Bruce Cockburn Daniel Keebler photo

When it comes to Canadian singer-songwriters there are two names that stand out: Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn. The latter of the two has over five decades of excellence to his credit and recently released his 35th album which just happens to be a double CD titled “Greatest Hits” back in 2021. I’ve had the pleasure and honor to chat with the award-winning folk singer several times over his career — the first chat coincided with his appearances at the Maine Center for the Arts and Merrill Auditorium on the “Stealing Fire” tour in 1984 and the most recent was an interview in 2019 — and when I discovered that he was returning to Maine for a show at the Waterville Opera House, it seemed only right and proper to see if he’d be willing to talk with me once more, thankfully, he was, and on Feb. 1st Cockburn called me from San Francisco and we conversed for 24 minutes. I observed that he was coming back to my fair state once again …

Cockburn: Yeah, looking forward to it, too, I hope! Fingers crossed that it all unfolds as it’s supposed to.

Q: You have performed at the Waterville Opera House before, correct?
Cockburn: It sounds familiar to me, I don’t specifically remember the venue, but I’m pretty sure I have, the name is familiar, yeah.

Q: Well, considering how long you’ve been doing this, it’s completely understandable if there are gaps in your memory.
Cockburn: (Chuckle) I never remember the venues very well unless I’ve been there dozens of times, but the crew guys all remember everything. I can remember coming in the back door, I hardly ever see the front of the venue, then it’s the dressing room and then I go onstage and see a big black pit with people in it, so I don’t tend to remember the places too well (laughter).

Q: Now will this be a solo performance or will you have a backing band?
Cockburn: This will be solo, my pattern is that when we have a new album out, this doesn’t apply to the most recent album which is an instrumental thing, “Crowing Ignites,” there will be a band tour because we want to be able to present the music the way it appears on the album, as much as possible. But in between, I do mostly solo work, it’s simpler and more reflective, and in COVID worlds there’s less at stake for everybody.

Q: Very true, and just being the single performer you have the flexibility to go where the audience and your muse take you, no set list required, so one less thing to worry about.
Cockburn: Yeah, I mean, I can do that and have done that but I tend to make up a set list and kind of stick to it. Once I know a group of songs works well together, what works with one audience usually works with another as well, and it makes it simpler for the tech people to know what’s coming next.

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Q: I never thought of that aspect of solo performing before, it makes sense. I recently interviewed Livingston Taylor who is also performing solo up here, he’s got 50 years in as do you, and I’ve been at music journalism that long, too.
Cockburn: We’re all aging wonderfully, are we not (chuckle)!

Q: Why, yes, yes, we are! (Laughter) Now, are you working on something new? You spoke about an instrumental album so is a song-based one a possibility?
Cockburn: Yup (pause), well, working on it in the sense that we haven’t recorded anything yet. I’ve got nine new songs, and actually I think I may have a 10th as of yesterday, so we’re almost there, ready to get in the studio and have another go at it. I’m looking forward to that, actually, a lot, I want to get these songs out there. We did release a little video demo of the first four of the new songs last spring, it’s just called “Four New Songs” and it’s around on YouTube, I think. But the others were written since then and there’s one or two of them in the show.

Q: Oh, good!
Cockburn: Well, all my shows have been kind of structured in a similar way in that there’s always a few new songs and old songs mixed, sometimes the new songs are songs that just came out on an album, but I’ve always included a cross section of older material. And this tour, 50th anniversary and all, obviously that aspect of it is emphasized, but really it’s the same as all my shows. I’ve got a couple of new songs I want to sing for people and I’ve sort of picked a different collection of older songs that I haven’t been doing for quite a while, some of them for a really long time.

Q: Does songwriting come easy to you?
Cockburn: It depends on the song. This newest one seems to be going quite easily. There are certain songs that just pop out fully fledged, sort of like Athena out of the head of Zeus, other songs require a lot of work over time, and those are less satisfying to write and less fun. But sometimes that’s what needs to be written, too. The songs that come out almost spontaneously are probably the ones that people relate to best, too.

Q: Now, just out of curiosity, and I probably know the answer to this, what can folks expect from your Waterville Opera House show?
Cockburn: Well, a couple of new songs, a lot of guitar, a bunch of words and guitar (chuckle), basically that’s what comes out of me during the show. There’s, like I said, some older ones that people won’t have heard me do for quite a while, and there’s some certain songs that I feel like have to be in a show. People pay money for tickets and they want to hear at least some of the songs that they want to hear, so I want to give them some of those songs. But I don’t want to make a whole show of nothing but that because that gets boring for everybody.

Q: The songs that you’ve been doing for a long time, do they ever change over that time, I don’t mean lyrically, of course, but rhythmically, for example?
Cockburn: Once in a while, but not often. I mean, when I write a song the approach is kind of written into it, but once in a while circumstances require something different.

Q: Is there anything, Bruce, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Cockburn: Just come on out in droves and we’ll all have a good time (chuckle). What I’m looking forward to most about all of this, which I’ve been missing for a couple of years, really, is the sense of a shared experience that comes with just being in a concert setting. You know, I can play the music for myself anytime but it doesn’t come alive until it’s a vehicle for us all to sort of sit there and feel like we’re doing something together, that’s one of the things I hope the people will get out of the experience of being there.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at luckyc@myfairpoint.net if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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