A conversation with Bruce Cockburn: Canada's Revered Singer-Songwriter


Who is Bruce Cockburn?

One of Canada’s greatest singer/songwriters, Bruce Cockburn has won international acclaim for his insightful songs of emotional honesty and social significance in a career that’s lasted well over five decades. While usually lumped in with the contemporary folk and singer/songwriter communities, Cockburn’s sound has encompassed elements of blues and world music. He’s an incredible all-rounder and one helluva nice guy. 

Bruce was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a doctor specialising in radiology. In 1959 he rescued an old guitar from his grandmother’s attic and began teaching himself to play, strumming along to songs on the radio. When he started taking guitar lessons, his instructor told him his old instrument was severely lacking but that he displayed a great deal of talent. He took lessons from the organist at his church, who taught him to play keyboards and introduced him to basic music theory. 

Bruce discovered jazz and  after he completed high school spent some time in Europe, supporting himself as a busker. Between 1964 and 1966, he studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but after three semesters he dropped out and returned to Ottawa, where he joined a band called the Children. He drifted in and out of several bands between 1967 and 1969, including the Esquires, the Flying Circus, and 3’s a Crowd, while also playing folk clubs as a solo act. In 1969, he struck out on his own as a full-time solo artist.

In 1970, a new Canadian record label, released Bruce’s self-titled debut album. That same year, he wrote and performed 3 songs and the instrumental score for the film ‘Goin’ Down the Road’, a landmark drama which was named one of the 10 Best Canadian Films of All Time. Three more albums followed in rapid succession, and Bruce won the Juno Award for Best Folksinger three consecutive years, from 1971 to 1973.

Awards, awards, awards

In 1974, Bruce experienced a spiritual awakening and became a Christian, and spiritual and ethical themes became increasingly common in his work, as well as the issues of human rights and environmentalism.  He enjoyed a breakthrough in the USA with 1979’s Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws; it included the song “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which became a hit single, peaking at number 21 on the pop singles chart. The success of the tune helped earn him a spot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1980.

The '80s and beyond

Bruce’s next album, 1980’s Humans, was informed in part by a painful divorce, and saw him taking a more aggressive, rock-oriented musical approach. In 1981 he visited Central America as part of the international humanitarian aid organisation Oxfam and became an outspoken advocate for the Third World. Political became a major part of 1984’s Stealing Fire which produced the single “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.” Producer, songwriter T-Bone Burnett produced Bruce’s next albums  in the ’90s and a number of noted Canadian artists paid homage to him on a 1991 tribute album. Bruce also released a Christmas album in 1993 which became a Yuletide classic, going on to go platinum six times over in Canada.

In 1997 his album The Charity of Night included guest appearances from Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco and others. His next studio effort, produced another Canadian hit with the song “Last Night of the World.” In 2001, Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, with Gordon Lightfoot presenting him with the honours. Several more albums followed this.

The enigma and influence of Bruce Cockburn explained in "rumours of glory"

In 2014, Bruce published his autobiography, Rumours of Glory, and concurrent with its arrival, the record label released an epic-scale, career-spanning box set which featured 117 songs on 8 CDs.

Writing his memoirs left Bruce with a case of writer’s block, and it wasn’t until 2017 that he completed his next studio album.  Shortly after its release, Bruce was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside his friend Neil Young. 

Canadian songwriters' Hall of Fame with Neil Young, Randy Bachman, Stéphane Venne and Buffy-Sainte Marie.

Bruce Cockburn has written more than 350 songs on  35 albums over a career spanning more than 50 years. To learn more about Bruce head for his website here

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