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Cover Story – Bruce Cockburn – Jul/Aug2016

Cover Story - Bruce Cockburn - Jul/Aug2016

By Cece Scott

“I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren’t half as frightening as they were before
But I’m thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me” – Wondering Where the Lions Are, 1979

Singer, songwriter, poet, activist and Canadian Music Hall of Famer, Bruce Cockburn has shared concert stages all over the world with the likes of the iconic Jimi Hendrix and British rock super group Cream.

A ‘folker’ and a ‘rocker,’ Cockburn studied music at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. He began his musical career in the late 1960s, singing and playing guitar in Ottawa-based bands, ‘The Children’ (1966), and ‘The Esquires’ (1967), before heading to Toronto to form ‘The Flying Circus’ (later known as ‘Olivus’). In 1969, Cockburn struck out on the solo career that would bring him the affirmation and approval from a world, in which he says, he felt like a stranger in a strange place.

Cockburn’s Canadian star was launched after playing at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1967, and then headlining the festival in 1969. It would be another ten years before Cockburn’s international star shot through the stratosphere south of the border with the release of ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws,’ featuring the hit single “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a song that reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It was a time of accelerating fame for Cockburn, but one that was not without its difficulties. “I felt very much like an outsider,” Cockburn says of that time.

“It had to do with being cut off from my feelings. My family got along fine but we weren’t close emotionally. I had trouble getting my feelings out, a lot of it around relationships. I really didn’t understand anything about anything.”

It was with some irony that Cockburn read a reporter’s review in the 1970s that said, ‘Cockburn presents soft music and is soft-spoken, but there is a seething undercurrent of rage.’ The singer found this very perceptive and interesting, considering that he wove together such hope-inspired lyrics as:
Behind the pain/fear
Etched on the faces
Something is shining
Like gold but better
Rumours of glory

- Rumours of Glory, 1980

Also in the 1970s, Cockburn’s sense of social engagement began to evolve with the discovery of his Native peers in Western Canada. He lent his voice to a number of causes including the refugee plight in Central America and the Haida peoples’ struggles around land claims in British Columbia. Living in the States during the years that the Vietnam War was full-blown, also had an effect on the singer. “It’s hard to write about the world and one’s place in it without making social commentary,” Cockburn says.

Seismic changes in Cockburn’s life over the past decades have been transformative in terms of his physical space, his emotional space and his approach-to-life space. “If you would have asked me a dozen years ago if I was going to be a dad again, living in San Francisco, I would have laughed. Yet here I am! At times, it can be utterly exhausting,” Cockburn says. “When I was a parent in my 30s, I don’t think I was as good at it. I felt more protective of my time; I was self-involved and focused on my art. My daughter, Iona, who is four, has a much more central place in my day-to-day than my older daughter Jenny (40), did. But it all came out ok in the end.”

Iona loves going on tour with her Dad, and insists that music is always playing in the car. “I am, to a great extent, the translator of the world for her,” Cockburn says. “It is a fun and very interesting role. Having Iona in my life is a constant source of amazing stuff.”

Cockburn has a real sense of connection to the Divine, but relies less on a traditional relationship with religion, and more on a moment-to-moment relationship with God. “I try to feel the presence of the Divine and be steered by that,” Cockburn says. “I have to listen and be open to that little voice that wells up, and not have my mind cluttered with other distracting voices. It is a continual work in progress.”

Cockburn now expends a lot of the energy, previously spent on song writing, on his full of life four-year-old. He is satisfied in the knowledge that he has had a sufficient amount of success, and doesn’t have to worry about taking a step back. “I care very much about performing and writing new songs,” Cockburn says, “but I no longer have to think about establishing a presence. However, I don’t take it for granted; it could go away.”

Cockburn misses the desert, huge skies and uncluttered landscapes, but having extra time to spend in nature’s wide open spaces isn’t on his current agenda. So, to keep himself in good shape and energized, Cockburn works with a trainer and goes to the gym a couple of times a week. At one time he was a committed student of yoga, but with his travel and touring schedule he has given it up. “My health is good and I try to stay active. Being on tour is not an especially healthy lifestyle, and because of Iona I only go away for three weeks max at a time.”

Music is Cockburn’s anchor – his songs a trail of life, change and growth. For his fans, its been a gift that has evolved over his 31 albums, and decades of writing, singing and performing. “It is hard to come up with new stuff, an idea that I haven’t already dealt with in some other song, although my new songs lean more to the spiritual than the political,” Cockburn says.

Life’s rewards include his relatively new family, his older daughter Jenny, his grandchildren and his beloved wife M.J. (Mary Josephine). Cockburn also cites the ‘illusion of wisdom’ from all that he has been through these past seven decades as a gift. “We don’t get smarter as we get older but we know more,” Cockburn says with a wry laugh. “A part of that wisdom is not getting stressed in the same way we did when we were younger. I can pick my (worry) targets better and I am less judgemental of people.”

Photography,Daniel Keebler

In addition to his song writing talents, Cockburn is the author of his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory (HarperCollins). He spent three years writing the book, often pulling all-nighters as he parented his new baby daughter. The memoir takes the reader up to 2004; however, in the span of the last 14 years, significant developments have occurred in Cockburn’s life, including receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. Cockburn is undecided if he’ll write the second part of his life story. “If I live long enough to forget how hard the first book was, there might be room for a part two,” Cockburn says with a laugh. “If arthritis gets the better of my hands, if I stop being able to remember lyrics, I could see writing another book. That’s a ways off, I hope.”

In the interim, Cockburn hopes to release a new album in 2016. “Whenever I think of retirement I think of B. B. King and John Lee Hooker – all these old Blues guys who go ‘til they drop – if I’m able, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I will just keep going, cuz that’s what I do.”

Photography,Daniel Keebler


◆ 31 albums over four decades
◆ 21 certified Gold and Platinum albums in Canada
◆ Seven million album copies sold worldwide
◆ 13 Juno Awards
◆ Officer of the Order of Canada
◆ Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, 1998
◆ Inductee of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame
◆ Seven Honorary Doctorates, including Doctorate of Divinity, Doctorate of Letters and Doctorate of Music
◆ Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2012