31 albums and going strong

Cockburn strips down to basics for latest

Chris Callaway | Boulder Weekly

Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn can’t sit still. The celebrated Canadian musician has spent the last 41 years tackling politics, injustice and the euphoric joys and exacerbating nature of humanness in songs laced with spiritual conviction, honest reflection and his signature biting commentary.

Cockburn’s 31st album, Small Source of Comfort, was released in March, and neither his reflective nature nor his work ethic show any signs of abating. He has been engaged in the disc’s supporting tour, backed by violinist/ vocalist Jenny Scheinman — who doubles as the opening act — and percussionist/drummer Gary Craig. There’s no bassist, Cockburn is using mostly acoustic guitars, and the drum set is not what one would envision — it’s a stripped-down, engaging sound.

Small Source of Comfort certainly did not start as the type of album that would have comfortably adapted itself to such touring simplicity. Cockburn’s original vision for its sound involved plenty of distorted guitars and a loud, bombastic direction with some dissonance thrown into the mix. But circumstances did not allow his vision to come to fruition.

“I guess I could have forced the issue, but it didn’t seem like a good idea,” he says. “Basically, through that period of time, my girlfriend moved to New York, lived there for five years and then moved back to San Francisco, where she had been living before that. So I was spending a lot of time in Brooklyn. If I had been at my house, I could have cranked everything up and it probably would have been that kind of album, but [I] can’t really pursue that sort of stuff. It’s not really new for me to be loud and electric. I did that in the ’60s, but to develop a kind of approach to songwriting and using that sort of vibe requires some work, and it just wasn’t in the cards.”

Small Source of Comfort is more suited to botanic gardens, wine sipping and beautiful sunsets, but it works just like the other quiet moments in Cockburn’s surprisingly varied discography. Producer Colin Linden, a frequent pick for Cockburn, recorded at a studio in Nashville and at the Bathouse, a residential studio in Ontario, Canada, owned by popular Canadian band The Tragically Hip. While Cockburn’s house was minutes away from the Bathouse, everyone else boarded at the studio.

“It was very relaxed and nobody was going anywhere,” he says. “Nobody had to rush anywhere. You just sort of roll out of bed, get fed and then you’d start recording.”

There’s the gentle instrumental “Lois on the Autobahn,” titled after Cockburn’s late mother, and the driving rhythm of “The Iris of the World,” but perhaps the best song on Small Source of Comfort is “Call Me Rose, ” a composition that formulated in Cockburn’s head while he was sleeping.

“It was a little bit of work, but mostly it was unlike anything else in that I woke up and the whole song was there in my head.” Cockburn says. “That’s never quite happened in exactly that way before.”

The song asks what would be required to rehabilitate not just Richard Nixon’s image, but his soul.

When Cockburn sings the opening line, “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl,” one cannot help smiling and listening to what comes next.

“Where did that first line come from?” Cockburn says with a laugh. “I don’t know. My theory is that it had to do with some deep psychological issues around power and me, but expressed through language that was provided by the Bush administration’s brief attempt a few years ago to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. There’s some sort of association there, but I was not really clear on what it is.”

While “Call Me Rose” is a serious composition, irrespective of its opening line, the purposefully humorous “Called Me Back” is anything but. Its slightly comical, somewhat cacophonous, back-porch musical accompaniment fits perfectly. Simply put, Cockburn had a friend that never returned a phone call.

“It just was funny because it’s based on a real episode which has been repeated a thousand-fold by other people in my life,” he says. “You call somebody, try and get a hold of them, and they don’t call you back and they don’t call you back. You call them again and they don’t call you back, and eventually they do or there’s some communication, but in the end there’s usually a good reason why the response wasn’t there.

“It just seems like such a common thing and it’s annoying. It’s like, ‘I should write a song about that — this one particular time that it happened’ — and so I did. It’s the kind of topic that’s not really worth a serious song at all anyway, but it’s just one of those little cartoons of life.”

Cockburn, who turns 66 on May 27 — the same day he performs at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium — is as reflective on his long career as he is on explaining his newer songs, humorous or otherwise. His wry sense of humor and gentle demeanor are present, but it’s his prevailing honesty that guides the way.

Perhaps it’s from so many years of honest, heartfelt artistic expression; maybe it’s having a daughter and two grandchildren he’s rarely able to see because of distance and his schedule; or maybe it’s simply a sense of life that comes with age and experience.

In the end, maybe it’s a combination of everything. “It’s weird because sometimes it feels like I’ve been doing this a really long time, and other times it just feels like I’m barely getting started,” Cockburn says. “I guess that’s just the way it is for everybody who reaches a certain age. The shape of your life assumes a different perspective when you start approaching the end of it, even though the day after you’re born could be the end of it, but [you] don’t think about that until you have to. Of course once you start getting older you have to — your friends start dying or you’re having crises and you have to notice that.

“If I went back and tried to remember all the things that happened over those years — I don’t know if I’d like to do that, but there’d be [some] neat stuff in there. There’d be some things that were great from the point of view of creating songs out of the angst that they produced, but I’d rather live with the songs than the memories of some of the stuff that happened.”