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Bruce Cockburn thought he was done, but he’s far from it

Canadian folk legend spoke to the Courier in advance of his tour stop in Vancouver next week
Bruce Cockburn performs at the Centre for Performing Arts on Jan. 27.

Bruce Cockburn is a lot like the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

They’ve done it all, won it all and have every decoration and distinction imaginable, but have experienced a dormant period in recent years.

The Courier spoke to Cockburn in advance of his upcoming tour, which lands in Vancouver at the Centre for Performing Arts on Jan. 27.

Speaking from his home in San Francisco, the 72-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter mused on his process, almost losing it and how he got it back.

But first, some hard numbers on a career that’s spanned almost five decades.

* 12 Juno Awards
* Roughly a million albums sold in Canada alone
* 9 honourary doctorates or degrees
* 33 albums, including his latest, 2017’s Bone on Bone
* Order of Canada recipient
* Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee
* Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee
* Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal recipient
* SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting success
* Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement

And you thought the Habs’ six Cups in 10 years was impressive…

You have dozens of albums and hundreds of songs. Two and three generations of fans are at your shows. How do you cater to all these different groups and different wants when you draw up your setlist?

I don’t know if you really try to cater to everyone, exactly. But I do pay attention to what I think people hope for when they come to a show. They put up money for tickets, you have to respect that and sympathize with it. Any given show of mine is going to be made up whatever’s new and current plus the songs that I feel people will really feel cheated if they don’t hear. And then I fill in the rest with whatever I feel like from the back repertoire. I like to change it up from time to time so I’m not always doing the same old songs.

Take me through your headspace 30 minutes before going on stage.

I get nervous. It’s not panic, but there’s definitely nerves involved. I have a whole routine that I go through to prep: gargling with warm salt water, inhaling steam and all these tricks I’ve learned from various other singers. If it’s a band tour like this one is, it’s a bit of a different atmosphere backstage, so there’s more of a social atmosphere then there is when it’s just me solo.

What has to happen for you to walk off stage and say “tonight was awesome.”

I have to not make any mistakes, and that almost never happens. When it does, I come off stage feeling pretty good. But the audience doesn’t always agree with my take on things and that happens whether it’s a collective effort or not. I’ve come off stage with the band and we’ve all felt it was a fantastic show, everyone got everything right and everything gelled. And then somebody else will say, “I thought you better the night before.” So it’s a pretty subjective judgment.

More and more performers — bands and comedians — are saying no to cell phones at live performances. What’s your take on cellphones at your gigs?

I don’t worry about it too much, but I used to. When it was more of a rarity it used to seem very intrusive, it seemed like it was disrupting the people around the guilty party. But after a while, it just became so ubiquitous. You can’t really take a position on it because no one cares what you think. They’re going to do what they do. I do think it’s changed the character of how audiences respond in a way, but I don’t notice any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the audience.

There was a six-year gap between albums, arguably the longest of your career. There was a memoir written and a birth in that timeframe. You alluded to perhaps being done as a songwriter, that you had nothing left to say. What was going through your mind as you reconciled potentially walking off into the sunset?

It was a wait and see. I was hoping that I would write more songs. I didn’t feel like it was over. But I also felt like maybe the universe was telling me that it was over. So you just have to wait and see how that plays out when you’re in a place like that. I’ve been in situations like that in other issues lots of times in my life, where you say “what am I supposed to do now?" You wait until you do know, and then you do something. It was the same with the songs.

Given the length of your career, how do you stay hungry and driven to keep doing what you do?

I remain hopeful that I’ll succeed. That’s all it takes for me. I don’t want to go up there slouching and not giving people what they came for. They’ve done me the honour of coming out to the shows to listen to what I’ve got to present to them. I want to present it in the best way that I can.

Tickets for Cockburn’s show are available at

This interview has been edited and condensed.