British Columbia

Bruce Cockburn still kicking at the darkness at 71

Canadian guitarist talks politics and free jazz ahead of headlining Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Bruce Cockburn Studio 10

Bruce Cockburn — holder of the Order of Canada, among other accolades — headlines the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this weekend. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

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A legend in the Canadian music world, Ottawa-born Bruce Cockburn has made his home in San Francisco for the last seven years — but he wears his status as a foreigner with pride.

"I don't get to vote there, because I'm what they call a 'resident alien,'" Cockburn told The Early Edition host Rick Cluff.

"I love the term. I'm very proud of being called a resident alien. Any kind of alien, actually."

Over his more-than-four-decades-long career, Cockburn has become known for his political songwriting. But even if he could vote, Cockburn is not particularly excited by any of the options currently available to Americans.

"It might have been [Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie] Sanders, actually, who described himself as a 'hopeful pessimist,'" Cockburn said with a laugh. "I kind of feel like that."

"I see people working on particular issues [locally] and doing a good job. But you know, globally, nationally, not much is being done to address very, very big issues."

Music critics are also often quick to pick up on themes of faith in Cockburn's songwriting, but for him, it's not the most apt description.

"That's not a word I use, exactly," Cockburn said. "It's more of a quest than a faith. It's really about finding out what that relationship [with God] is supposed to be and how to actually make it go, how to hold up my end of it."

For much of his life, Cockburn identified as a Christian. But over time, he grew less comfortable with it, for a variety of reasons — "some personal, some social."

Lately he finds himself coming back around to religion. Is it a product of the 71-year-old's age? He figures it probably is, in some part.

"After a while you become sort of more concerned again about the spirit, [and] in some contexts, mysticism — that question of how we relate to the divine."

Cockburn is an accomplished guitarist who has dabbled in numerous genres, but the one genre he's never been able to tackle? Free jazz.

"I get attached to a rhythm, and then I start playing the rhythm, and then I can't depart from the rhythm because the bottom falls out if I stop playing it," he said.

"I've always wanted to do that, and I've never really quite had the chops, or given myself the space to do it."

As a kid, the last thing Cockburn wanted to listen to was his parents' music, so it still surprises him to see kids singing along with their parents at his shows — but he's come to enjoy it.

"It's actually really rewarding to think that the music isn't just kind of growing cobwebs and dying with my generation."

Bruce Cockburn plays the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this Sunday at 8 p.m.

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

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