Bruce Cockburn: The Roots Music Canada interview
Bruce Cockburn’s 34th studio album, Crowing Ignites, was released on Friday, Sept. 20 on True North Records. The instrumental album contains 11 original songs and was produced, recorded and mixed by Bruce’s long-time confidant, Colin Linden. The album was recorded in a former fire hall located just a few blocks from Bruce’s home in San Francisco.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Bruce about his latest album, the upcoming North American tour, and what comes next for a guitar legend.
Ted: The liner notes explain that the title, Crowing Ignites, was translated from Accendit Cantu, a Latin phrase that appears on the Cockburn family crest. I’m curious to know whether you’ve always been aware of this part of your family history or was this a more recent discovery?
Bruce: Not exactly recent, but it doesn’t go all the way back either. I’ve always been aware of, and always felt kind of connected to, my Scottish ancestry, but I had not ever particularly researched the family history. My Dad did that in the ’70s and ’80s … but I think it was actually my brother who came up with the family coat of arms with that motto on it. It was initially translated as music excites, which I thought was very exciting, and so does he, because what more appropriate (laughs) family motto could I have? But later on I came across other versions of it that weren’t – it was clear that none of these were actually translations. So I actually just went back and translated the Latin, and it came up “crowing ignites,” which I thought had a much better ring to it than the other versions in English. [It’s] just a strong poetic phrase. As far as the ancestry side goes, my Dad actually put it together in a kind of self-published book. He’s the one that did that work; not me. But the connection to Scotland has always been there and remains. It was in the ’90s when we discovered that motto, but the translation was only this year … I was looking at that Latin phrase and thinking … “It doesn’t say ‘music excites,’ and it doesn’t say ‘he arouses by crowing,’ and it doesn’t say a couple other things that people claimed it said. So I got excited and went after it and translated it. And then when I discovered what it really said, I got much more excited … Then my wife said, “You gotta use that for your album title.” So I did.
Ted: Was the concept for Crowing Ignites being an instrumental album in place before the selection of the album title?
Bruce: Oh yeah. It’s not a concept album other than the fact that it’s all instrumental, and that was the intention to do that. Instrumental music, for me at least, isn’t really about anything in particular. It’s about itself … It exists, and it has the capacity to touch you in whatever way it does, and that’s it. … Pieces get titles because you have to call them something, and sometimes you get lucky and think of a title that really fits the piece. Sometimes the titles are obvious right away, and other times you have to struggle with it for a while. But in terms of the album as a whole, the plan was to initially to make a Speechless Two. We were going to collect the various previously released instrumental pieces that weren’t on Speechless and then add some new pieces to that and basically do the same thing we’d previously done ’cause there seemed to be some interest on people’s part on having that, and it appealed to me. But then I started writing pieces, and they just kept coming. So it became Crowing Ignites instead of Speechless Two.
Ted: You recorded the album in a former fire hall in San Francisco. Did you encounter any challenges converting the space into a functioning recording studio? From the photos that I’ve seen online, it looked like there were several hard surfaces you may have had to contend with.
Bruce: No, actually, far from it. It was the easiest thing. Kind of the most hassle-free recording I think I’ve ever done. … The room sounds great as it is. It’s true when you look at pictures you see a cement wall, but the cement wall is very heavily textured so it doesn’t reflect the sound … at all. And there’s a lot of wood in the room, so it really sounded nice. I had heard music in there before, and so I knew that it sounded like it did, and it just seemed like the combination of that and its proximity to where I live and my daughter’s school and so on it made it very convenient. My friend, who owned the place, was very happy to let us use it. Colin … went out and rounded up the gear and brought it in and set it up. It didn’t take much. It came in suitcases and it set up on a table, and there it was. I brought in all my stuff that you can see in the pictures: chimes and Tibetan singing bowls and all sorts of things with strings on them, and then we just – we spent a great week making a record.
Ted: While it sounds like the studio came together quite well, did any particular song present any unique challenges? I understand that “Seven Daggers” and “Bells Of Gethsemane” were constructed in the studio, and you used a vast assortment of unique instruments on each song. Did you have any difficulty putting them together, micing and recording them?
Bruce: Well, … not beyond what you’d expect. Let’s put it that way. I mean, everything’s a challenge. You’ve got to get it right, but there [were] no real difficulties at all. The most complicated one is “Seven Daggers.” We constructed that one and “Bells of Gethsemane,” as you pointed out … in the studio. All the other pieces, I knew what I was going to do when I went into the studio. But with those pieces, all I knew was that I had an idea for certain kinds of layering that I wanted to do. In the case of “Seven Daggers,” I wanted to use little kalimba things that I have, and the charango. … The charango can be tuned so it will play in A minor with the kalimbas. So we created loops out of those and made a layer out of that and then just started adding things to it. [Then] Colin put on the baritone guitar part, and I played the 12-string over top. That was the most elaborate of the constructions. “Bells of Gethsemane,” I just put down a layer of singing bowls and then another layer of singing bowls and then a layer of chimes and some other stuff and just played over top, playing the baritone myself on that one. So I wouldn’t call them challenging. There’s a process, but the only real challenging part, which is always there, is to get past the conditions of the day … How tired are you? Or how imaginative do you feel at this moment? … Those kinds of things. But that’s always there.
Ted: I recognized a few of the musicians that perform on Crowing Ignites. However, one name that I didn’t recognize was Bo Carper’s. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about him.
Bruce: Bo Carper is a guitar player that I’m acquainted with here in San Francisco – a very good guitar player actually. We met at a social gathering, and we ended up jamming together, so that’s how I found out what kind of guitar player he is. Because I don’t really know many people in the music scene here, I [contacted] him and asked him if he knew any percussionists, because I was interested in having somebody play percussion on some of the pieces. He gave me a couple of names. … One I didn’t get a hold of, and the other one … was already booked for the time period that we needed him for. So that didn’t pan out … I let Bo know that, and he said, “Well you know I’m a really great shaker player.” I had never heard anyone say that about themselves before, so I immediately perked up. And so he came in and played shaker. I thought this will be fun to try, or whatever. It’s not what I was exactly looking for, but it might work really well. And I think it does, and I think he did a fantastic job. A couple of the pieces we played live together, and then a couple of them he did as overdubs. Colin was involved in every aspect of the album, and he plays on the aforementioned “Seven Daggers” and also on “Blind Willie,” putting a great slide guitar part on that. And then Janice Powers, Colin’s wife, plays keyboards, as she’s done a lot of times before for me on other albums. She’s really great at coming up with these atmospheric keyboard kind of landscapy parts that I think contributed greatly to the overall effect of things.
Ted: Another person listed on one of the tracks is your daughter, Iona. What was it like including her in the recording of the album?
Bruce: It was fun. She got to clap along, and she was excited to be able to go in studio and clap her hands. I don’t know if it’ll mean too much to her in the long run, but it was fun at the time.
Ted: Let’s talk about a few of the songs from Crowing Ignites. The press release states that “Bardo Rush” came after a dream. Would you like to discuss the contents of the dream that inspired this particular song?
Bruce: The title was inspired by a dream. The piece is a piece. The piece wasn’t inspired by anything except I’m playing the guitar, I think … “This could be a piece [and it] sounds like a good idea.” All the pieces really are independent from other influences in that way. Sometimes I feel a connection … I’ll just sidestep here for a moment. A piece like “April In Memphis” was written on Martin Luther King day this year. “Easter” was written on Easter Sunday last year, and the fact that those pieces came on days that were sort of special days and had a certain mood that seemed to go with those days suggested that the titles should reflect that. In other cases, it was a matter of finding … a verbal phrase that somehow caught the feeling of the piece or that seemed appropriate to something in some way, some mysterious way. [Returning to] “Bardo Rush,” I do dream work. It’s sort of Jungian based dream analysis, you could say, and the Bardo plane is something that’s referred to in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, quite apart from Jung and everything. Jung used that, and other psychology uses that, as a metaphor in a way. The Bardo plane is where you end up when you die and don’t go to Nirvana, and it’s kind of analogous to being in limbo in Catholic terminology. It’s like kind of waiting, wandering in this dead place, and you can be drawn back into the Buddhist frame of reference, of course. You can be drawn back into other lives, new lives. What you want to do is try to get out of that, if you can, so that you can just not have to go through it all. So for the purpose of the Book of the Dead, it’s recited in the presence of the newly dead, assuming that they’re still hanging around and can hear this, and it’s intended as a kind of a … travel guide in a way to navigate the Bardo. … I liked “rush” because it’s a fast piece, and it seemed to fit … Wandering into Bardo is not necessarily associated with rushing, but because the piece was fast, it made a good phrase … “Angels In The Half Light” – that title did come from a dream. [It was] a specific dream, in which I was being girded for battle, basically by angels. The angels were in battle dress … They weren’t glowing figures with wings, but they were clearly angels, and they were getting me dressed up in some sort of bunker to go out and face some sort of adversary. I don’t remember what I thought was out there … It was a dark and spooky dream, but I had the clear support of this contiguous of angels, which made it feel pretty good. So there’s a case where a title actually was lifted from dream imagery directly.
Ted: The song “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz” was written for the Lawren Harris-inspired guitar that luthier Linda Manzer created as part of The Group of Seven Guitar Project. Did you play that guitar on this recording?
Bruce: No. I played my guitar, but I did play that guitar, Linda’s guitar, at the event that opened that show at the McMichael Gallery. All of the luthiers had somebody come in and play their instrument as part of the event. So I kind of wrote the piece for that event and then played it on her guitar then. But no, in the studio it … was an electric guitar. It was my big fat Gibson electric that I used on that.
Ted: The press release states that “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz” was originally slated to be included on the Bone On Bone album but wasn’t released.
Bruce: It was recorded and mixed then [and] with the band that appears on the rest of that album (Bone On Bone). It was a bit of an anomaly, but it seemed to fit well, and I wanted to put it out because I just loved Ron Miles cornet playing on it. It’s so beautiful, and I regretted having left it off Bone On Bone – not because it weakened Bone On Bone, because I think we did the right thing, but it was just too bad not to have it out there. So to get another chance to let people hear it was a good thing.
Ted: The song “The Groan” was originally composed for a Canadian documentary entitled La Loche. I recently watched the film about the aftermath of the shootings that took place in the northern Saskatchewan community in 2016. What lead you to the producer Les Stroud and this particular project?
Bruce: I had met him before …We were at some awards event together, and he performed in Toronto some years back … He got in touch and asked if I was interested in doing a score, and I was. But that piece, “The Groan,” as you would’ve seen, is not in the movie, but it was the first thing I thought of when we first started talking about it. He had used what he considered to be sort of stock stuff of his TV show that he had put in there as his kind of sample score, so we had a model to work to … It was a little bit bluesy and stuff, and I thought that was a good way to go, and that piece, “The Groan,” just kind of came to mind. But when I played it for Les he wasn’t sure about it in the film, and when I started really putting music together with film it was clear it wasn’t the right kind of thing for the context. But I had this piece … which I liked … The handclaps and the drums and stuff like that – it was just a guitar piece, but I did want Colin to play mandolin, old bluesy mandolin, and I kind of knew that going in. So I kind of had that in mind. But the handclaps and the drum thing were an add on.
Ted: Speaking of instruments, you used several instruments from quite varied origins on Crowing Ignites. As you previously stated, the concept for the album came before the title, but as a listener, I found it intriguing that an album titled after the motto of a Scottish clan would feature instruments from such places as Africa, South America, Nepal, France and the Appalachians.
Bruce: It is a bit weird because it’s everything but bagpipes (laughs). There’s no actual Scottish instruments there anywhere. But this is what I have. I have a room full of this stuff, and I wanted to use it all, or as much of it as made sense. So we just brought it all into the studio and set up. But the singing bowls and Tibetan element … there was [a] concept going in that I wanted to build a piece using those, because I love the sound … I had the same idea with the kalimbas and the charango. But Appalachian dulcimer … I don’t use it in the traditional way exactly. I’m playing it as if it’s a hammer dulcimer, but I don’t know how to play hammer dulcimer. So it just does a drone thing in “Pibroch.” … I’ve been interested in music from everywhere for as long as I can remember really seriously thinking about music … Over the years I’ve acquired these various instruments, and it’s nice to be able to put them to use.
Ted: Bernie Finkelstein (Bruce’s manager) mentioned that you’ve been rehearsing with a new sideman for the upcoming tour. I understand that you’ll be performing with your nephew, multi-instrumentalist John Aaron Cockburn.
Bruce: Yes. He was in the band on the Bone On Bone tour. But doing a duo thing is kind of a new thing for me. I did it once before … I’ve done isolated gigs like that here and there. Colin Linden and I have done a couple things where we played together … But the only other time that we really set it up as a tour that I can recall was Salt, Sun and Time. I toured with Gene Martynec, who plays on that album, and the album is … just guitar. There’s a few other little bits and pieces, but mostly it’s just the guitars playing on the songs, and we toured like that … You know, that’s like 40 years ago. It’s been a while. I’m looking forward to it quite a bit.
Ted: What can fans expect to see at any of the forty-plus dates on the upcoming North American tour?
Bruce: Well, we’re still working out exactly what we’re going to do, but it’s not going to be very different in terms of the content or the song list … from a regular show of mine. There’ll be some old stuff and some new stuff. There’ll certainly be some pieces from Crowing Ignites. But it’s not going to be a night of instrumentals. I think that people would be disappointed if they paid money for a ticket and that’s what they got. Most of the people that pay attention to me would want to hear lyrics, I think. And I do like singing songs. So it’ll be a mixture of things.
Ted: Looking to the future, any plans that fans should be looking forward to following the Crowing Ignites tour?
Bruce: I’ve never been very good at making plans, and I haven’t given it any thought at all other than the fact that this tour is going to run, and then we haven’t booked anything for the first part of next year at all. So I’ll be taking some time off. But what I’ll do in the time off, and any plans for future recording and all that sort of stuff remain unknown. I expect that, unless I’m incapacitated in some way, I’m going to keep on doing what I do … Eventually, there’ll be something else, but right now I’m just thinking about the stuff at hand.
Ted: Once again, congratulations on Crowing Ignites. I’ve listened to it several times while preparing for the interview, and I think it’s beautiful. It truly highlights your passion for the guitar. I wish you all the best on the upcoming tour, and I appreciate your chatting with me today.
Bruce: Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest, and thanks for the kind words. Nice to talk to you.
See Bruce live:
- Oct. 19 – Koerner Hall, Toronto, ON
- Oct. 20 – Centennial Hall, London, ON
- Oct. 21 – FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, ON
- Oct. 22 – Grand Theatre, Kingston, ON
- Nov. 8 – Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC
- Nov. 9 – Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Vancouver, BC