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In your writing, does the tuning inspire the song, or is it the other way around?
In the case of an instrumental piece like “Lois on the Autobahn,” the tuning influences the composition. In the end, a piece like that is a composite of different ideas that have come from fooling around in the tuning. But sometimes I’ll start a new song with the words, and find something to capture the feel of the lyrics. Certain words sometimes seem to want certain tunings.
The record is also filled with clever arrangements featuring the violinist Jenny Scheinman and others. Did you compose specific parts for the musicians, or was it more of a collaborative affair?
It was very collaborative. I wrote fixed guitar parts into the songs, in many pieces just strummed chords, so everybody had to work around those. My general approach is just to let people play along with my music. I tend to work with high caliber musicians who come up with great ideas, but if I don’t like what someone’s playing, I’ll just nudge things in another direction. In other words, I usually function more as an editor than an arranger.
Even when you record with a band you often perform solo. Is that a consideration you factor into your songwriting?
I wrote all my songs so that they can be played solo. At the same time, I try to leave a little space for musicians who might join me in playing the songs. For instance, when I was writing some of the songs for Small Source of Comfort, I had Jenny [Scheinman]’s sound in mind. She’s got such a brilliant musical mind and we have a great chemistry together. I also wrote some songs that would work on their own or with Annabelle Chvostek, a Canadian singer-songwriter who joined in on the writing and on vocals, guitar, and mandolin.
A number of your songs are inspired by your travels and your humanitarian work.
Through the auspices of various organizations, I’ve been to troubled areas around the world. It’s so much different to see an impoverished country or a war zone up close than to watch at a comfortable distance on the television.
I don’t feel like I’m doing the real work, but through my songs I can bring attention to these issues, hopefully helping to make the world a better place—or at least keep it from getting worse so fast. One of the most obvious examples of this type of song is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” inspired by my first encounter with the third world, at some Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico.
Of course, I don’t go into these situations looking for songs—that would just be inappropriate. But I’m always happy when an experience draws a song or instrumental out of me.
How have your travels influenced Small Source of Comfort?
My travels don’t show up too much on this album, except on the song “Each One Lost” and the instrumental “Ancestors,” which I wrote following a trip to Kandahar, Afganistan under the auspices of the Canadian army. I witnessed a ceremony there honoring the sacrifices of two soldiers who had been killed and whose bodies were being flown back to Canada.
I felt I had to give listeners an impression of what that felt like, so I went home and wrote “Each One Lost,” the first half of which is in my perspective and the second half in that of a soldier. It was a very deep and emotional experience—one of the saddest things I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, and I wanted to let listeners know how it felt.
Bruce Cockburn’s Gearbox
Two custom Linda Manzer six-strings with cutaways, Manzer 12-string, Manzer solidbody electric charango, 1959 Martin D-18, Tony Karol baritone
Fishman Prefix Pro preamps, Acoustic Matrix pickups, Audio-Technica internal mics
Boss DD-5 delay and TR-2 tremolo, Line 6 MM4 and DL4
Martin Marquis M2100 (6-string), D’Addario EJ38 (12-string)
Kyser Quick Change