Bruce Cockburn: Creativity, Conscience and Commercial Considerations

Bruce Cockburn released his 27th studio album, O Sun O Moon in May. His latest release showcases the Canadian-born singer-songwriter’s skillful blending of genre styles and lyrics that underscore his social conscience.

A major hallmark of Cockburn’s work is its timeless quality. While he admits that some of his mid-period work does bear the hallmarks of the era in which it was made (“My ‘80s albums sound like ‘80s albums,” he concedes), for the most part he steers clear of trendy production or arrangement choices that might keep his songs from aging well. But Cockburn says that approach isn’t so much intentional as it is the logical result of placing the guitar at the center of things.

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“Listen to something like ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher,’” he suggests, referring to his most well-known song, a U.S. Top 20 single in 1984. Even though the fiery anti-war track features prominent synthesizer work, the arrangement is “all based on the guitar part,” Cockburn says. “Everybody who plays on it has to work around that, and other [sounds] added after the fact have to accommodate it as well.”

Still, Cockburn readily admits that when making Nothing But a Burning Light, his 1991 album with producer T-Bone Burnett, both men were focused on making a record that included “songs that we thought might have a chance on radio.” After sardonically observing that these days an artist doesn’t have to worry about such concerns, he explains that tracks like “Great Big Love” and “A Dream Like Mine” emphasized more radio-friendly qualities. “But T-Bone is all about respecting the essence of the song,” Cockburn says. “Which suited me fine, because that’s what I’m all about.”

Even though the multiple award-winning songwriter is known for thoughtful lyrics that explore themes of social justice, environmental concerns and spirituality, Cockburn emphasizes that “I don’t really have an agenda.” He says that he never approaches an album project with a mindset of, “Okay, we’re going to do an album about this now.”

But the songs are there, he says. “When the spirit walks in the room, these are songs that really need to be out there.” And his belief in a higher power means that he doesn’t take full credit for what he creates. “I’m grateful for having been given the songs,” Cockburn says. Asked what he’d like listeners to take away from time spent with the songs on O Sun O Moon, he pauses for an instant to reflect. “If people feel like they’re plugging into a set of feelings and observations that encourages tolerance and an embrace of difference,” he says, “then I think a great thing has been done.”

Remarkably, there was a time when the prolific songwriter found himself unsure if he’d ever write another song. Cockburn spent an extended period working on his well-received memoir, 2014’s Rumours of Glory. “All the creative energy that I had went into the book,” he says, “and nothing into songs.” By the time he had finished writing the book, he was asking himself, “Do I still know how to put that energy into songs? And is it still something I want – or should – do?”

The answer came when Cockburn was asked to write one song for inclusion in Al Purdy Was Here, a documentary about another prolific artist, the Canadian free verse poet. “I said yes to it on the premise that if I actually [came up with] a song, it would mean I’m a songwriter again,” Cockburn says. “And if I didn’t, then I’d have to be looking at what else to do.”

Happily for both Cockburn and his legion of fans, a song did come. “3 Al Purdys” would be the lead track on the various-artists companion piece of the film, The Al Purdy Songbook. With that issue settled once and for all, Cockburn returned to writing and recording, with four albums of new material since then (there’s also an excellent 2022 set of previously unreleased recordings, Rarities).

But Bruce Cockburn rarely writes to order. While he says that he enjoys occasional planned, collaborative projects like co-writing “To Keep the World We Know” with Aboriginal Canadian singer Susan Aglukark for O Sun O Moon, that type of writing is “an unusual way” for him to operate. For Bruce Cockburn, songwriting is more typically a matter of welcoming the inspiration when it strikes. “I just wait,” he says with a smile.