Bruce Cockburn on his unique style, jazz origins, and 50 years in music

Thirteen-time Juno winner Bruce Cockburn has been a major figure in Canadian music for more than half a century.

The new member of Canada’s Walk of Fame has recently released a 50-year career retrospective album, and in celebration he’s taking his music across North America.

Cockburn recently joined us to talk about his unique guitar style, his jazz origins, and what it’s like to look back on his career.

Congratulations on your 50-year celebration — an incredible achievement. Are you someone who has taken stock along the way, or does an anniversary like this one force you to take some time to consider what you’ve accomplished?

The answer is neither of the above, actually. I’m not much inclined to look backwards. I mean, I do, because other people do, and I’m certainly aware of all the things that have happened and I don’t run from any of it, but I’m more interested in what’s coming than what’s been. But 50 years does feel like a milestone, for sure. It’s half a century, for crying out loud. It seemed like it was something worth celebrating.

This past two years, how did you deal with it from an artist’s standpoint?

I’ve got a bunch of new songs, so it was productive in that sense. It was not more productive than I would expect anyway, but I’ve got pretty close to an album’s worth of songs now, so we’ll be looking at making a record maybe in the fall. But I would have hoped to have had that body of material over a two-year period like that, no matter what was going on. The last album came out near the end of 2019, before everything shut down. It all fits a pattern. But that said, it was weird, just like it was for everybody.

Let’s talk about jazz. There are shades of jazz all throughout your music: the harmonics, the improvisation, the guitar playing. When you studied jazz composition at Berklee back in the mid-’60s, did you see jazz as being part of your artistry, or was it a means to an end?

When I went to Berklee, I thought jazz was going to be the whole thing. I wasn’t thinking of myself as a songwriter. I was a guy who liked to compose music and dabbled in writing poetry. I hadn’t thought of putting the two together. I was writing for large jazz ensembles. I learned a lot about that, but after a year and a half I realized I had to be somewhere else. It wasn’t the fault of the school — it was just what I was going through at that age of 18 and 19. I was qualified to write charts for Glenn Miller-style bands, because that’s as far as I got. There was a lot more to learn that I could’ve learned.

Maybe after this next record comes out, you could do a big band record. Maybe that’s the next one in the can.

I might need a little bit longer than I’ve probably got to get that together. It would be fun to do. I love that music. I still do. And there’s so much great big band stuff going on right now. I don’t know the names of half of them, but I hear it on the radio. [Music schools] are turning out very literate musicians who seem to be gifted at coming up with imaginative ways of treating music for big band. I’m having fun listening to it, but I don’t know if I’ll get around to actually doing it.

You’re known as much for your guitar playing and your unique style as you are for your compositions. What were the origins of that style? When you picked up the guitar, was that how you naturally approached it, or was it learned?

It was learned — with some effort, actually. When I first took guitar lessons, I was learning to play with a pick just like everybody. The advantage that I got from those early lessons was from a guy in Ottawa named Hank Sims: He taught me basic guitar, and I already knew how to read music because I had studied trumpet and clarinet before that, and I was just playing single-string stuff with a pick, and learning what we used to call jazz chords — chords with major sevenths in them and stuff like that. If I was self-taught, I wouldn’t have learned those things. In doing so, my understanding of music was broadened greatly. The music that made me want to play guitar was rock ‘n’ roll, but as soon as I started taking lessons, the horizons broadened. I was introduced to jazz, and that became the real thing. I never got the chops to be a real jazz musician, but in the process of studying the jazz theory and of trying to learn to play country-blues, I ended up with a synthesis of elements that’s what you hear when you hear me play guitar now. The right hand is country-blues and the left hand is poorly absorbed jazz training. That’s how it got to be like that.

I read that The New York Times called your thumb on your right hand “the hardest-working thumb in acoustic music.”

[laughs] I remember that. It made me nervous when I read that because I thought jeepers, yeah, this guy’s right. What happens if anything happens to my right thumb? I’m totally screwed. You know, my thumbs are arthritic and they’re slipping out of their joints, so they’re causing me some problems. But they’re still working, so I’m getting away with is.

You curated the 30 tunes that are on this greatest hits compilation spanning 1970 to 2020. Was that an easy or a tough process?

It could’ve been tough under other circumstances, but it was dead easy because we just decided to put all of the singles out on one record — everything that we’d ever sent to radio. It’s not because all of these songs were great hits. They were songs we wished were hits in many cases, and some of them actually were. Of the ones that weren’t, a lot of them have become audience favourites from the live shows; people request them all the time. So, it’s legitimate to include those kinds of songs. Characteristically, the songs that we’ve sent to radio over the years have been, relatively speaking, simpler in structure and content than a lot of what I do. They’re also shorter and will fit the various formats we’ve had to do over the year. It’s a certain type of song, and they tend to be the songs that people will most quickly gravitate to when they hear them. When they dig deeper into my stuff, people start requesting other songs. But the casual listeners or people that would rather hear a simple tune than something more complicated will gravitate toward these kinds of songs. They make a good package. It seemed like the right way in terms of creating this monument, as it were.


This interview has been edited and condensed.