Bruce Cockburn: Water Into Wine

By: Dennis Cook

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin, this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste

Bruce Cockburn
There is a sense of the world split open in the work of Bruce Cockburn, like a ripe fig pulled apart by strong hands, the innards tasted hungrily and savored with closed-eye wonder. Since his self-titled 1970 debut, the Canadian singer-songwriter has extended what Wallace Stevens termed "the palm at the end of the mind." There is an intensity of experience and colorful, wholly engaged beauty that runs from head to tail in his music. His lust for life makes one feel a bit more alive just for being exposed to his bold observations and gorgeous melodies.

A tireless veteran live performer, he's never achieved U.S. recognition on the same level as contemporary Neil Young, but the two share a number of striking similarities: a distinct voice in a field that makes individuality difficult, wicked guitar playing skills, a ribald and rebellious nature and an embrace of most of the finest, enduring traits of human beings. While widely celebrated in his native land, in the States he's only occasionally popped up on the mainstream radar with singles like "If I Had A Rocket Launcher." However, he's developed a devoted core audience in the U.S. and around the world that understands the pervasive oomph of his massive catalog and always-intimate concert appearances.

His newest release, Slice O Life (released March 31 on Rounder Records), is a double disc live collection that's as fine an introduction to Cockburn's work as any assembled. It presents his potent baritone tackling pieces from all across his career as well as signature influences like Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," with the lot embellished by entertaining, informative anecdotes that offer off-handed insight into one of the most complex, poetic men in contemporary music. Culled from live performances and soundcheck explorations, Slice O Life provides a winning snapshot of an artist of tremendous stability and unbroken quality.

Few things are simple with Bruce Cockburn. He likes to qualify and broaden his ideas and answers, but in the way the Japanese admire, where complication and clouding in language rarely points to one meaning, one destination. In this way, Cockburn's music is spacious, diverse and capable of mutable forms, drawing readily from blues, jazz, rock and folk to create a flexible, inviting hybrid overlaid with vivid imagery and open feeling.

Given JamBase's own love of variety and intense talent, we are tickled several shades of pink to have scored an hour of Cockburn's time, where we discussed spirituality, playing solo, his influences and much, much more.

JamBase: One of the challenges now after 30-some albums and almost 40 years of professional work is where does one jump in? That's a lot of music, man [laughs].

Bruce Cockburn: It's a challenge for me when somebody says, "Where do I start? What should I listen to?" I don't know [laughs].

JamBase: The new live album provides a pretty good foot in the door. It offers a pretty wide cross-section of what you've done.

Bruce Cockburn: It sorta does go back to the beginning, so I guess it is that [introduction], partly because it's solo and that strain of what I've done over the years, which is how I started.

One man, one guitar. There's something very pure about that.

I don't think I was thinking purity, exactly, at the time [laughs]. There certainly is simplicity, in musical as well as practical terms. It was a choice. I'd come out playing in a bunch of bands in the second half of the '60s and I was tired of noise and tired of bad jamming, and I figured maybe other people were, too, and there might be a place for a guy doing things alone with an acoustic guitar. And I'd been interested in folk music and traditional music for a while, so it wasn't too big a leap.

Had you been writing songs already at that point? It seems like you arrived on your debut with a fairly intact vision. There's a sense of personality to even the early records.

During that band period I was writing songs; originally I was writing songs for all the bands I was in and thinking, to some extent, of those bands when I was writing songs. But after a few years went by I noticed I had this little repertoire of songs within that that really worked better when I played them alone. And they were all the best ones [laughs]. When I came out as myself and not as the guitar player in somebody's band it was with a sense of the songs I wanted to do and an idea of how I wanted to see myself. In some sense, it was an embracing of the sensibilities of the era but also a reaction to the collective thing, which never really sat right for me. I never did very well as a hippie [laughs].

There's very little hippie-like about your records in that period.

Bruce Cockburn by Janet Spinas Dancer
I just didn't fit with that. I never really fit with anything, which is partially why I sound like me and not somebody else. It was certainly true then. I felt like I'd learned a lot being in bands. I learned how to be onstage and what worked musically and what didn't, and certainly what I was capable of. There's always room for growth, of course, and you never really know what you're capable of, but I had a pretty good sense of it relative to what I'd been doing. So, it was a natural step.

One of the things I'm struck by in your music, and it's there from the beginning, is, I wouldn't say an overt spirituality but an engagement with that type of subject matter. I've never found your work to be preachy but I've also never found it tenuous, which tends to be the case when people take on those types of concepts.

When we talk about taking on things in terms of songwriting, well, I guess if that's what you do it carries certain conditions and risks perhaps, but I never felt like that's what I've done. I always felt like I just wrote about what's sitting there. So, when it looks like I'm taking on something it's because I've been thinking about that thing and I'm having a reaction to that thing. If it's a political song, a spiritual song or a song about sex it's all the same. This is what I've experienced and how I feel about it, and it's kind of grabbing you by the lapels and saying, "You better listen to this!" I just need to convince somebody they should [laughs].

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