-- Songwriting: Genre/Evolution of Style --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the various genres of his songwriting.

  • Circa 1991 - 'Goodbye Ruby Tuesday, who can hang a name on you?' :-)

    Michael Case: To fully enjoy Bruce Cockburn's music, one must first fully understand him. Cockburn weaves together elements of jazz, country, rock, world music, pop, reggae, folk and just about every other style known to man(and a few that aren't) to produce his eclectic often changing sound. He also blends even doses of politics, social commentary, spirituality and humanness. So what is it that makes this forty-some year old man one of the most prolific artists in history? Looking closer at what, in his own words, drives him to create, may be where the answer lies.

    Bruce Cockburn: "I've been categorized so many times before that people don't know how to do it anymore," states Cockburn, when questioned about what he would consider his own 'style'. "For me I have to keep moving; I'm a restless person by nature and I have to keep checking out new ways of doing things and that is sort of one of my main approaches to the music that I do...I feel like I have to change the musical context every so often."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man," by Michael Case, Umbrella Magazine, circa 1991.

  • Spring 1993 -

    James Jensen: You tend to feature one or two instrumentals on each of your records was that your intention or did lyrics just not fit the music?

    BC: They were never intended to have lyrics. I always have the lyrics first so that the tunes that have lyrics are constructed around them.
    -- from an Interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa Spring 1993.

  • September 2003 - Commenting on the language of Jazz

    Acoustic Guitar: Did you learn the language of jazz, the theoretical side of it?

    Bruce Cockburn: I studied it. That's what I was doing at Berklee, among other things, because I thought I wanted to compose jazz music for big bands. I studied as much theory as they were able to pack into the couple years I was there, but in the end it wasn't where I wanted to go. I just never related to ii—V's. The kind of harmonies and harmonic structures I was learning were interesting, but they weren't absorbing. What drew me was a kind of harmonic structure that relied less on chord motion and more on, well, the way Indian music relates to the tonality. In Indian music, everything is measured according to its distance from the tonic, and I understood that far better than how to make chords out of scale tones. I learned that, but it didn't touch my heart the way that other, more linear music did.

    AG: Did you ever feel that you had to unlearn jazz theory in order to write the songs you wanted to write?

    Cockburn: I never felt like I had to unlearn anything because I never felt like it made that much of an imposition. I valued what I absorbed from Berklee mostly for the spirit of music there, partly because of the school and its courses and partly—maybe more so—because of the company I was keeping and the fact that everywhere you went, you heard music all the time. If I walked down the alleys, I'd hear people practicing. The jazz guys were exploring Eastern music for the first time, and that captivated me right away. And that was when Hendrix came along. He was obviously listening to some of that too, so there was an immediate kinship with what he was doing, and aspiration of course, because I wasn't doing anything nearly as interesting.

    AG: What led to your collaboration with pianist Andy Milne for the two songs on the new record [You've Never Seen Everything]?

    Cockburn: My friend [violinist] Hugh Marsh, who is very much in evidence on this record and who played with me a lot through the '80s, called up one day and said, "There's this guy Andy Milne, and he's doing pretty neat stuff and wants to meet you." Soon after that we went to New York and Andy came to the gig and introduced himself, gave me a couple of CDs, and said he was interested in collaborating on some songs. The stuff he gave me was amazing. I'd been having this big, long dry spell, and I thought, "This is a gift, a chance to try something I've never done to a significant degree—collaborate with somebody else as a songwriter—and this is going to break the dry spell." We got together, and I had some lyrics that ended up becoming "Trickle Down," but the first thing we worked on was "Everywhere Dance," which we just started from scratch. Andy had a lyric idea, I just started writing stuff, and it immediately went left from where his idea was going, so there's not really a trace of his lyric idea left in the song. He put music to it, and that was it.

    AG: So the harmonies on that came from piano; they don't sound like something a guitarist would come up with.

    Cockburn: No, but it works great on the guitar. This is the wonderful discovery, because when I first heard it, I thought, "This is a song that I co-wrote that I'm never going to be able to play!" But in fact those harmonies fall naturally on the guitar. It was an interesting experience working with him. He's a very talented guy, and his band [Dapp Theory] is so different from anything I've ever worked with. They don't play anything in 4/4 time—everything is in five or seven or 11.

    "We did do a version of my song "Let the Bad Air Out," which they kindly did in four so I could play it. But it was a great learning curve. His band consisted of the standard rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, plus a female vocalist; a harmonica player, Grégoire Maret; and a rapper named Kokayi. Kokayi improvised parts to Trickle Down," that don't appear on my record—his presence didn't really work with my approach to the tune. In the original version [for Dapp Theory's CD Y'all Just Don't Know], it's half me singing and half Kokayi rapping. []

    AG: Grégoire Maret's harmonica parts are so light and beautiful on this record. They remind me of Wayne Shorter's playing with Joni Mitchell.

    Cockburn: He is a beautiful player. He's got incredible ears. He just listens and finds the right place to go in with these not necessarily obvious notes. He sort of is to Toots Thielemans what Wayne Shorter is to Ben Webster. He's got that command of the harmonica, but he plays in a much more modern way than bebop style.

    -- from "Traveling Light Bruce Cockburn enlivens his new songs with forays into electronica and modern jazz," Acoustic Guitar, September 2003, by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.

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    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.