With a new Greatest Hits album, the Canadian folk-rock legend looks back on a half century in music
Bruce Cockburn could be considered Canada’s national treasure.
Now marking a milestone 50 year anniversary of making music, he can look back on a remarkable list of accomplishments — among them, inclusion in both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, no less than 13 Juno Awards, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, inclusion in Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto and the most prestigious honor of all, induction as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
With nearly three dozen albums to his credit, it’s little surprise he’s amassed those honors. Nevertheless, the novice might best be advised to check out his forthcoming double album compilation, Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits (1970-2020) was released on December 3rd courtesy of his longtime record label True North. It could be considered quite an accomplishment.
“Yeah,” Cockburn agrees. “Except that it doesn’t include some of the longer thoughtful songs and the instrumentals. Still, that’s not a bad problem to have.”
Given that abundance of riches, one would have to agree with his sentiment. The songs that make up this compilation were those that were intended as singles and aimed at attaining airplay. In a sense, it’s a wannabe greatest hits, but even so, it’s a fine chronicle of Cockburn’s work that goes back to the foundations of his songwriting career.
“Once in a while I forget — well, more than once in a while, quite often actually — I don’t remember making these specific songs,” he muses. “So when I do go back and listen to the older ones that if I haven’t heard in a while, I’m generally kind of surprised at how good they are.”
That might seem odd coming from the man that recorded the music in the first place, and while Cockburn tends to agree, he also offers a ready explanation for having arrived at that actual assessment.
“I realize it’s a weird thing to say about yourself, I suppose. But I just sort of think, ‘yeah, okay, that’s what we did back then.’ But given some allowance for improved recording techniques, or just just better understanding of the studio and what to do in it, they hold up really well. What I remember about each of them was the fact that we just did the best we could at the time, in terms of of the songwriting and the recording and performing. That seems to have worked pretty well overall.”
In a very real sense, the new album is a document of a life well-lived, both as an artist and as an activist who’s never been afraid to stake out certain truths, whether it’s social, spiritual or political.
“I feel great gratitude for having been able to do it this long and being able to leave a few breadcrumbs along the way,” Cockburn reflects. “There’s been times when I’ve been aware of it being that. Even going back to the early days, when it I asked myself, what’s the point of me doing these songs? But once I started understanding what I was really doing, writing about my very personal view of things, I realized it really wasn’t about being that personal. I think I’m reflecting some aspect of the human experience. It’s not just about me. And so, in that process, I am leaving a trail. This is one guy’s experience of a life in song, expressed in song, and hopefully other people will find things to relate to in them. And, in fact, they do seem to. So I don’t think I’m leaving a trail as a plan, per se, but I am aware of the fact that that’s kind of what I’m doing.”
The trail hasn’t ended, of course. Cockburn says there are plans for another tour, one he’s dubbed “The 2nd Attempt Tour,” given the fact it was intended tp take place last year to mark his 50th anniversary, but, like everything else, delayed due to the pandemic.
“We’ve got shows booked from December, through the winter into the spring and in bits and pieces, and we’re adding more as time goes on,” Cockburn notes. “So hopefully, all this stuff’s gonna actually come to pass.”
Of course, that raises the question of whether Cockburn still enjoys the idea of touring?
“I did two years ago, the last time I did it,” he replies. “I’m looking forward to trying it again. I mean, it’s been kind of frustrating to not be able to play for people. That’s when the music really comes alive.”
Speaking of which, he also mentions that recording plans are also in the works.
“I’m just about ready to make another album actually,” he suggests. “There are two things I really want to do. We did an instrumental album, which I wanted to do for a long time. And then I want to make an album of my new songs, which I’m two or three songs into for that. But I also want to do an album of cover songs one of these days, but that always seems to get put on the back burner. It was lurking quite close to the front of the burner for about a year, but then I got all these new songs and now that that’s gonna take precedence.
“Anyway, one of these days, if I live long enough, those things will get done and then who knows after that. We’ll do some cover songs, an idiosyncratic range of stuff that I like and stuff that’s had some effect on me over the years. Mostly though, just songs that I liked and that I could figure out how to do.”
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