Years in the making
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Date: 4 September, 2003

Bruce Cockburn. Photo:
'There are a couple of very dark songs on it but to me the whole album has a lot of light about it.'

Martin Wroe talks to Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn about his latest album 'You Never Seen Everything'.

How long has this record been in the making?
The writing took place over four years, with the exception of Celestial Horses which had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time. In fact although we finished recording in December, the experience behind that track took place in 1978. It didn't quite gell as a song back then, I had the verses more or less, but no chorus. It took until 2002 to get that.

You keep hold of ideas for songs for years.
I have a suitcase full of notebooks of various shapes and sizes and conditions, going back to 1969. This idea had been with me all that time: the vision that gave rise to the song was a vivid one, the memory stayed with me and came back to me periodically as something I should do something about.

A vision in the mystical sense?
Yes. I was staying in people's yards in my truck on my way back from some shows on the west coast. The local people showed me this uncommercialised hot spring that came bubbling out of the mountains. I climbed up and sat up to my neck in this hot sulphurous water - watching a full moon on the other side of this beautiful valley with a lake at the bottom. I didn't literally think there were celestial horses coming down the rays of the moon but that's what I saw in my mind and after all these years I finally got a chorus that pulls it into a song.

When you come to writing new songs, do you go looking in your suitcase for the notebooks? At the end of the last tour I had had a pretty long dry spell, longer than I liked. I took some time off, which was partly why I started looking in old notebooks. At the same time Andy Milne, this young jazz pianist based in New York, came along after a gig and gave me a couple of his CD's and said he would like to co-write some music.

This was something I had never done before, but his timing was great - why not give it a shot? We ended up with Trickle Down and Everywhere Dance. Trickle Down uses words I had in my current notebook, close to the form they appear on the record but Everywhere Dance just came totally from scratch, sitting at a table talking about ideas.

On first two or three plays You've Never Seen Everything seems quite a dark record?
There are a couple of very dark songs on it but to me the whole album has a lot of light about it. As much as my albums are about anything, this one is about hope in the face of the disastrous effects of human greed. There is a reason why the last word on the album is hope.

I think we are on the brink of a critical moment in human history, with the potential for humanity to move significantly forward spiritually. But in order to do that we have to not self-destruct - as personified by the attitudes and policies of the current administration in DC. They are not the only bad guys but they are a case in point, guys who have no idea what their humanity means and so no idea of what anyone else's humanity means. One theme running through the album is the fact that I'm upset at the way that greed is being celebrated as a virtue instead of being one of the seven deadly sins. That is such a destructive element both personally and globally and we see its effect everywhere.

Many of the people who appear to be motivated by hate are actually motivated by fear.
Hate is nothing, it comes out of anger, out of fear, it is secondary. When I read Sufi literature I don't feel anger I find a very highly developed sense of the interconnectedness of things and people and the importance of love, but when I hear the pronouncements of others from the Islamic side of things, it is a little harder to find that. The same can be said of the Christian community.

One of the things I try to say in 'You've Never Seen Everything' is that you can look at all this darkness and the horrible aspects of human behaviour and you can become cynical as a response and that is useless. That is never seeing 'the light falling all around'. But if you put it in your heart you still retain the capacity to feel the presence of light as well. All my albums are about me going through my own spiritual changes and this is a case in point. The older I get I kid myself that I am getting deeper, and this is what I have to say about it at the moment.

Put it In Your Heart seems to be an oblique response to September 11, 2001?
Yes, it is, occasioned by two things. Initially seeing Jerry Falwell on TV, three days after 9/11, with Pat Robertson sitting beside him, discussing how 'this whole terrible tragedy was caused by gays and lesbians and people who've had abortions.' And he's looking at me, and my initial response was. 'Somebody shoot that son of a bitch.'

Then I realised that here he is looking to lay blame for this thing and throwing it anywhere based on his pet theories. And there is Osama bin Laden, representing his own theories and his constituency are angry and fearful and bitter. And Falwell is responding in the same way. And now here am I responding like that. OK, here is a very clear chain and it has to be broken and how do we break it ? Meditating on that produced the song, the understanding that the only way to cope with things like this is to take them into our hearts. Not to stand back and judge and fear. You have to dive right in.

Is the world getting better or worse?
Both. I think there is a richness and beauty in humanity which is flowering right now. There is something new in human spirituality, openness, a sense of common destiny. We've got to keep nudging ourselves in the direction of good and respect for each other.
But there is also this incredibly dark stuff on the horizon. In American I talk about it in terms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it is as if the Hellmouth is wide open and all this shit is coming out, as typified by Bush who, if he was a smarter guy would be analagous to the Mayor of Sunnydale.

And we have to resist that and the only way we can resist is with love because we can't outgun them, they have the biggest weapons. We have to love them to death basically. Everyone who understands the importance of love has to get up and shout about it now and try to live it. That's the only way we are going to survive. And its Love with a big L - Love which understands the inexplicable interconnectedness of everything.

Postcards from Cambodia eludes to that interconnectedness, where you describe what you see as 'too big for anger, too big for blame' and end up bowing your head in 'a prayer for us all.'
Standing in front of the Monument to The Killing Fields, the overwhelming feeling is that the whole Pol Pot exercise was a human event not just a Cambodian event. The more people have that understanding the more likely we are to survive the next couple of decades, because the other guys are taking us in a direction where there won't be enough water to go around, where there isn't enough food, where the environment is rendered irreversibly changed for the worse.

This is your 25th original album. Do you ever feel that there won't be another one, that it is too difficult, that maybe, whatever it is, it is gone.
I always feel like that. I just don't take it for granted although I have three new songs and a couple of guitar pieces I am working on so there is evidence there will be another album. Who knows what will happen ? Ten years from now I will be approaching seventy, who knows what I will feel like then, except that I'm not anticipating retirement! You just keep on going, unless you think of something better to do which I haven't. It doesn't get harder, it gets easier. Nothing gets harder, it just gets different.