photo by Daniel Keebler
Americana Highways recently spoke with Bruce Cockburn about his new instrumental album, Crowing Ignites, due to be released September 20th. Here is what transpired.
AH: The title of the album is Crowing Ignites. Tell us the story behind this title!
BC: My brother discovered that the Cockburn family motto as part of the coat of arms is “Accendit Cantu” which is a Latin phrase. We were all excited because it was translated for us as “Music Excites” which seemed like a really fortuituous circumstance, especially for somebody like me. But awhile later I was looking up information on the family and it was translated differenty; it was translated as “He Arouses Us By Crowing” and there were some other variations, so finally I looked it up myself, and translated it myself and it came out “Crowing Ignites”! And it was such a punchy phrase it was exciting. My wife suggested I use it for my album title and I thought “yes I should”!
AH: This album is instrumental, as was your earlier album Speechless. In the absence of spoken human language, what does music, on its own, convey?
BC: It’s unusual for music without a lyrical content attached to it to convey a specific idea. But it certainly carries feelings. And it contains the capacity, depending on how the listener approaches it, to transport the listener to a place of their choosing. If I listen to mournful sounding Baroque pieces, for instance, I get a tremendously wistful peacefulness from that music. And there’s music that gets you all fired up and other music that makes you uncomfortable and so on. So it has that capacity as well.
In making music, basically what you hope for is that a listener will get out of it what you put into it, but there are of course no guarantees there. Fundamentally everyone experiences any kind of art through their own filter, and they are going to bring their own understanding of how it fits into their lives to the picture.
You can steer them by your title. But even there, does “Sweetness and Light” mean the same thing to me as it does to everybody out there? Probably not. So you’re always at the mercy of that subjectivity. But that’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand you can be specific about what you want to say but on the other hand there is still a universality to the absence of words because nobody has to get stuck on language, which can be another source of various interpretation. And then half the time people don’t understand the words anyway either.
AH: The song “Seven Daggers” has these wonderful layers, and different world instruments. I wasn’t even sure what one of the was when I saw the instrument list. How did you come to choose them?
BC: It was constructed in the studio. As is the pattern for me, I generally don’t go into the studio to make an album until I know what’s going to be on the album. For this album this was the case, but there were two songs, and this was one of them, that existed in my mind as a concept and had to be developed in the studio, because it was all about the layers.
I had this charango. A charango is a stringed instrument that is a little bit like a mandolin but is native to the Andes region of South America. You’ll hear Bolivian street bands in Europe playing it. I came across this in Chile in the early ‘80s, and I had one and I got another one, and now I have a solid body electric charango which I got in the late 80s that was made by Linda Manzer whose guitars I also play a lot. It’s traditionally tuned to an open A minor 7 chord. And so I thought I also have this sansula, which is kind of like an African thumb piano, and this is a particularly nice version of that with a skin head and it plays so nicely. And its tuned to A minor.
So I had these two instruments that are built to play in A minor, and I thought I can make a pattern here, there’s a piece here. So that’s how it started. And there’s another African instrument in there too, the kalimba.
AH: What about the “little ass bells” you credit in the liner notes? How little are they?
BC: They are quite small! (laughs) Those are a variation of the Indian cowbells you see around in yuppie gift stores sometimes. There was a store in Vermont where I spent a lot of time. This particular store had an incredible array of these bells. The buyer for the store had gone out of her way to get really nice sounding ones, they weren’t clunky at all. These are not tuned in a Western way but they have a really pretty sound to them. So I bought all of them! One of each of the different pitches. Some of them were actually quite large, they were practically a foot long and a few inches around and others that were tiny. I bought a whole selection. And I strung the tiny ones on a metal rod, and you can shake them that way, and that’s what you hear on the record. There are ten of them strung on this thing and they work in a way like sleigh bells, except they don’t sound anything like sleigh bells. They are much prettier.
AH: About the song “Pibroch: the Wind in the Valley,” you say in the liner notes that the bagpipes there remind you of sipping whiskey from a scallop shell, which is really just poetic and an intriguing statement.
BC: Pibroch is the name for the classical bagpipe music of Scotland. It’s a very hypnotic ancient sounding music, you know Scottish bagpipes aren’t capable of playing very much of a melody. They can, but everything is in that 5 note scale and it’s limited. But the Pibroch music uses that limitation to create a hypnotic landscape where the pieces might last 20 minutes or more and there are these tiny variations and by end of the piece it’ll be quite complicated and ornamented but at the beginning it starts out this simple motif. So I was describing that sensation of being on some ancient Scottish coastline which is what I was experiencing for this song.
AH: You have a mix of religious themes in the album also, you have Tibetan Buddhism in some place, with “Bardo Rush” which is the lead track.
BC: The Bardo is from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I read back in the 60s. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is designed to be read to the newly deceased so that their spirit will go where it needs to go and not be caught up in various demonic distractions. And the Bardo is the plane in which that spirit is wandering. This song is a reference to that. I think there’s a lot about Buddhist teachings that are very valuable but I don’t think of myself as a Buddhist. But that wanted to be the title of that piece.
AH: It’s very lively, it’s like a dance, which turns the Bardo into an uplifting idea.
BC: Yes, I think the low rumbling keyboard gives it a sinister quality but yes, it is a pretty peppy little piece. You could think of is as the Bardo meets the Day of the Dead. (laughs)
AH: You also have Judeo-Christian themes. We already mentioned “Seven Daggers,” which was named for a near a chapel.
BC: It’s named for a little chapel that’s in a convent next door to my daughter’s school.
AH: And then you have “Easter,” and “Bells of Gethsemane.” What inspired “Easter”?
BC: It’s called “Easter” because I wrote it on Easter. The slow part was written on Easter. That tempo seems to me to be in keeping with the idea of resurrection. When I’m writing these pieces I have a feeling in mind, and I think very mechanically about the music, about what note is going to be nice after that note that was just played. The concepts kind of come in after the fact. But because this song was written on that day, it just wanted to be called that.
It goes from a kind of a mournful little waltz into a more uptempo happier thing, and that seemed appropriate.
AH: You’ve been playing since the early 1970s. You weren’t really involved with the Haight-Asbury San Francisco scene, but then Jerry Garcia covered your song “Waiting for a Miracle.” And not just a little – that song is very widely associated with him, he played it a lot. Did you meet him?
BC: I did meet him, after he recorded the song. I was in New York doing PR for something and the Dead were about to start several shows at Madison Square Garden. And I got taken to meet Jerry. And he was doing what was described as meditating onstage. He had a tent set up onstage behind the backline of the amps and stuff. I had to wait until he came out of his tent. (laughs)
He did, in due course. And he was very friendly, we didn’t talk very long because he was getting ready to play. And apparently he was very nervous, he would get very nervous before those big gigs. He was trying to calm himself down so it was a short encounter. But he said “oh man, beautiful song, I hope I didn’t screw the lyrics up too much.” I said “actually I was going to wait until the second time I met you before I brought that up.”
When I first heard his version of the song I was kind of dismayed at that but then I realized he did that with everybody and that I was in good company. (laughs) I’m glad he did it.
In New York a couple weeks ago we did a thing for Relix magazine, it was in their office, and there were several young people in the office working on computers, nobody was paying much attention. But I sang that song because it seemed appropriate to the occasion. And all of a sudden they all stopped and they were all listening! And the guy who was recording said to my tour manager: “Why’s he doing a cover?” (laughs). None of them knew!
It’s an honor that the song found a favorite place with him. But that was so ironic!
AH: Your music does get very improvisational in style and a lot of fans of jambands like your music too. On this album, “The Mt Lefroy Waltz” is an example. Are you improvising? Or are those paths you’ve already worn.
BC: My influence and background is a 50/50 mix between the kind of folk music which is now Americana, and jazz. I’ve never considered myself a jazz player, I don’t think I have the chops or the knowledge to be an effective jazz player per se. But improvisation has always been a part of what I like to do.
“The Mt LeFroy Waltz” has a composed part, of course that’s the part where you hear the guitar and the trumpet playing together the same melody. That was written. But once the melody was stated, there is some improvising and then it returns to the melody again. A lot of the songs are like that, “Bardo Rush” is like that. It’s something that I can do better in an instrumental context than with a song. When there’s a song with lyrics, the lyrics want to be obeyed. They demand their rightful place in the song.
To return to a comparison with the Grateful Dead again, my approach is a little more rigid than I think they were. When there’s a song there’s a structure that must be obeyed, and sometimes that stucture allows for some improvising but in the instrumental pieces there is a lot more freedom.
AH: The songs sometimes have a tone of darkness or foreboding. What is your sense of the direction society is moving in? Because when you did “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” there was a specific message. Are there political messages to your songs on this album?
BC: Well that song in particular had a very specific trigger. Had I not been in the Guatamalan refugee camps in Mexico that inspired that song, I would have never written it. It wasn’t written as social commentary. It was written as a shocked emotional response to a situation. And most of my stuff is like that. “If a Tree Falls” was more commentary and a lament for the state of things.
I look around and I see a lot of beauty in the world but there’s also a precariousness to it that’s very worrisome. And I think of my young daughter, and my grandkids – my older daughter’s kids, and I think what a f—ed up world we are handing them.
And the world has never been a safe place, we know that. History is full of terrible events and terrible effects on people of those events. But that doesn’t change the desire to have it work better than it does, or to not have it get worse than it is. And so, a lot of the songs are coming from that place of concern.
AH: Are you a cyclist?
BC: I did a lot, yes, but I am not doing it so much anymore. Getting older is better than being dead I think (laughs) but it has its price.
AH: Are you reading a good book at the moment?
BC: I am reading a book my friend Greg King sent me called Hitler’s Priestess. I have not delved into this subject matter before but it’s basically the biography of a woman who was born of Greek-French-Indian parents, and she became kind of a spiritual figure for the Neo Nazi movement in the United States. She was a big Hitler fan in the 30s and moved to India and was all tied up with the Aryan mythology that she felt that Hinduism had preserved whereas she thought that it had been lost in Europe. There is a thread that runs into the modern Neo Nazi movement.
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
BC: With the imminent release of Crowing Ignites there are a lot of tour dates. My nephew John Aaron Cockburn is coming with me, it’s a duo. He plays accordion and guitar. We’ll be rehearsing and then going on tour. I’m starting to feel an itch to write more songs too.
The album, Cockburn’s 34th, comes out on September 20th. Find more about it, here: http://brucecockburn.com