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Bruce Cockburn Offers Some Measures of Comfort

JPG: Now, Small Source of Comfort is your 31st studio album. For someone who has written so much has it ever happened where you’re writing something and realize that you’re plagiarizing yourself?

BC: Yes, it’s happened rarely because I catch it before it happens. Over the years it’s become a slight problem because I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve written a bunch of songs, and I’m still the same person essentially, although I know some things now that I didn’t know back when. But a lot of the things that I feel are worth writing songs about aren’t that different from what they were at various points along the way. So, I’ll think, ‘There’s an idea for a song,’ and I’ll start to write it and then I realize I wrote it 20 years ago. So, I stop. It makes the songwriting process slower because there’s not as many new things to observe and say as there used to be. But, it still continues, which I’m grateful for.

JPG: Do you think the driving from Kingston, Ontario to Brooklyn as you were writing the album, the solitude of…I don’t know how many hours…

BC: It’s a day’s drive, eight hours or 10 hours if you hit bad traffic in New York. My girlfriend subsequently to that moved out to San Francisco. So, I’ve done that drive quite a few times now, from Kingston to San Francisco. And that affords a lot more time to…but I interrupted you.

JPG: No, that’s fine. That solitude, I love to drive because it allows the mind to wander. It seems to bring up what seems like brilliant ideas that you may or may not remember later. Does it work like that and you have a recorder on hand for anything that you come up with along the road?

BC: I’m not that technological. I write down the ideas that I get if I remember them long enough. And sometimes they just come and go. And sometimes they’re images that imprint themselves. I don’t know if this will end up in a song or not but a few months ago I was driving east across Nevada. There was a blue sky, hardly any clouds, and there was a rainbow that covered about a third of the sky. It was unbelievable. Vivid vivid…I shouldn’t say covered a third of the sky but at length it went across a big chunk of the sky. Must have been ice crystals way up high. It was so magical and beautiful, but how do you use that? I don’t know. But, it may show up.

JPG: Well, you’re the songwriter. I think you’ll figure it out. I just ask questions. Now, you drive a lot. Are you not a fan of flying?

BC: I’m not a fan of airports. I actually like flying but I hate air travel anymore. It used to be better but it’s so intrusive and such a pain in the ass to go through airports these days that I don’t do it anymore than I have to.

JPG: Kingston to Brooklyn, I can see but to San Francisco? How long does that take?

BC: Six days. I’ve done it in five but I prefer to do it in six. Long-haul truckers do it in less. I camp at truck stops when I do that. It’s fun. At this point the last couple of times I’ve come out here I’ve had to fly because of circumstances.

JPG: Back to the writing, you attended the Berklee School of Music but didn’t graduate. Your Wikipedia page gave the impression that you left because you felt you learned all you could learn there. Still, is there anything that stuck with you from those days?

BC: Yeah, I don’t think I felt like I learned all I could learn but I felt like I was in the wrong place and I needed to be somewhere else without having any real clear sense of what that somewhere else should be. I was there for a year-and-a-half. I learned a lot of things, much of it from the school courses that were being taught but also from just hanging around that many musicians 24 hours a day. In that neighborhood of Boston at the time you could walk around and you’d hear people practicing. There was music coming out of everywhere all the time. And it was a very healthy atmosphere to get started in. I don’t use the kind of harmonic techniques that I was being taught, particularly, but there’s certain principles that have stuck with me that show up in the construction of guitar parts for the songs a lot. The chord motion, contrapuntal motion, that I apply to my songs that I doubt would be the same if I hadn’t gone there.

Once the rules become part of your tool kit, basically, you don’t sit there thinking, ‘The rules say I should do this now’ but you just have them at your disposal. It’s what you think of. And, at that point it’s all very useful and informs a lot of what I’ve done over the years, especially with respect to guitar parts but not so much with the general feel of a song because that’s determined more by the lyrics. When it comes down to making the guitar fit around a melody or making the melody that the guitar suggests part of a bigger whole, it comes into play.

JPG: I read that you tried an approach of writing a song each day as a form of exercise and found that the amount of good material equaled what you got when you wrote when you just felt inclined to do it. When you’re not touring do you just decompress or do you immediately start thinking of the next recording, have a workman-like approach?

BC: Nah, I’m not so workman-like. I am when I have a particular song on the go. I get very focused. I hound it until it’s done. Right now, I’m not in a big rush to do the next thing, whatever it is.

JPG: If you do, it could be the noisy album that you originally planned for “Small Source of Comfort.”

BC: That could happen. I think it would be fun to do an album of other people’s songs, too. Which one of those will happen first, I’m not sure.

JPG: You got a little noisy on this album. I recall hearing a gong or two.

BC: There’s a lot of bells on the album and we used a lot on the tour, too. I’ve got these enormous wind chimes that I use playing solo and with the band that I had for part of the tour. It’s fun. I like the sound. At one time in the ‘70s I was in Kennebunkport, Maine and I happened to walk into this place. It was a log cabin on a little hill but it was a store that sold wind chimes. And they must have had 5,000 sets of wind chimes in this place. The building was open at both ends and the wind was blowing through so all of them were going. It was the most amazing transcendental sound…just standing there. And they’re made out of so many different materials and all different sizes and all different tunings. It was really surreal. Ever since then, I’ve had this fascination with that kind of atmosphere. Around my house, I have a lot of wind chimes that probably drive my neighbors crazy but it’s nice to stand outside and hear these things going.

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