Bruce Cockburn: 50 Years of Songs

“Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage/ Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage/ Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights/ What did they think the politics of panic would invite?/ Person in the street shrugs ‘Security comes first’/ But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse/ The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”—Bruce Cockburn “The Trouble with Normal”

Finding the right words to express the zeitgeist has never been a problem for Bruce Cockburn. Take the lyrics from the chorus of his 1983 hit cited above. Normal is what everyone pines to discover in a year marked by fear and uncertainty. Let’s hope when normalcy returns, it’s not a harbinger of the next wave of bad news. For more than 50 years, the iconic Canadian songwriter has been carefully crafting words and phrases into storied songs—some more politically charged than others. Over the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to share a half dozen conversations with the Canadian Songwriting Hall of Famer. Getting a good quote is never an issue. Finding a way to weave as many of his wise words as possible into my finished feature is the challenge.

Like everyone in the music industry, 2020 has been a challenging year for Bruce. His plans for 2020 are on hold. Shows cancelled, rebooked, and rescheduled until whenever it’s safe to play live again. This year was supposed to be a celebration of a milestone—50 years as a songwriter and the golden anniversary of his self-titled debut on the label founded by his manager Bernie Finkelstein. Instead, Cockburn released a limited edition vinyl box set via True North Records and participated in several multi-artist streamed shows.

“I’m not nostalgically inclined by nature, but it’s interesting to say I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he reflects. “50 years is 50 years of being beaten by the weather, metaphoric, and actual, but it still feels like a milestone. I’m happy True North did this 50thbox set. More than anything, it finally gives vinyl versions of a couple of records I think are the best I’ve ever done.”

Asked about the secret to his 50-year business relationship—and friendship—with Cockburn, Finkelstein says: “I guess we are just two people that want to stay together. It’s that simple. I joke that since Bruce and I never had a formal management contract, he doesn’t know when it is over! We just are on the same track on what needs to be done. We’ve been right more than wrong and here we still are.”

The 50th anniversary vinyl package was limited to 750 copies personally signed by Cockburn. No surprise, it sold out within the first month. True North—A 50th Anniversary Box Set includes the songwriter’s debut Bruce Cockburn; and a pair of records that have never appeared before on vinyl: The Charity of Night (1997); and the JUNO-winning Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu (1999). Colin Linden, Cockburn’s long-time friend, producer, and frequent bandmate, re-mastered the records. Linden loved Cockburn as a fan long before the pair became friends. His brother had a copy of the songwriter’s debut and Linden recalls seeing the guitar virtuoso perform for the first time on his 11th birthday: April 16, 1971. Linden produced both The Charity of Nightand Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu; the Grammy-winning artist feels these albums are two of Cockburn’s best. He remembers well that night 24 years ago when Bruce showed up at his Toronto apartment with The Charity of Night demos. Linden says listening to sketches for songs like “Pacing the Cage” for the first time was “life-changing.” “It was just one brilliant song after another,” Linden says today from his Nashville, Tenn. home. “After Bruce left that night, I asked if I could do some overdubs on the demos. My wife [Janice] and I had some ideas for additional parts and textures. I made a rough mixtape of the songs with our overdubs and Bruce really liked them. That is how I got the call to produce that record.”

After laying down the bulk of the tracks at Toronto’s Reaction Studios, Linden and Cockburn travelled to the San Francisco Bay area to do some additional recording at Bob Weir’s studio where they also added vocals from Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur. New Orleans was the final stop where Calgary-born John Whynot mixed the record at Kingsway—Daniel Lanois’ studio. “Mixing in Lanois’ studio changed everything for me in terms of how I’ve made records for the last 25 years,” says Linden, “just the whole aesthetic of how Dan creates a recording environment. You can see the fruits of that in my home studio today. Making that record was a life-changing experience.”

Catching up with Cockburn in the middle of a pandemic finds him as contemplative as ever, happy to chat about his career, his approach to songwriting, and life in 2020. When we chat, the 75-year-old is enjoying some family time in the college town of Arcata, California with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. The family of three is in the midst of a road trip in an RV, cruising up the Pacific Coast, and visiting with friends—at a social distance of course. After three months shut-in at home in San Francisco, Cockburn needed a respite from the monotony of domesticity.

“I was expecting to be doing a whole bunch of shows,” he says. “It was unfortunate to have to let go of that. It’s hard to stay motivated at times with no gigs. And, I can’t get together with others to get inspired, so that is also a bit odd, but contrary to my expectations I’ve been very busy, helping my daughter with online classes and getting lunches made.”

In an election year, for a songwriter who has never shied away from making his opinion known on political matters, does he feel the need to capture his mood in a new song or two? “I feel like there is so much blather right now, I don’t need to add to it,” Cockburn says. “It’s not that all of what people are saying is not meaningful, but there are just so many voices clamouring I don’t have much to add to that conversation. I have opinions and feelings that will eventually show up, but at this point, what am I going to say about Trump that hasn’t been said and who needs it anyway?”

After 50 years of writing songs, I ask if his approach has changed. “The process is not so different,” he explains, “it’s just more deliberate now. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing songs. I didn’t understand how it all worked. I wait around for a good idea and write down anything that is useful: images, and other bits and pieces as they come. Eventually, some idea will show up that triggers an actual song. What is different now is I pay more attention to the details and I’m fussier, but it still takes an emotional trigger or a phrase of some sort to get it going. Sometimes I have an idea that sounds good and then realize I said that 40 years ago.”

Cockburn’s songwriting journey began more than five decades ago in Ottawa, Ontario. After a couple of years studying at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, majoring in composition, he dropped out of school in 1965 and returned to his hometown to start a band (The Children). Finkelstein recalls seeing a young Cockburn as part of this short-lived group when they opened for The Lovin’ Spoonful at a show in Kingston, Ontario. “The Children were interesting and good, but they left no great impression on me one way or the other. Bruce was just a member of the band.”

Once Bruce left The Children to pursue a solo career, and started to pen his own material, is when he really left an impression on Finkelstein—enough of an impression that he signed him to a record deal, the first for True North Records. The memorable gig occurred at The Pornographic Onion, a coffeehouse at Ryerson University run by Eugene Martynec. Martynec (who went on to produce Bruce’s first 10 records) heard his friend was starting a record label and told him he had an artist called Bruce Cockburn that Finkelstein had to hear. “I didn’t realize how good he was until after I signed him,” recalls Finkelstein, who sold True North Records in 2007, but still manages Cockburn. “He played ‘Going to the Country’ and my ears lit up. I thought that could be a hit. Within one month I signed Bruce and that December we went into Eastern Sound and made his debut album.”

Pornographic Onion poster featuring a young Bruce Cockburn courtesy of the Ryerson University archives.


Thirty-four albums later, 13 JUNO Awards, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and an Officer of the Order of Canada, Cockburn could easily rest. Alas, putting down their notebook and ignoring the muse is not part of an artist’s DNA.   

Until a vaccine is found and it’s safe for a return to the new normal, whatever it looks like, Cockburn, like all artists, is waiting. He’s hopeful to hit the road and play selections from his half-century catalogue of songs to live audiences again sometime in 2021.

“There is reason to be hopeful, but right now it is a game of wait and see,” he concludes. “If people would just get more responsible – and take the steps necessary to get past this pandemic. If it follows the pattern of the 1918 Spanish Flu, it will run its course and eventually fade away and we will all forget about it until the next one comes along – and there will be a next one I’m sure. It’s really important that we as a species and culture use the stresses and openings that have been provided at this moment to move ourselves forward.”

Lindsay Ell Living the Dream

Lindsay Ell is enjoying a rare day off at home in Nashville. “It feels like I’ve been on the road six out of seven days,” she says. But Ell’s not complaining. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter loves touring. Every morning, she rolls out of bed and follows her passion. “I’ve prayed of being this tired ever since I was a little girl! I get to live my dream and tour with acts I dreamed of playing with, growing up.”

Since the release of The Project last August, the Calgary native, now based in Music City, has piled up the accolades. From the moment this debut dropped, it flew up the charts. The 12-song collection hit No.1 on the iTunes Country albums chart, No. 2 on the iTunes All Genres albums chart, and earned a No. 1 position on the Nielsen Soundscan Current Country Albums Chart in the U.S. High-profile U.S. TV appearances followed, including The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

With the help of producer Kristian Bush (of Sugarland), Ell has found her sweet spot. As she writes in the liner notes, “I wanted to call this album The Project because that’s exactly what it was. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m a different singer, different guitar player, and different artist. I’ve finally found my voice.”

When asked if she ever imagined such rapid success, Ell remains humble. “I wanted my fans to fall in love with the songs like I did,” she says. “But I had no idea it would debut at No. 1. It all still feels surreal.”

“Castle,” co-written with Abbey Cone and Josh Kerr, is one of many highlights on the critically acclaimed album. The song is a metaphor for Ell’s philosophy of staying grounded no matter what success comes her way. In the chorus, she sings, “And even if we had a house up on a hill/ I bet we’d want a castle.”

“It’s so easy, regardless of where we are in society, to think we never have enough, or we’re not cool enough, etc.,” says Ell. “We all get caught up in this cycle, but it’s not where our hearts and minds should be focused; it’s not reality. That song is about keeping things in perspective, and being grateful for what we have, and the lives we get to live everyday.”

Easy advice to take to heart, but how does the artist – as she stockpiles No.1 singles and her star rises – live this philosophy? “My fans,” she says. “I have such a close relationship to them and they keep my reality in check.” Ell is a self-confessed social media fanatic – spending an average of five hours a day on her various online accounts. “I talk to my fans, and see how my shows and songs influence their lives, and that keeps everything in check.”

All 12 tracks on The Project are either co-writes, or written by other artists. The album is a powerful collection of personal songs with simple, universal messages of love and hope. Before moving to Nashville eight years ago, Ell admits she’d never collaborated on writing a song. Now, co-writes are the norm. The first single, “Waiting on You,” was a Top 5 Canadian Country radio hit. The bluesy, country-rock song is the one that kick-started The Project sessions; it was a co-write with Adam Hambrick and Andrew DeRoberts. “Champagne,” a co-write with Walker Hayes, is another of Ell’s favourites, because it forced her to step outside her comfort zone.

“It was a great experience for me to have as a writer to learn there are no rules,” she says. “You can be fearless when you’re writing; there’s always an editing step later. I was with Walker and asked him: ‘Can we rhyme feel with Jessica Biel?’ and he said: ‘Of course you can!’ That was a good writing lesson.”

Ell’s music lessons – formal and informal – started young. By six she was playing the piano, and by eight she was learning guitar licks, honing her chops by following her father to country-bluegrass camps. These days, just like one of Ell’s early mentors sang, Ell is certainly takin’ care of business. Fifteen years ago, as a 13-year-old, she met Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Randy Bachman.

Says Ell, “Randy heard a demo I’d made of Jann Arden cover songs and Tommy Emmanuel guitar instrumentals, and said, ‘She sounds like a young female Chet Atkins; I need to meet her.’” A writing session between Bachman and Ell was arranged, and the Guess Who co-founder became the budding songwriter’s biggest fan. “He got me into blues, jazz, and rock, and that gave me a whole new vocabulary for my music that I hadn’t tapped into yet,” says Ell.

Today, the pair still keeps in touch. Bachman taught Ell one other important life lesson: never lose sight of why you chose this career. “Randy told me that this life I’ve chosen will be an emotional rollercoaster, and that I always need to remember why I love doing what I’m doing, and that will keep me grounded,” says Ell. “That’s great advice, that I still think about every day.”

1) Honesty is the key. “That is the No. 1 rule; it’s also a rule to never break. The more vulnerable you can be as a songwriter, the better the song usually is… The more real I can be, the better I believe the song is.”
2) Write every single day. “Whether it’s a title or just two lines. The voice memo app in my phone is embarrassing, but it’s filled with little tidbits, crazy ideas of me singing as I’m walking in an airport, or lying in bed half asleep… I try to write something every day and capture ideas as they come.”
3) There are no rules! “The minute I say, ‘It’s got to be done like this,’ tomorrow I’ll wake up and break my own rule!”
Those dream acts include Brad Paisley (with whom Ell is currently touring); Sugarland (who are re-uniting and taking her on the road this summer); and Keith Urban (Ell joins the four-time Grammy winner for the second leg of his Canadian Graffiti U World Tour in September 2018).

Before recording The Project, producer Kristian Bush gave Ell an assignment she couldn’t refuse. “So many people have influenced me, so I didn’t know where to begin, or go next, with my music,” says Ell. “In our first meeting, Kristian… asked me what my favourite record of all time was, and I told him: John Mayer’s Continuum. He said, ‘Perfect! I want you to go record the whole thing. These are the only rules: you have two weeks; you need to play all the instruments; and you need to do it at the studio.’ For 14 days, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. trying to get this done… I learned so much about Mayer, and how he played guitar, and how I played guitar, and how I wanted my next record to sound. The gears just clicked.” After two weeks in the studio, she handed the assignment to Bush. “I told him, ‘I finally know how I want my record to sound!’” Ell has decided to release her version of Continuum, so her fans can hear her homework. It’ll be out later this year.

I’ll Carry for You: Artist Pens Tribute to Henderson Sisters

There’s nothing so beautiful as sisterly love.

In less than two weeks, Canadian siblings Brooke and Brittany Henderson are set to team up, on the fairways of Rio, as golf returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. The Henderson’s hope their passion for the sport — and their love for each other — gives them an edge as they go for gold in Brazil.

When he’s not on tour or crafting another chart-topping song, one of Chip Taylor’s favourite things to do is watch golf. “I especially love the women’s tour and rooting for the Henderson sisters,” says the recent Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inductee.

Taylor, best known for the hits “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” has had his compositions covered by the likes of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Frank Sinatra; he gets chills whenever he pens a song with staying power. The story of the Henderson sisters recently inspired the songwriter’s muse. About three years ago, he started to watch YouTube videos of the Canadian golfers. “I thought they were terrific together,” he recalls. “Brooke had this amazing powerful swing. I was rooting for her to make it. I’ve followed her career since and then I started to write some songs about them.”

Chip’s EP I’ll Carry for You released just two weeks ago on Train Wreck Records features a batch of songs that give him the chills. Brooke and Brittany’s deep-rooted love for one another inspired the title cut. In this song, Taylor sings:

“Sisters of the same blood/Same moon up above/Same air that I breathe/Same dreams that you see/Sisters hurt when they fall/ All you’ve got to do is call me/And I’ll carry for you/ I’ll carry for you.”

Born James Wesley Voight in Yonkers, New York, the songwriter says Brooke and Brittany’s journey to the LPGA captivated him from the start. “The story is just so amazing,” he says. “How kind they are together … you can just see their love for each other when they are going around the golf course.”

The 76-year-old songwriter feels a similar bond with his two siblings; his brothers are Academy Award winning actor Jon Voight and Barry — one of the foremost geologists in the world in the area of interpreting volcanic activity. While his brother Jon did not caddy for him, he always walked with him when Chip competed in junior tournaments and offered moral support and encouragement.

Taylor’s love for golf came naturally. Taylor’s dad was a golf professional. Chip played in many amateur tournaments during his formative years and he turned pro a while before he found success in the music business. His adopted name originated because he was so good around the greens.

“My dream was music, but I loved golf,” he concludes. “These days, whether I’m on the road, or making a new album, I’m always trying to catch up on golf … that is my relaxation.”

ROB THOMAS: Climbing the Ranks

While his wife checks the fan message board on his website at their home in Westchester, NY, singer/songwriter Rob Thomas enjoys a little down time. The songwriter has just returned from walking the dog, and seeing his wife checking the message board has him joking that they know more about his canine friend than he does. The board has been particularly active since April 19, when Thomas released his solo debut, Something to Be, on Atlantic Records. While his fans have had no trouble accepting this transition-from Matchbox Twenty frontman to solo performer-Thomas admits that he’s still coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer in a band.

Describing the album, he keeps speaking in the first-person plural. Luckily, his wife chirps in from the background and reminds him that it’s “his album,” so there’s no need to speak of “we.”

You would think that three Grammys and worldwide sales of more than 25 million units is motivation enough for the songsmith to win the battle of the bed each morning. Not so. Rather, it’s the magic of the creative process and the moment when a song is born that truly inspires him.

“You walk into a room and there’s nothing there…a big, silent, empty room,” Thomas says. “Then, there’s a good chance of leaving that room with a song that never existed before that maybe other people will be singing a couple of years down the road. That’s an amazing concept to me.

“I take it all the way back to the point that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ did not exist, and one day these writers went into a room and came out with this amazing song, and now it’s a piece of history,” he continues. “It’s the one part of all of this that no matter how you try to fuck it up, you can’t. It stays pure. No matter what happens to it later, no matter where it goes, no matter how people decide to sell records or not sell records, that part doesn’t get changed.”

Selling records was never a problem for Thomas with Matchbox Twenty, and it’s proving to be a non-issue with Something to Be. The first single, “Lonely No More,” flew up the charts upon release in March, and it was the No. 1 most added track at multiple formats long before its February 14 impact date. And, on April 27, Something to Be opened at No. 1 on The Billboard 200.

There’s no doubting that Thomas is a songwriter that makes an impact; the accolades speak for themselves. In June 2004, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented him with their first ever “Starlight Award,” created to recognize someone in the early years of his or her career that is already making a lasting impact. In addition, he has earned 13 BMI Awards, including both Songwriter and Song of the Year. He was named Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year two years in a row.

“That can carry you a long way in your head,” he says of all these accolades. “It’s a lot easier to shove off a bad criticism that you read in a magazine if Bernie Taupin is a really big fan.”

While this is Thomas’ first full album of original music working without his band, he has previously had the opportunity to play and write with several of his personal fans, who just happen to be songwriting legends. “I’ve been really fortunate with Matchbox, so any outside writing has been based on the idea, ‘Can I learn a whole lot from this’ or ‘Does this sound like something that is going to be a lot of fun?’” he explains. “So, I’ve worked with people that I’m a big fan of in some way-everybody from Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson to people like Phil Vassar and Pat Green.”

Working with the septuagenarian songwriter Nelson was a definite high for Thomas, in more ways than one. “We spent two days together, and he just wound up doing three of my songs,” he reveals. “We sat down to write something together and we never actually wrote anything. We just really got high for two days and played each other songs.
“With Mick Jagger it was a different thing all together,” Thomas continues. “We spent two days together. It would be a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then we would go out drinking. He was such an intense writer. I didn’t expect that out of him.”

“To see him grab a guitar and run into the other room and start just beating a melody out, and even more importantly, to see him doing it the same way that I do it…being really raw and not being afraid to make noises that don’t make any sense…seeing that as a young writer and seeing one of my idols doing that, that’s a nice sense that everything is right in the world and I’m doing things the way I should be doing them.”

Another valuable career lesson that Thomas recalls came from Carlos Santana several years ago, while the pair were collaborating on what would become the Grammy-winning single “Smooth.”

“When I met Carlos we [Matchbox Twenty] had just finished coming off the road for our first record and we had sold all these records, yet we still were very secure in the knowledge that we weren’t that much better of a band than we were when we started,” he says. “But, all of a sudden we were in this arena…first off, literally in an arena…but in the arena of all these other rock stars and selling all these records that we were all of a sudden supposed to be at this level and we weren’t. And, we were standing there with our dicks in our hands going ‘What do we do now? Is this it?’ because it didn’t feel like it.

“Working with Carlos, it seemed like it had this really serendipitous perfect timing for him to come along and be like, ‘Hey listen, it’s the fucking journey man…there is no destination,’” continues Thomas. “‘If you do all this and sell all these records, then all you have done is buy yourself a chance to be a better band-to buy yourself the chance to be better musicians, better songwriters, and work on that and realize that sooner or later if you have something that tanks, that’s fine. That just becomes part of your repertoire. Ten years down the road, that might be people’s favourite song…the one that didn’t work. It’s just a matter of doing this long enough that that could come to fruition.’”

With Something to Be, Thomas continues this musical journey, realizing there is no destination and hoping that one of the tracks just might become a fan’s favourite song today or a decade from now. While he still struggles with the fact that he’s not in Matchbox Twenty anymore-and he’s out there on his own (at least for a time)-it’s something the award-winning songwriter’s always had in the back of his mind.

“Everyone kept asking me ‘What’s the difference going to be? Why do a solo record? If you write these songs and you’re the front man, what do you have to say that you are not saying?’” says Thomas. “It’s a testament to Matchbox Twenty that there’s a lot [of speculation]. Because when we do something with Matchbox, it’s a full band effort, and every sound that we put on there is like the result of an argument between five people. So, going in and being responsible for it all yourself was the difference.”

As a songwriter, being responsible for the writing has never been a problem. It comes naturally for Thomas, so in that regard, penning songs for a Matchbox record or for this new solo venture was no different. “The writing part of it always feels like the easy part,” he says. “It seems like ‘This is what I do…this is the way I was born,’ so I write all the time anyway. I’m just lucky enough that I get to do it for a living or else I would just have a lot of songs that nobody’s heard.”

For Thomas, a song’s genesis usually begins on the guitar, even though he admits he’s a lot better piano player. “A lot of times I start on the guitar, but I just kind of get stuck,” he explains. “I know what chord I want to play, but I can’t play it. So then I switch to piano, and I’m not blocked by something simple like chord progressions. The only problem is that if you start on the piano, a lot of times it seems you tend to go a lot mellower because anything that you play on the piano-and try and rock-just sounds stupid. No matter what you do, it all just sounds like ‘Crocodile Rock.’”

At the end of the day, whether in a band, in collaboration with others, or by his lonesome, composing songs is really what drives Thomas to get out of bed in the morning.

“It’s the one thing that I wouldn’t want to quit,” he concludes. “I could probably quit everything else. At the end of the day, I get a bigger reward out of writing a great song than I do out of being a pop star. That’s something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

This article originally appeared in American Songwriter.