Folk singer Bruce Cockburn talks about career, concert in Waterville


Bruce Cockburn Photo by Daniel Keebler

When it comes to Canadian singer-songwriters, two names stand out: Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn. The latter of the two has over five decades of excellence under his belt and recently released his 35th album which happens to be a double CD titled “Greatest Hits” in 2021. I had the pleasure and honor to chat with the award-winning folk singer who has won several times over his career – the first conversation coincided with his appearances at the Maine Center for the Arts and Merrill Auditorium on the “Stealing Fire” tour in 1984 and the most recent was an interview in 2019 – and when I found out he was returning to Maine for a performance at the Waterville Opera House, it seemed fair and appropriate to see if he would be willing to speak to me one more time, luckily he was , and on February 1, Cockburn called me from San Francisco and we talked for 24 minutes. I watched him come back to my righteous state again…

Cockburn: Yes, I can’t wait to be there too, I hope! I’m crossing my fingers that everything goes as it should.

Q: You’ve played at the Waterville Opera before, haven’t you?
Cockburn: Sounds familiar, I don’t specifically remember the location, but I’m pretty sure I have, the name is familiar, yeah.

Q: Well, given how long you’re doing, it’s completely understandable that there are gaps in your memory.
Cockburn: (Laughs) I never remember places very well unless I’ve been there dozens of times, but the guys on the team all remember everything. I remember going in the back door, I almost never see the front of the room and then it’s the dressing room and then I go on stage and I see a big black pit with people in it, so I don’t tend to remember places too well (laughs).

Q: Will it be a solo performance or will you have a backing band?
Cockburn: It’ll be solo, my pattern is when we release a new album, that doesn’t apply to the most recent album which is an instrumental thing, “Crowing Ignites”, there will be a band tour because we want to be able to present the music as it appears on the album, as much as possible. But in between, I mostly do solo work, it’s simpler and more thoughtful, and in COVID worlds, there’s less at stake for everyone.

Q: That’s right, and by being the sole performer, you have the flexibility to go where the audience and your muse take you, no set list required, so one less thing to worry about.
Cockburn: Yeah, I mean, I can do it and I have, but I tend to make a set list and stick to it. Once I know a group of songs works well together, what works with one audience usually works with another, and it’s easier for the technicians to know what’s next.

Q: I had never thought about this aspect of soloing before, it makes sense. I recently interviewed Livingston Taylor who also performs solo here, he’s 50 like you, and I’ve been in music journalism for just as long.
Cockburn: We all age wonderfully, don’t we (laughs)!

Q: Why, yes, yes, we are! (laughs) Now, are you working on anything new? You mentioned an instrumental album, is a song based album a possibility?
Cockburn: Yeah (pause), well, we’re working on it in the sense that we haven’t recorded anything yet. I have nine new songs, and actually I think I may have had a 10th since yesterday, so we’re almost there, ready to hit the studio and start over. I’m looking forward to that, in fact, a lot, I want to release those songs. We put out a little demo video of the first four of the new songs last spring, it’s just called “Four New Songs” and it’s on YouTube, I think. But the others have since been written and there are one or two in the series.

Q: Oh good!
Cockburn: Well, all of my shows have been structured the same way in that there’s always a couple new songs and old songs mixed in, sometimes the new songs are songs that just came out on an album, but I have always included a cross section of older material. And this tour, the 50th anniversary and everything, obviously that aspect is underlined, but it’s really the same as all my concerts. I have a few new songs that I want to sing for people and I kind of picked a different collection of older songs that I haven’t done in a while, some of them in a really long time.

Q: Is songwriting easy for you?
Cockburn: It depends on the song. The latter seems to go quite easily. There are some songs that come out on their own, much like Athena from the Head of Zeus, other songs take a lot of work over time, and these are less satisfying to write and less fun. But sometimes that’s also what to write. The songs that come out almost spontaneously are probably also the ones that people identify with the most.

Q: Now, just out of curiosity, and I probably know the answer to this, what can people expect from your show at Waterville Opera?
Cockburn: Well, a few new songs, a lot of guitar, a lot of words and guitar (laughs), that’s basically what came out of me during the show. There are, like I said, older songs that people haven’t heard me do in a while, and there are certain songs that I think need to be in a show. People pay for tickets and they want to hear at least some of the songs they want to hear, so I want to give them some of those songs. But I don’t want to do a whole show with nothing but that because it gets boring for everyone.

Q: The songs you’ve been doing for a long time, do they ever change during that time, I don’t mean lyrically, of course, but rhythmically, for example?
Cockburn: Occasionally, but not often. I mean, when I write a song, the approach is kind of written into it, but every once in a while circumstances call for something different.

Q: Is there anything Bruce that you would like me to pass on to people reading this article?
Cockburn: Come many and we will all have a good time (laughs). What I’ve been looking forward to most from all of this, what I’ve been missing for a few years, really, is the feeling of a shared experience that just comes from being in a concert setting. You know, I can play music for myself anytime, but it only comes alive when it’s a way for all of us to sit down and feel like we’re doing something together, that’s one of the things that I hope people will take out of the experience of being there.

Lucky Clark, winner of the 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” award, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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