Bruce Cockburn was woke before many of us were born.
Throughout an enormously successful career spanning almost 50 years, 33 albums, a DVD, and an autobiography, the Canadian icon has used his music to advance humanitarian causes and support social change.
Back when pop radio was dominated by songs about uptown girls, Caribbean queens and wearing sunglasses at night, the politically outspoken Cockburn was writing controversial songs about imperialism and refugee camps. His latest album, "Bone on Bone," released in September, finds him comfortably taking on the role of elder statesman, his voice a little growlier but his writing and performing sharper than ever.
Style Weekly: Congratulations on your 13th Juno Award. Do career milestones still mean something to you?
Cockburn: They never really did. I like getting the attention that the awards bring, and as a measure of the fact that people are still paying attention after all this time. But I can't say that the work I do is done with the aim of getting awards. (Laughs.)
Your songs have often been very political, even during periods when it was considered unfashionable to sing about causes. We're at a cultural moment in which artists feel more comfortable than ever speaking out against social injustice. What's changed?
Circumstances. But the music doesn't go away. It does come and go slightly according to fashion, but the serious songwriters that take on issues have always been doing that. You could always go to coffeehouses or little bars and hear people singing songs about causes. Right now because of circumstances and general level of horror, there's a lot of room for that.
The lyrics to "False River" read very much like a poem, and you also have a song on the new record that is a kind of posthumous collaboration with Canadian poet Al Purdy. How important is poetry to you?
Very important. I discovered a love of poetry when I was in the sixth grade and it never left, and the way I choose to write my lyrics is very much influenced by the poetry I've read, and by what I've drawn from it in terms of putting words together. Al Purdy was a great discovery because I was aware of him for some time as part of the Canadian scene, but I never got into his work until the invitation came to write a song for this documentary (2015's "Al Purdy Was Here.") So I got a book of his collected work, and it was incredible. There is something so quintessentially Canadian about Purdy's poetry. It's not obvious in all of his poems, but it's certainly there, and I suppose that may have tapped some nostalgia button in me, having moved to San Francisco. It really resonated.
I know that song in particular was a catalyst for the writing of "Bone on Bone," after experiencing something of a dry spell while writing your memoir, "Rumours of Glory."
Well, it wasn't exactly a dry spell because there was a book, but there was about a four-year period where I didn't write any songs, and at the end of it, I wasn't sure I would write any. Not because I didn't want to, but because I just didn't know if the idea or the motivation or whatever it took to write songs was still there. But it turns out the invitation to do the Al Purdy song kick-started the writing process. Once I'd gotten that together, the rest of them just kind of came, in the old-fashioned way that they do.
You are a Christian living in a time of major societal upheaval. Does the state of the world ever test your faith?
My faith is constantly being tested, but it has more to do with me than the state of the world. It's just my own struggle to look beyond the immediate. For me, faith is a doorway to a relationship. And the door sticks, and that gets in the way of the relationship. And you can say it's a fallen world, and things like that, but the human psyche has this capacity for messing up and embracing a distorted view. We seem to have a better capacity for embracing distortion than we do for embracing clarity. So the struggle is to see things clearly and to me that clarity requires love, and invites love. For me, it's all about that. S
An Evening with Bruce Cockburn takes place Monday, April 23, at the Tin Pan. The show has sold out before press time.