Tender is the Night
Hearsay #14b / 1996 / Interview with Pete 

"It's all about the light of night, street lights off metal - that kind of mood"

BRUCE COCKBURN is an example to us all. First, he writes beautiful songs. Second, he releases them with enviable and honorable frequency. Third, he chooses fine people to work with - Ani DiFranco, Jonatha Brooke and Sam Phillips being just three from recent years. In the wake of a new worldwide deal with Rykodisc and the imminent release of that twenty-third record - The Charity of Night - Pete wandered up to Kensington (why is it always Kensington?) through hordes of Christmas shoppers, negotiated suspicious upper-crust hotel employees, and, armed with a page of questions, turned on his tape recorder...

HEARSAY: Do you consider The Charity of Night a reaction to its predeces­sor [Dart to the Heart]?
BRUCE COCKBURN: I don't tend to think of it as a reaction to what we did so much as just a change of pace. The two albums with T-Bone Burnett – less so Dart To The Heart but particularly Nothing But A Burning Light –the attitude that I had going into the writing of those songs was one of trying to deliberately get into a kind of rootsy direction and structure the songs in a relatively simple way, even though some of the playing wasn't particularly simple but the melody and the chord changes are. I didn't bother thinking like that for this album, so that's one change_ and the reason I didn't bother was that it felt like that statement had been made and that exploration had been done. This album in my mind is bringing the jazziness that was in some of the eighties albums back into the picture but in a different way because I know I learned something from T-Bone. Exploring that rootsier side of things had an effect and that effect is audible on this record in that the jazz is also combined with a sort of rawness that wouldn't have been there if I hadn't done these other things over the past couple of years.

How did you assemble the band for this record?
We did 'em pretty live and they're word and rhythm-intensive songs. Gary Craig is from Toronto, he's done a lot of playing with the guy who co-produced the album with me. He's been around Toronto for quite a while but is not well known outside the Toronto scene. I had heard both Rob Wasserman and Gary Burton in the music from pretty early on in the writing process. I suppose it was a coincidence that they were both available when we wanted them. When I write the songs for an album it's not just a case of deliberately sitting down and knocking them off, it takes place over an extended period but really only half a dozen of the songs were done when I knew that I wanted to go in that jazzy direction. I really heard Rob's bass playing as being suitable: we've done a few things together over the years so I knew what he'd bring to it, and Gary Burton I'd only been intro­duced to, I didn't know him very well but I heard vibes on it and there's nobody better on vibes than him so fortunately they both were available. That was a hell of a band to play with.

When you wrote Night Train were you conscious of Oscar Peterson? There's a similar kind of groove...
I was conscious that I was using a title that had been used a few times before, but actually when you say that it's got a bit of a groove, not the same groove but it's got the quality of groove that he would bring; he had his fast period and his medium tempo period and neither of them quite matches that, but it's interesting that you'd pick up on that.

Did Bob Weir's interest in psychedelic drugs rub off on you?
I was intensely interested in it at one time. We all went through that at the time in question. I'm not given to imbibing psychedelic drugs at this point in my life but there was a period where I explored that in some depth and so I can remember very well what it was like –one of the few things I can remember. I'm not a Dead-head if that's the point of the question. When I met Rob Wasserman it was because I was opening shows for a Weir/Wasserman tour in the States and got along very well with both of them. A couple of years ago, Bob wanted to try and do some writing together so he flew my girlfriend and I, and Rob and his girlfriend down to Hawaii for a week to try and write songs with him. Unfortunately when we got there Bob had a bad toothache and was a little under the weather so he didn't actually end up doing much writing but Rob and I had a great time playing together and I ended up writing Live On My Mind which is on the album. It isn't actually a collaboration but was written during that trip.

Do you have a pencil by your bed ready for when you wake up?
I don't remember my dreams very much and I guess when I do they make a big impression. The ones that stick with me are ones which had some impact. I think I'd have all kinds of great images to use in songs if I ever was a bit more conscious of that – that's when you are conscious of your dreams, when you get abruptly pulled out of them.

Are there many songs left over from the album?
There's not many. We did one song which we completed which didn't end up on the album because we had too many songs and too much time. This particular song is called Wise Users, a version of it is on a benefit album which was put together by the Indigo Girls called Honor The Earth, a Native Environmental concern. We did an acoustic version of it for that album and the version we did in the studio for this album was quite different but because it was already coming out in some form it was the obvious choice for excision. Hopefully the version we did will get out somewhere along the line.

Do you enjoy re-interpreting your songs live?
There's a few of my songs that don't translate very well from one format to another but most of them do and basically I play the same thing whether it's in a band or solo. The guitar part is pretty much written into the song but when you take the other instruments away, what you get is a song and a guitar part It has a different quality for sure and the stripped down presentation focuses attention on the lyrics and on the bare bones of the song in a way that the format of the band never does. I kinda like that although playing with a band is more fun.

The humour in your writing is often overlooked...
Well, it's important in the midst of all that darkness to get a bit of levity in there!

A lot of your songs revolve around movement and have a 'travelogue' quality...
There's a lot of different aspects to travelogue but one of the important ones is the way it can kick you out of your habits of mind, and I think being regularly kicked out of your habits of mind is very important, vital really, from a creative point of view. Some people get that from drugs or indiscriminate sex but in my case it's been mostly through travelogue! It's a common human thing to fall into an habitual way of thinking about things that needs to be stirred up every now and then — we need to keep having these little cultural revolutions, and travel has occupied that function for me more than anything else. There's a lot of material that comes specifically from certain travels. On the new album, the Mozambique trip inspired two songs. The obvious one is The Mines Of Mozambique but also The Coming Rains was written there. Journeys to exotic places don't always produce songs, but sometimes they do.

Do you find the night a creative time? The hour of 3AM is famously good for creative types...
Yeah, it is if you're still awake enough! But generally a lot of the time that's when you've digested whatever you've encountered during the day and things are starting to come back out and there's enough peace and quiet around you that you can focus on writing and organising thoughts on the page. Through the day things tend to be too busy. Ever since I can remember I've been a nocturnal creature. Although I don't live that way at home because we've got horses and dogs and cats so there's a lot of early mornings! But on the road I gravitate and the clock just turns right around for me.

Do you think the moon has influence on things other than the tides?
Probably! I don't know if I know very much about that! But yeah, it certainly has an influence as an image — it's made its mark. It's not just cause it's this thing hanging in the sky that it's occupied such an important place in human mythic imagery. Or maybe it is cause it's just a thing hanging in the sky! Whatever it is, it's powerful, on some level.

What music inspired you to learn to walk? Or to ride a horse?
I can't quite remember back to when I learned to walk, but I can remember quite close to that. My dad thought his first-born should be exposed to the best of everything so he subscribed to a 'record of the month' club and acquired all these execrable perform­ances of fine classical works. He would indoctrinate me with this stuff. I don't think my mum liked it very much. I'm talking three years old now, and I know it was that age because I remember the house that this all took place in. There’s a piece called the Ritual Dance of Fire by some Russian composer — I forget which one — which made a huge impression on me and I could visualise the people dancing round the fire and it would always get me going every time I heard it. After that there was a long gap until Elvis came out and Scotty Moore’s guitar playing made me want to play guitar.

What music produces the same reaction now?
It's hard to get that same reaction now. Although every now and then it happens and it's like an ambush. The first time I heard Ani DiFranco I got that feeling in a big way. It was live, we were at a festival in Colorado. I'd heard a couple of things about her and went to see her and was completely blown away. A Bill Frisell record a while ago did that. He plays some really great stuff, too. I heard some pygmy music on the radio last year when we were driving along, I don't know if they were bathing or washing clothes or whatever, but they were splashing rhythmically on the water and it was a stunning sound! These little things come out of space at you.

Does your enthusiasm for unexpected music explain the union with Rykodisc?
In a subtle way it does, although that particular incident predates any discussion of this union. The whole 'eclectic' thing, whatever that is, may have something to do with it.

Is Gary Burton's percussion similarly informed?
I've no idea what Gary listens to although I know he's been around a range of interesting things. I've had an interest in African music ever since I first discovered there was such a thing. I went through a period in the early 70s when I went out and bought every record of obscure quote-unquote ethnic music I could find. That was tribal music from different parts of Africa and Tibetan music and a whole lot of different things. I didn't try to use any of this specific stuff, but when you listen to that many different kinds of music you get to some subtle essence underneath it all; whatever it is in people that makes us want to sing. You get a feel for that common point of reference, no matter what the surface of the music is like.

And of course jazz has its roots in African music...
Sure it does. It came through in gospel and blues that spawned jazz and since the early days of jazz, it's been a very self-conscious element in a lot of people's playing. A lot of African-Americans have tried to assimilate the traditional African rhythms and put them to use. But the whole feel of swing is directly traceable to African influence. Everything in most African music is in six even if it's really fast, and that's where the swing feel comes from. Interestingly enough, the music from Mozambique does not have that character. It's a real four/four kind of thing and, you know what? They clap on one and three! It was a great revelation to discover that.

What did Rob Wasserman bring to the new record? He's always struck me as somewhat Mingus-like...
Rob is Mr Eclectic himself. He doesn't worry about labels in music The aggressive nature of his playing is quite Mingus-like – I guess cause he'd like to be leader all the time! He's really different from almost anyone else because there's so much of the space of jazz in his playing and attitude of jazz. But he doesn't really play like a jazz player when he's playing rock n roll, he sounds like a rock n roll player, he approaches it like a rock n roll player. He really kicks ass rhythmically. He's lots of fun to play with. I've done a few live things with him, too –there's just this tremendous kind of energy heaving underneath you that comes from him. Gary [Burton] said after the first day of sessions – we'd done maybe two tunes, averaging about two a day – and he said, 'wow, it took me a while to figure out what he was doing!' He'd never played with these guys before – he's used to playing with a bass player who plays roots and fifths, you know, the basic stuff. But once he got onto it, he was really enjoying it. He's got a great groove capacity himself.

Who would play you in the TV movie of your life?
Jeepers! I guess I'd try to get David Duchovny. Stick some round glasses on him, he'd be great!

Do you derive direct inspiration from films, literature and painting?
Yes. Films indirectly as a kind of visual attitude more than anything specific I can think of off the top of my head. There are certainly lots and lots and lots from literary sources, lots of influences from novels and poems, Allen Ginsberg's stuff from the early eighties, especially where a lot of it's travel related, the images of things seen out of vehicle windows, that kind of stuff.

Birmingham Shadows is kind of Beat-y-
Yes, it's a bit Beat-y and that one's not really travel, it's just a scene. An unfolding scene, at the pace at which you walk. Kind of like a long tracking shot. But you're right, that's exactly what it's like. I don't start out writing a song with these things in mind but I know, looking at what I do, that this is what I do. I tend to structure things in terms of visual scenes, the way you would if you were cutting film and I write things like a movie a lot, especially on this album – maybe more than on a lot of the other ones. Its all about the light of night, you know; street lights off of metal, it's all that kind of mood.

The effect like a halo around a cloud seems to turn up quite a lot.
Good. I'm glad that turned up for you!

Pacing the Cage reminds me of Rilke...
I never read any Rilke till about a month ago, when I was talking to Sam Phillips on the phone and she said something about him and I said, 'I'm always hearing about him' and she goes, 'You've GOT to read Rilke. I knew how much influence he'd had on the Beats and so I now own a small volume of his poetry. I'm just starting to get into it It's not a direct influence, more a second-hand influence of some kind from somewhere.

There's quite a lot of imagery that strikes me as being like William Blake as well.
Yes, it's got that big, sweeping, cosmic Blakeian thing. It's not a conscious thing but those guys, I'm not as conscious of their influence as Allen Ginsberg who, when I look at a lot of my stuff, I see right on the surface. I'll go,'that's too much like Allen, I’ll have to change that. But not maybe in these songs per se but in a lot of my stuff. But with Blake and T.S. Eliot and the poets we studied at school, who I have great admiration for and was profoundly affected by, I don't tend to see the cause and effect relationship quite as clearly. But Blake's there because he did make an impression on me.

Do you see yourself as an optimist or a pessimist?

Not really either. More of a pragmatist! I'm a kind of romantic pragmatist, I guess, or a jaundiced optimist. I wouldn't be unquali­fiedly one or the other.

Joe Henry says he's a 'closet optimist'...
That's a good answer, but he's probably more of an optimist than I am, although you wouldn't hear that in his songs necessarily. At least he gives me that impression, anyway! To me, there is lots of room for optimism on a personal level; spiritually and in terms of any individual's personal growth. On a global scale things look to me like they're increasingly dark and threatening, whatever that adds up to.

Have you decided what game you're going to play with the Reaper when he comes for you?
I'm going to challenge him to a shooting match!

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