Rumours of Glory: An Interview with Musician Bruce Cockburn
Dec 04, 2014 11:54PM
“Zen songwriter, singer, activist, psalmist…” says Bono about Bruce Cockburn in the 2013 documentary Pacing the Cage. Now the celebrated Canadian folk-rock artist has published Rumours of Glory, a memoir tracing the spiritual current that drives his art, activism and personal evolution. In it, he reveals how the alchemical power of creativity, spirituality and openness transformed a shy, musical boy into an unabashed lover of the divine whose 31 albums have topped charts and earned him the honor Officer of the Order of Canada. Cockburn’s songs of rainforest destruction, erotic bliss, and the moral duality of war are known to make grown men weep and cheer—and women long for more men like him.
Born in Ottawa in 1945, Cockburn now lives in San Francisco with his human rights attorney wife and their young daughter, grateful for a second chance to be a good dad.
Cockburn recently spoke with Grace Ogden of Natural Awakenings about spiritual awareness and the natural creative force—and how the mix flows through his art and activism.
GO: A sense of sacred reverence mixes with the erotic in many of your lyrics. Do you find a spiritual energy in your daily life?
BC: As long as I can remember, I felt the centrality of the spiritual aspects of life. Just getting laid isn’t a spiritual act, but the connection with another person that brings the spiritual part into it can approach transcendence. The song Lovers in a Dangerous Time talks about “spirits open to the thrust of grace.” The suggestive image is about the spirit. The written works of Saint John of the Cross, Rumi and other mystics are very erotic. They were privileged to be more open to the divine than most of us. How I live these days is more determined by how tired I am, because I have a daughter who has just turned three. Like most of us, I just try to get through my day.
GO: What is your process when writing songs and music?
BC: Mostly I’m thinking, but not necessarily in a logical way. The words start with a flash of an idea and I write it in my notebook. When I have relatively free time and space, I wrestle with a combination of thoughts and feelings to put it into a sing-able form and then I put music to it.
The music comes from fooling around on the guitar and discovering a bigger piece. Sometimes the riff itself becomes the basis of the piece or suggests something that can be developed. A lot of trial and error goes into the process.
Q: How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
I like to think that, at least in the best situations, I’m a conduit for something. A case in point is Each One Lost, from the last album. I was at a Middle East air base, en route to Kandahar, when I witnessed the Ramp Ceremony for two Canadian soldiers whose remains were being transported home. The scene was so vivid, even days later that the song came quickly and purely to me. There wasn’t much intellectual manipulation. It was flowing and the music came quickly too.
GO: The song refrain is, “Each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” In the book, you say, “if you want something from me, get it now.” You accept the impact you’re having, how people value you and your music. Many of us struggle with meaning in what we do. What has your journey been like?
BC: There’s been a gradual change in perspective over the years. At first, the internal dialogue was, ‘What if people don’t like it? Well, I don’t want to be deterred from what I’m doing because I’m afraid of that, so don’t pay attention to it.’ Eventually that wore off. I’m very grateful for the feedback I get from people—of the deeper kind especially. There’s a sense of affirmation, which doesn’t happen when I’m playing the song for me in a room—though that has a different reward.
But it’s a balancing act. I get the saying done first and then come back and look to see if it will make people angry or fearful and not want to hear any more. With a song like If I Had A Rocket Launcher, [I ask] “am I saying what I need to be saying here?”
GO: To have meaningful impact, is it fair to say we have to let suffering work in us—but with a deeper awareness?
BC: It’s fair, if you include the notion that the suffering is not always my suffering, but the ability to empathize with others. I think we all hunger for a degree of openness and some people have it naturally and some don’t. And those of us who don’t, want it. When something comes along like the encounter with Cambodian refugees, which I found terribly moving or my native peers in western Canada, I think, “Holy Geez, I worry about the stuff I worry about and carry the baggage I have to carry, but these folks have a whole other level of pain, intrusion on their psyche.” So the extent that I didn’t do anything to get this, I’ve always had a certain ability to empathize. Painful experience can shut you down. Trauma’s not a good thing. You have to be a little cautious about assigning too much benefit to suffering in the spiritual sense.
GO: Over the years, how did intimate relationships push you to grow?
BC: Sledgehammer guidance is when, if God can’t get to you in a nice way, he’ll give you a big whack. The ending of one particular relationship continued a healing process that had started earlier. I took a big step forward into another way of feeling about myself and my relationship with God. After you get beaten up enough [emotionally], you stop worrying about the little stuff. There’s lots to worry about still so I ask where should I focus my energy? The answer is on things I can do something about or that are big enough that I can’t ignore them. I’ve got this little girl and grandchildren that are growing up and our global situation isn’t getting any better.
GO: Are you saying being an artist on a spiritual path helps make you aware of where to press for change?
BC: It’s what I’ve always thought I was doing and the more I know, the better it gets and the deeper it goes. That’s the point, I think. Otherwise it’s just showing off.
GO: Your fans love you because of the unity or deeper aliveness that comes through your music. One macho devotee calls you “a kindred spirit”
BC: I’d like to think there is that sense, but it’s not through any fault of mine. My counselor said, “you’ve kind of gone backward, putting all this real stuff out there without the benefit of having all the experience.” I feel like I’ve always been aware of this potential and any artist has to assume there will be an audience. Otherwise, why would you perform? If I hadn’t felt that, maybe I’d be a side man or something else that didn’t invite so much attention. Maybe it’s a hunger, a desire a longing for connection to a deeper community—the human community that does transcend all cultures and faiths. One of the challenges among many for me is to separate the cultural baggage. That can be tough to do, but it’s the goal. The big cosmic picture allows for fractals and the randomness. Stuff happens because it’s been set in motion that way, in ways I’m not going to grasp, but I operate on that basis.
For more information about Bruce Cockburn, go to BruceCockburn.com.
Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational strategic consulting and Living Sacred events. Visit: graceproductions.co.