’t expect to have an attentive audience and those that didn’t want to make that change had to struggle with the presence of noise and whatever else adverse working conditions. That was one thing but we all kind of got over that but this is a whole other ballgame; the interface between art and technological culture.
24: You’ve always been an artist with a strong social conscience. Has that ever inhibited perhaps some of the access to your music whereas the content might steer someone away because it was considered too political?
BC: I think there’s been a little bit of that but I don’t think I’ve suffered greatly from it. The point being ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher’ and ‘If a Tree Falls’; those kind of songs have done well and I didn’t find any great resistance that I saw. The people in the trenches; the sales people may have I don’t know but I didn’t feel that coming back at me. With very few exceptions that I am aware it really hasn’t hurt me.
24: When you have songs like ‘Rocket Launcher’ and ‘Wondering Where the Lions Are’; songs that have become Canadian standards, does it ever frustrate you as an artist because that’s obviously what people know you best for but perhaps in your estimation you’re probably thinking there’s much better material on deeper cuts on the albums.
BC: The regrettable part of that picture might be that people don’t get to hear some of those songs and then make a choice. It’s just a fact of life. To the extent that radio’s been a part of my career for wont of a better thing to call it, radio obviously can’t play everything. Even the most enlightened freest form radio can’t play everything so people are going to be attached to the things that they hear repeatedly; hopefully something will catch their ear and maybe they’ll come out to a show and they get to hear the other stuff and even more hopefully they’ll buy the record but nowadays that’s a bit of a forlorn hope because people just download the tracks they want and there are no deeper cuts but we’ll see what happens with my next album because I’ll be swimming in that same sea.