With a New Greatest Hits That’s Not Quite a Greatest Hits, Bruce Cockburn Relishes His Reflection
By Lee Zimmerman
In a career that spans fifty years, there’s little that Bruce Cockburn has yet to achieve. His list of accolades alone is enough to single him out for distinction — among them, 13 Juno Awards, an induction into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and his naming as an Officer of the Order of Canada. The 34 albums he’s recorded over the course of that half century make it clear why those honors are so well deserved, but they also testify to the near impossibility of distilling those recordings down as far as the forthcoming double-disc Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits (1970-2020) due to arrive courtesy of his longtime record label True North on December 3, 2021. Nevertheless, the timing is significant. The next day he’s due to be accorded yet another honor, induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
‘It was supposed to be a gala ceremony’ Cockburn notes. ‘Now it's going to be virtual. I'm not quite sure what that means’.
Despite whatever disappointment may lurk given the make-up of the event, Cockburn’s overall enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Now a resident of San Francisco, he’s looking forward to getting back out on the road for what he’s euphemistically dubbed his ‘2nd Attempt Tour’, a victory lap to mark his half century anniversary after its cancellation due to covid.
The Alternate Root recently had an opportunity to talk with Cockburn on the eve of the anthology’s release for a wide-ranging discussion about his art, his activism and his reasons for still making music.
With 50 years worth of recordings, it must have been a tough choice to narrow it all down.
I'm not sure whose concept it was, but it seemed like a good one. It might have been the record company’s, but they wanted an album called Greatest Hits. Of course, calling all these songs ‘hits’ is a little bit of a stretch. But they were all intended to be hits. That’s what made it simple. We chose all the songs that were singles that we that we ended for radio over the years. That made it quite a simple choice really. One or two things that could have been in there might have gotten left out, but basically it was just that. It's like so many per decade.
I would think a lot simpler rather than having to go through and select favorite album tracks.
Yes, and then fighting with each other over whose best stuff would dominate. In the end, that would likely be mine. But there's always good discussions to be had. So that was all avoided by just going with the singles. To me, the merit of that is that for the most part, those are songs that people audiences find and they can relate to easily. They're not the only ones. I get requests for much more complex songs than the ones that ended up on this collection. In general, they’re the songs that people come to the shows hoping to hear. And so it makes sense to put it all out like that as a package.
You also had a commemorative tour planned, did you not?
We were we were supposed to be celebrating my 50 years of recording and last year of course, those celebrations were put on hold. So now we're gonna be touring with the second attempt at the 50th anniversary tour.
It’s a great name. ‘The Second Attempt’.
Well, everybody can relate to that at this point. It seemed like a smart idea at the time.
Do you ever look back in awe at the fact that you've been able to maintain such a prolific stance for over 50 years, and that you're still doing it.
‘Awe’ isn’t exactly the word I'd use, but I certainly do have gratitude. You know, yes, it is kind of amazing. If anybody had asked me when I started out, I wouldn't have much of an answer. Anything beyond 20 years would have seemed kind of implausible. But, but here we are. It’s just what happens when you don't die?
I guess in the beginning, there was no way to know that it would evolve the way it's evolved. When you made those early recordings, were you just thinking about tit one album at a time?
That's really as far as I took it. And as far as I still take it, actually.
This career of yours has continued to unfold and evolve. The early albums were in that folky sort of vein, but then you quickly accelerated and got very direct in the messaging that you were sharing, what with the activism and, shall we say, the outrage, “If I had a Rocket Launcher” is an amazing song. It doesn't hold back, shall we say.
It didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of a very specific set of circumstances, but that reaction for me was so raw.
So how did your writing tend to evolve early on? Were you becoming more aware of wanting to make a statement?
It's hard for me to see it in general terms like that. Each song has its own backstory, I suppose you could say that over time, yes, there was certainly an evolution. There were other songs that we thought were worth sharing with people that ended up on the first couple of albums. The stuff I started out writing was derivative, just kind of all anything that I wasn't very fussy about . But then I started giving more depth to the lyrics and it became a bit psychedelic and kind of unfolded over time. Later the focus became one of a spiritual approach and that's an ongoing theme that runs through all of my tracks really. In the old days, it was expressed in terms of the imagery of nature and the ways of relating to nature. Then it became more about activism in the form “Rocket Launcher”.
Was there like a certain point, an ‘aha’ moment where you said to yourself, I want to switch the focus and go in a different direction in order to bring in elements that maybe I hadn't before?
There were little things like that, little occasions, but not really major ones. Like I said, it was mostly it's one song at a time. I was getting typecast, and I found it extremely irritating. So, I wanted to make an album that sounded more like a city record. So, I got a band, I played some electric guitar here and there and got quite a different feel. It turned out to be a popular move. That was one of those moments, but it kind of in reaction to that typecasting.
So, what was the reaction like?
I was freaked out by it. I was used to coffee house audiences that sat there in a kind of reverent state. They never really responded very much. So, to have people actually hooting and hollering was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to stop this’. So, I went the other way, and made an album called Salt, Sun and Time, which basically was minimalist, just guitars and voice. Most of the record was a couple of other bits and pieces, here and there, but it had the effect that I wanted, to dampen everything down. Nobody was that interested in it, but over time, it stands up. There's one song on that one, “All the Diamonds” which is one of those songs that people have attached themselves to, along with a couple of other things. So, when you asked about aha moments, there were those, but they were reactive. It wasn't like me discovering something. I was in the process of reacting, discovering things. The Humans album would be the next one of those moments, but not with respect to any individual song. It just seemed very different from the album before it. That was really the culmination of the ‘70s, I suppose. Humans did seem to be starting out in a new direction, but I didn't spend any time thinking about what that might be. It just was clear that it might be that and, and Humans seemed like a good title. As it turned out, it fits the whole decade rather well.
These albums that you're that you're mentioning seemed to raise the bar, whether consciously or not consciously. Did you feel like you were raising the bar? Was there a point where you said to yourself, I have to make these statements, I can't retreat, I have to give them what they want?
You have to remember that at one point a long time ago, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in China, as horrible as that was in a way, the concept of having a periodic revolution was a worthwhile idea. It also applies on the personal level, perhaps even better than it does on the social or political level. You just need to shake yourself up every now and then and not be complacent, and not settle into habitual ways of doing things. So, for me, that has happened every now and then. Sometimes they've been associated with the breakup of relationships, sometimes with travel, sometimes with sort of spiritual insight. And where it relates to your question is that people create these expectations for themselves. I was getting typecast as the ‘back-to-nature guy’, or as something else I got for a while. I was a Christian singer, quote/unquote, and people who weren't comfortable with that, as it turned out, mostly they stuck around. And then, you know, with the release of Stealing Fire, I became a political singer, quote/unquote. And some people didn't like that. So other people were drawn to that and really liked it. And that actually really expanded my own audience all around the world, or at least the part of the world that I get to travel in. But then there was the danger of being typecast as a political singer.
That’s too narrow a focus for an artist like yourself.
TV will not deal with me, especially in the United States, because they think I'm ugly. I'm too political. On the other hand, that's only a small part of what I've done over the course my career. But if it seems to prevent people from seeing past that, if they if they don't like that, then it seems it's hard for them to see past it. And there's nothing much I can do about that, except, be me, and carry on and do what I do so. So that's what I do.
Well, maybe, just maybe, with this greatest hits album, that view will change and allow people to really see who you are. For those people who are less familiar with your deeper catalogue, it's going to be a good initial overview. The fact is that you are an extremely diverse artist. You have a real-world view. And with three dozen or something albums, there’s a lot to absorb.
If I meet somebody who doesn't know my stuff, and they say, what should I check out first?, I don't know what to tell them after 33 albums or however many it is. I'm not sure what we're up to now. They've all got good songs on them. If I think they like the acoustic stuff, I would steer them one way, but with my live show, I’ve got a cross section of material from different categories and different times. It's a pretty good representation of what I have to offer in a solo context. There are some live bands that I have had, but they're not really that representative of what I was doing with my current band. Then again, I'm not touring with the band right now anyway, so it doesn't matter. I guess my live albums are a way to get around having to steer people in any certain direction. Still, it might be nice if if the greatest hits were really considered the greatest hits.
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