Imagine having a 50-year career as a musician without ever feeling the need to acquiesce to industry demands. You could write what you want, play what you want, and remain completely unencumbered by outside expectations. The only requirement is that you follow your muse and believe that style only matters if you have the substance to back it up.
Such a scenario could be difficult to envision given how much life has changed in 2019, but that’s exactly the kind of impression that Bruce Cockburn has left on the world since releasing his self-titled debut in 1970. His expressive playing, acerbic songwriting, and willingness to dive deep into the heart of the human condition have made him one of the most treasured artists in the history of Canadian music.
It’s not his fault that American audiences are fickle and yet to fully appreciate the breadth of his talent, because great songs are like Ray Kinsella’s baseball field. If you write them, people will eventually come, and Cockburn has written a ton of them throughout the years.
He’ll put some of them on display when he stops at Babeville on May 8 for his first show in western New York since 2015. I had the honor of speaking with him recently about his career and other projects he’s been involved with as of late, so, if you haven’t gotten your ticket yet, now’s the time.
MNOD: Your upcoming album “Crowing Ignites” is an instrumental collection. What was the inspiration for that?
Cockburn: We actually did an instrumental record called “Speechless” back in 2005, so the new album felt like Volume 2 of that. We had so much new stuff that we were working on that the inspiration just came from the music itself. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.
MNOD: You’ve had a great musical relationship with Colin Linden for many years. What does he bring to the table as a producer that works so well?
Cockburn: I’ve been working with Colin for 25 years now and our friendship has been great. We have a familiarity with each other that works well and he’s also a great guitar player. We had one track where I played slide guitar and he played mandolin, so it’s easy to construct duets. He’s fun to work with in the studio, because he’s knowledgeable about many of the technical aspects of recording that I’m not.
MNOD: Will you be playing any of the new tracks on the upcoming tour?
Cockburn: Possibly. I haven’t decided yet, but there’s certainly a chance that some of them will pop up. The album is scheduled to come out in September and the ensuing tour will definitely feature them. As for the upcoming shows, they’ll be structured to feature a cross section of my career. In addition to the Buffalo show, I also have some festivals across Canada lined up for the summer.
MNOD: Growing up in the Buffalo area meant that I was exposed to your music early on through a lot of Canadian radio stations and “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” was one of the first albums I ever got into as a kid. How do you feel about that album today?
Cockburn: It’s a good album. I don’t sit around listening to my old stuff today, but I’m certainly proud of the way it turned out. They say that you get one great album per decade and “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” was a great way to cap off the ’70s for me.
MNOD: You’ve always had an intricate picking style on the acoustic guitar and I was wondering if you’ve been forced to alter your playing at all as you’ve gotten older.
Cockburn: A little bit. I have arthritis and certain joints have begun to seize up, but my style hasn’t changed all that much. My doctor told me that I have however many years left to play and that was a few years ago already. I always thought that I would have to learn to play slide guitar at some point. I can still play most of my early material the same way I always did, though.
MNOD: People often refer to you as an activist, but that label tends to get tossed around a lot. Was writing about humanitarian causes something that you were naturally drawn to or did you become interested in politics later on?
Cockburn: I was somewhat aware of the world when I was younger. I grew up in a politically liberal household and my interest in social causes came along bit by bit as I got older. The more I traveled, the more I began to realize that other cultures didn’t necessarily benefit from the same things that I did. I became acquainted with people from different backgrounds who began to influence my way of thinking about the world and critics tend to label you as an activist without really understanding that it all starts with a song. I write about what naturally moves or interests me and not necessarily with activism in mind specifically.
MNOD: What did you learn about yourself from traveling to places that most people never get to experience in their lifetime?
Cockburn: The biggest thing I learned is that your baggage goes with you. The obvious element is that I learned about my relationship to the world and how certain people are forced to live in various circumstances. I spent the first half of the ’70s traveling across Canada, which was much different than what we had always learned as children. The truth about how the First Nations of Canada were treated was the beginning of it for me. Traveling also brings you face-to-face with the fragility of democracy and the fragility of nature. A lot of economic and environmental policies have come back to bite us big time, and the impact of development on the natural world is something we can’t ignore.
MNOD: How did you come to live in San Francisco?
Cockburn: My wife got a job here, so it wasn’t my choice. We’ve been out here 10 years now and it’s our home. I never really thought of myself as living on the west coast and maybe the economy will eventually push us out. The scene has changed. When we first moved here, I felt like we arrived just as the last vestiges of the old San Francisco were dying off. Now, the cost of living is very expensive and it’s become culturally one-dimensional in a lot of ways.
MNOD: “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is a song that has stood the test of time and continued to assume a deeper significance along the way. What does the song mean to you today?
Cockburn: That’s one of the songs that people have latched onto, because it says something worth saying. Its popularity shows that other people feel the same way. My original motivation was thinking about what kind of world I was passing along to my daughter, who was 7 at the time. I grew up with The Bomb and air raid drills. The teacher would blow a whistle and we would have to hide under our desks. If you think about it, we would have been killed by the shredded glass alone, which makes the whole thing ridiculous. The threat of atomic war never went away and then the AIDS crisis happened to add another layer to the song’s premise. It was essentially asking the question of how we find love in a world where the person we love could be infected with a fatal disease, but there’s also a sense of hope that can’t be ignored. There’s always room for hope.
MNOD: What are your thoughts on how the music industry has changed since you first started out?
Cockburn: I don’t pay any attention to the industry today, so I can’t really answer that. I just do what I do and that’s it. My daughter will play songs on Spotify that I’ll inevitably be exposed to, but I don’t really know if I like any of it. I’ve heard Katy Perry and she seems to have some substance. I’ll also hear songs while driving or passing by somewhere, but I can’t say whether or not they’re really any good. If anything, the current industry has illustrated how large the social gap between the stinking rich and the rest of us has really become. You have the Kardashians or other tabloid people who have a hunger for notoriety and that has nothing at all to do with me. They couldn’t care less if I’m listening or not. If I had to give advice to someone getting started today, I’m not sure that I could, because it’s not 1964. The way we communicate in civilized life has changed completely due to the Internet and social media. Then again, I’ve always enjoyed the luxury of having a very capable manager who knows the ins and outs of the industry, so I don’t have to worry too much about the changes.
MNOD: Christianity has often been an important source of inspiration for you. What is your relationship to religion today?
Cockburn: I became a Christian in the early ’70s and it’s kind of been waxing away through the decades, but spirituality is still important to me.
MNOD: Is there anything that you’d still like to accomplish in your career?
Cockburn: I’ve never looked at my career in terms of accomplishments. I just want to keep on making music. What I’m doing now isn’t worlds away from what I’ve always done, but I can continue to incorporate different styles. That’s about the closest to ambition that I get.
Bruce Cockburn plays Asbury Hall at Babeville on May 8.
His new album, “Crowing Ignites,” is tentatively scheduled for release in September 2019.