Anyone who has spent any time exploring Bruce Cockburn’s music knows what a complex artist he is. He is as spiritual as he is political, and as much a master musician as a lyrical poet. Cockburn will soon release his written memoirs, which he promises will take a deeper look at his continuing spiritual journey. In addition, a Cockburn documentary is also on the way.
Although these two projects aren’t as exciting as news of an upcoming musical release, they nevertheless give his many devoted fans the prospect of more insight into one of modern music’s consistently intriguing figures.
Stereo Subversion: I notice you don’t have a new album to promote these days, so what’s in the works?
Bruce Cockburn: What’s in the works is a book. That’s kind of taking up all the energy that probably would have come up with an album by now. I got a deal to write a memoir, like everybody’s doing, a couple of years ago. The first draft is quite overdue, so there’s kind of a rush on to get this done. I’m about four chapters into it. I can’t tell you much about how it’s going to end up yet because it’s very much a first draft. That’s what’ going on.
There’s also, in terms of stuff that people could look for, if not available commercially yet, a DVD of a concert – well, actually, it’s a documentary that was done on me for Canadian TV with some performance footage in it. It came out pretty well. It was on TV in a slightly abbreviated version. The longer version has been shown at a couple of film festivals. Eventually, we’ll have DVDs for people. As far as an album, that’s probably going to have to wait until all this other stuff is out of the way.
It’s hard for me to characterize my beliefs in a simple way because I don’t subscribe to a namable faith or religion. I’ve moved through an acquaintanceship with a few different things and a deep involvement with Christianity and I’m pretty close to that still, but I just have too many questions to feel comfortable calling myself a Christian at this point.
SSv: How comfortable are you with writing a book? Is that a type of writing that comes naturally to you?
Bruce: No, it’s not. [Laughs] It’s interesting. It’s different and somewhat challenging because you have to sustain a focus for such an extended period. Songwriting is a real short time event, you know. Even songs that take a long time relatively speaking, only happen in bursts. It’s not like you sit down for six weeks and work on a song, day in, day out.
It may take me that long to write a song, but I’ll write one verse and a couple weeks will go by and I’ll think of another idea and add to it, and that kind of thing. Now this is not common. Usually I’ll write in much more compressed time than that, but it has happened. But that’s totally different from what a book calls for, which is sustained energy and focus over a year or two. There’s a bit of a learning curve for me in terms of that.
My songs are generally based in life, but they’re frequently slightly fictionalized. I may change a detail here or there because it makes it a better song or because the rhyme scheme needs it. It’s not literally autobiographical, whereas the book is.
SSv: I’ve noticed over the years, when you’ve written songs you’ve also put in the album notes where they were written and the time period when they were written. Is the book going to be a little bit like a journal in the way that you organize the book?
Bruce: I don’t know how it will end up. I don’t see it being like that, exactly, although it could end up more that way than I’m picturing right now. There’ll be a lot of steps between finishing the first draft, and actually getting it out. My original thought was to have it be not chronological, but just to be made up of a lot of vignettes; when you add them all up, you get a picture of a life. And it may still turn out to be that, although the way I’m working on it now, it is chronological, starting with childhood and moving forward. The organization of it may change between now and publication, I don’t know.
It’s supposed to be a spiritual memoir, so whatever that means. I’m not even sure what that really means, but that’s what the publisher’s asked for.
Bruce: There’s going to be a certain emphasis on that side of life, I think. Because it is a memoir and because the people who buy it are going to be interested in personal details too, we think, there’s a lot of stuff about me in there.
SSv: If it’s a spiritual journey, where would you say you’re at on your spiritual journey now?
Bruce: It’s an ongoing quest. I don’t think it will stop when I die, either. I believe that my relationship with God is central to my life. It is the most important thing in my life. That being said, I don’t spend as much time thinking about that as I probably should. I currently work with a guy that does dream analysis that helps me pursue that relationship with God and kind of understand where I’m at with it.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to characterize my beliefs in a simple way because I don’t subscribe to a namable faith or religion. I’ve moved through an acquaintanceship with a few different things and a deep involvement with Christianity and I’m pretty close to that still, but I just have too many questions to feel comfortable calling myself a Christian at this point. But I’m still very close to that.
SSv: You’re working on this book, but that doesn’t stop you from writing songs. You’re still writing songs I would hope.
Bruce: Not at the moment because all the creative energy is going into the book. Any ideas that I have time for…I’ve also got a 14-month old baby at home, so I’m pretty busy. So, between the baby and the book, there’s not too much room for anything else right now. There’s barely enough time for me to practice the songs I currently have. There is enough, but just. I always have to keep practicing to maintain the songs that I have. I wouldn’t rule it out. Never say never. So far, it’s taking the case with where writing’s taking the backseat.
SSv: How are you as a father, at this stage in your life?
Bruce: Better than I was the first time around. I mean, I don’t think I was a terrible father the first time, but I was much more concerned, as young men tend to be, about things other than family. I was worried about my art more than I am now. I take my art very seriously. I don’t want to let it down or have it let me down, but at the same time, I don’t worry about it as much as I did when I was young. I just worried a lot more about everything. That made my relationship with my first daughter a little more distant when she was young. We have a good relationship now, but I wasn’t there for her as much as I am for the new one.
SSv: Tell me more about this DVD that’s coming out. You said it was a documentary?
SSv: How did this all come about? Did they approach you and say they wanted to explore your work?
Bruce: Bernie [Finkelstein] was really instrumental in getting it going, and I don’t know whether he had the original idea, or the filmmaker Joel Goldberg had the idea. But we started talking about it quite a while back. And, in fact, it’s the same tour that the live album came out couple years ago is based on or is drawn from. So it’s the same music as is on that live album. There might be one or two different songs, but it’s not a concert film.
There’s a lot of talking. It’s more of a portrait of me on tour. It’s got several performances of songs in it and, like I said, I don’t really remember what got it started. We were working on it at the same time as the live album. We had the intention of doing both. It took a lot longer, I suppose, to find the financing to get the film done than it did to do the album.
Ideally, in a perfect world, they would have both come out at the same time. Which I would have preferred because they belong together in a way, but that’s not how it works.