Bruce Cockburn Talks 'Crowing Ignites,' His Deep New Album of Acoustic Instrumentals

Cockburn's new album is a full batch of recently written glory showcasing his fingerpicking prowess, knack for texture and masterful sense of melody.
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"Once the lucky accident of finding an interesting riff happens, then I’ll get down to the more deliberate work of figuring out what’s going to happen next,” Bruce Cockburn explains. The national treasure from the Great White North won the 2018 Canadian Folk Music Awards Solo Artist of the Year honor for his 33rd album, Bone on Bone, and now the outrageously prolific fingerpicker has a deep new album of acoustic instrumentals on his hands called Crowing Ignites (True North).

Cockburn, who relocated to San Francisco five years ago, is a consummate singer-songwriter, as renowned for his lyrical poignancy as for his exceptional electric and acoustic guitar skills. His albums usually contain an instrumental gem or three, and his last all-instrumental affair, 2005’s Speechless, was a compilation of mostly previously recorded material. Crowing Ignites, on the other hand, is a full batch of recently written glory showcasing Cockburn’s fingerpicking prowess, knack for texture and masterful sense of melody. 

The album’s enigmatic title is a nod to Cockburn’s Scottish heritage and a literal translation of the Latin motto, Accendit Cantu, which appears on his family crest. The guitarist says he appreciates the qualities it conveys, calling it “energetic, blunt, Scottish as can be.”

“Bardo Rush,” the album’s kickoff cut, exemplifies Cockburn’s ability to maintain a driving rhythm while wheeling through melodic double-stops. “April in Memphis” reveals another side of his fingerstyle technique, consisting of cascading arpeggio rolls and free-time linear licks that ebb and flow. Throughout the proceedings, long-time producer and multi-instrumentalist Colin Linden adds welcome layers to Cockburn’s canvas, such as the bluesy Dobro on “Blind Willie.” The duo cut the record over a week in March of this year, at a converted condo that formerly housed a firehouse in San Francisco.

What inspired you to reconnect so heavily with the guitar?

The original concept was to do Speechless II, because people had responded well to the first one. But once I started actively looking for instrumental ideas, I ended up with so much new stuff that it became its own thing.

Onstage at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, Oregon, January 30, 2018

Onstage at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, Oregon, January 30, 2018

Do you tend to write tunes on the instrument that you ultimately use to record them?

A song often ends up being attached to the instrument, unless it’s an acoustic six-string, because I have several and they are interchangeable from a compositional point of view. But it makes a big difference if a song is written on an electric guitar, the 12-string acoustic, or something as unique as the dulcimer or the charango, because then the instrument’s characteristics become part of the song.

For instance, “Seven Daggers” starts with a layer of charango providing a rhythmic ostinato that runs through the entire piece. It’s kind of the South American equivalent of a mandolin, but instead of eight strings in four unison pairs, it’s got 10 that are tuned in a peculiar way, with the lowest-pitched string in the middle. The charango was the first instrument I had Linda Manzer make for me back in the ’80s. I’d gotten to know her from a distance when she was apprenticing for John Larrivée in the ’70s, which was when I got my first handmade guitar. Subsequently, she made me a couple of electrics and a couple of acoustics.

I layered a Manzer 12-string part on “Seven Daggers.” “Bells of Gethsemane” started out with a track of Tibetan singing bowls, and then the jangly parts were layered, including a track I played on a baritone guitar made for me by Tony Karol. All of the other songs on Crowing Ignites were written from practicing and exploring on an acoustic six-string.

Was there a particular workhorse for the recording?

Actually, I recorded all of the six-string parts using a little guitar from Boucher, which is a small company in Quebec. When I was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in the fall of 2017 at an event in Toronto, a guy from Boucher gave a guitar to each of the guitar players, including Neil Young, Michel Rivard from Beau Dommage and myself. I didn’t expect much of it, because promotional giveaway items aren’t usually the best, but this Boucher guitar turned out to be fantastic. 

I had a Martin 00-18 a long time ago, and this guitar reminds me of that one. It’s proportioned in a way that my aging, arthritic hands can get around the neck a little more easily. I’m having so much fun playing it. [Boucher says Cockburn received a custom shop version of its SG-161-U, featuring unique inlays and special appointments. The guitar is based on an OM Hybrid from Boucher’s Studio Goose series and personalized with the company’s Ultimate Pack, which includes a master grade Adirondack red spruce top and AAAAA-grade Canadian flamed maple back and sides.]

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How did you develop the opening track, “Bardo Rush”?

I started out fooling around on my 12-string, which I normally keep tuned to double-drop D, but a whole step lower, so I guess that’s double-drop C. But when I tried it on the six-string, I felt it had a better vibe and more fluidity, so “Bardo Rush” ultimately wound up on the Boucher tuned to double-drop D. The main melody section is made up of double-stops. It’s a harmonized riff that starts off in the fifth position and moves down from there. Underneath all the melodic stuff, I’m hitting quarter notes with my thumb on the sixth string in a Big Bill Broonzy or Mance Lipscomb kind of way, to keep a low drone going.

It’s interesting how you anchor your plucking hand with your pinkie underneath the soundhole while you hit bass notes with your thumb and the middle strings with your middle fingers.

It’s terrible technique from a classical perspective to have your pinkie anchored like that. But to be able to dig in to the groove the way I want to, I need that anchor. It helps me keep the thumb rhythm intact.

What’s the story behind “April in Memphis”?

On Martin Luther King Day of this year, I was at home and exploring on the guitar, and I simply tuned the second string down from B to A while leaving the rest in standard. A large part of using alternate tunings is to get open strings ringing out and notes running against each other that you don’t have access to in standard tuning. In this case, with an A on the second string, I found that if I played an E minor–style chord, I got this interesting effect of the 4th coming up all the time, especially when using a rolling, arpeggiated picking pattern. 

Once again, I use double-stops to play the melody. Different picking approaches deliver different emotional effects, and this piece came out a bit wistful and mournful, in a way that seemed to reflect the poignancy of how Martin Luther King’s life ended so unfortunately, with his assassination, during the month of April, in Memphis.

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“Sweetness and Light” has the opposite feeling. It’s simply beautiful.

Yeah, and that came from fooling around with using opposing motion in DADGAD. I’ve got fingers on the first and third strings, two frets apart. It makes something that resembles a chord. When you move it over a string, you’ve got another thing like that. But then I thought, What happens if I reverse them? 

I had the first finger on the third string and the fourth finger on the first string, and then I switched them. So that top moves down a whole tone while the bottom note moves up a whole tone. And then I move it over a string and I do the same thing. The melody builds from that series of moves. It happened really fast, and I didn’t have to give any thought at all to the title. The song popped out and wanted to be called “Sweetness and Light” right away.

“Blind Willie” is a fun bluesy number named after Blind Willie Johnson. Care to share some insights?

It’s in the same tuning as “April in Memphis,” with only the second string dropped a whole step from standard. The tune is in the key of A minor. The idea was to arrange something like a gospel tune in structure, which would have the equivalent of a repeating chorus with all sorts of melodic improvisation in between. Once again, I’m thumping quarter notes in the bass. Other than the main riff, the tune was essentially improvised with Colin Linden playing slide on my Dobro.

He’s produced many of your albums and plays lots of different instruments. What do you do on tour when you don’t have him on hand to act as your Swiss army knife?

Good question. The solo pieces obviously are not much of a problem. The only problem they present is how to put them into a band show like I’m doing right now without losing the momentum. I can pull off a piece like “Blind Willie” on my own, but it is better to play it along with someone else. The fall tour starting in September when Crowing Ignites comes out will be a duo with my nephew John Aaron Cockburn, who plays guitar and accordion.

What’s your amplification strategy?

I play Manzer acoustics equipped with Fishman electronics. It’s one of their older systems that incorporates an internal mic as well as an onboard pickup. I had those signals split into two output jacks. I run an XLR from the microphone straight to the house. The pickup signal runs through a few effects including a Moog tremolo, TC Electronic chorus and reverb pedals, and a couple of Boss echo units that feed into a passive stereo D.I. That stereo signal blends with the microphone signal to give the full sound to the P.A. system. I use in-ear monitors so I don’t have to worry about feedback.

Are you in full instrumental mode?

I’ve got this instrumental album coming out, so it will be the focus, but it’s not like the whole show is going to be instrumental. People want to hear songs they’ve heard before, and I want to sing them, so the material will be a mix of new and old.

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