After 50 years in the wilderness, Canadian songwriting legend Bruce Cockburn still takes nothing for granted

It’s something of a nice bit of symmetry in the recent life of Bruce Cockburn.

On Tuesday night and after a nice two-month holiday break, the legendary Canadian artist will kick off the second half of his current North American tour to support his latest studio album Bone On Bone with a Jack Singer Concert Hall show.

He arrived in town two days earlier for a Sunday night ceremony at Studio Bell, where he saw his plaque placed on the wall to celebrate his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is housed in the East Village home of the National Music Centre.

He’ll wrap this leg of the tour in early May in Toronto at Massey Hall, where last September the official Hall of Fame gala event was held, Cockburn feted alongside fellow Class of 2017 inductees Beau Dommage, Stéphane Venne and Neil Young.

“It was great,” Cockburn says of that evening sounding somewhat surprised, “contrary to my expectations. Not that I expected it to be bad or anything, but you go into an awards show thinking there’s going to be a lot of stuff that I don’t really feel like I have to sit through here, but I will anyway because I don’t want to be rude to people. But it wasn’t like that, the show was actually really good — very well produced, well rounded and the artists that performed were good, and the things people had to say were at times a little long-winded perhaps, but mostly not. The evening went off very well.”

And one imagines that the man who has devoted the past 50 years to the craft of writing songs must look at this honour as a particularly significant one.

Perhaps even more so, than, say, many of the other awards and accolades he’s received throughout the years, including a dozen Junos, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, the Order of Canada, the many honourary doctorates and all of the others that he’s piled up in an almost unassuming manner.

“I appreciate that fact,” he says of this particular tribute to his gifts. “I don’t live for awards, believe me, it’s the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m writing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a song and thought about an award at the same time. But as a measure of the fact that people are treating the songs with respect and paying attention to them, that means a lot … It’s very nice.”

Not that he’s quite yet ready to rest on those laurels, as late last year he dropped Bone, his 33rd album and first since 2011’s Small Source of Comfort.

Much of the time in between saw the artist working on his memoir Rumours of Glory, which was released in 2014.

And then. Nothing. For a couple of years, he admits the songwriting muse all but left him.

It was the longest period he hadn’t written since a year and a half at the end of the ’80s when he was burnt out and needed to step away because it was “pretty intense decade for me.” The second he did take that hiatus, however, inspiration returned.

Not this time, though, which you’d assume would have the now-San Francisco-based Cockburn concerned, even a little worried.

“It wasn’t a worry so much as just a wondering, speculation,” he says, noting that “all of the creative energy that would have produced songs went into the book, so there was neither motivation nor opportunity to write songs for the … three years it took to write that thing.

“When it was over and the book was put to bed and out, I started thinking, ‘Well, am I still a songwriter? ’”

“I’d continued to perform through that time and had come up with some instrumental pieces, but the lyrics weren’t there. So the question was, ‘Well, am I still a songwriter or is that part of my life over now? And should I be looking at something else, like, am I going to be a prose writer now?’ That was the speculation, but I was hoping that songs would come.”

That they did. After being asked to contribute a song to a documentary about Canadian poet Al Purdy, he penned the first track for the album — 3 Al Purdys — and the dam broke.

What flowed out is 11 songs that find the 72-year-old at the height of his powers. It’s vintage Cockburn, with the artist and band revisiting his consistent themes — activism, humanity, spirituality — in a remarkably fresh and refreshing manner.

The highlight of the record is the stunning, jaw-droppingly wistful and wondrous ballad Forty Years In the Wilderness, which finds Cockburn reflecting on the past four decades he’s spent living life away from the Church but still very much with faith.

It quite simply is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces he’s ever recorded.

“I was as much moved by the song when I thought of it,” he says with a chuckle.

“When I’m writing a song if I feel like it’s touching me as I’m writing it, I don’t take it for granted, but I feel like I have some justification hoping that it will hit other people deeply, too. And that has been the case with that song.

“That’s great that it struck you. I don’t know how old you are, but I wonder if it requires a degree of maturity to be touched by that particular song.”

When he’s told that he’s speaking to someone who’s a child at 47 he laughs.

“Yeah a mere babe, so you actually don’t know what it’s about at all,” he jokes. “I say that facetiously because I don’t think you have to have any particular set of qualifications, but if you’ve hit a certain age there’s a chance that the 40 Years number will have a more literal application to your life than if you haven’t been around that long.”

That, presumably, will be one of the many tracks from Bone On Bone that will make it into the setlist, with Cockburn noting that the material still feels “fresh” to him, made even more so by the full band experience of the shows.

Which is perhaps why he’s not even thinking yet of whether or not there’s still more to come from the well he’s tapped so brilliantly for so long.

“If an idea comes I’ll grab it, but I’m not waiting in the kind of receptive state that I deliberately do if I’m really looking for the songwriting experience, because I’m too busy performing and these songs still feel fresh.

“But that said I’ve got at least four new instrumental pieces that I’m working on so the creative side is being attended to. We’ve speculated — just pure speculation — about doing a second instrumental album,” he says referring to 2005’s Speechless.

“A lot of people liked that and there’ve been a lot of requests for another one and we thought maybe it would be a good thing to do. Whether these pieces will add up to that, I don’t know.”

So can fans take heart, assume that Bone On Bone is not his swan song?

“The first album could have been my swan song,” he says laughing again. “You never know …”

He continues. “I never take it for granted. People do me an honour by listening to my stuff and allowing it into their lives and hearts. I don’t take that for granted at all. I don’t assume that it’s going to stay as it is at any point. It could get bigger, it could get smaller, but as long as I feel like there’s somebody out there — and I’ve learned over the years that this is pretty much a given that there’s always going to be somebody who cares.”

He laughs again.

“My first inkling of that was playing as an opening act at a psychedelic club in Toronto in the late 60s. I was the cannon fodder that went on while they were getting the light show going and nobody was there yet … It was a huge room, a big room shaped like the inside of an egg that was the size of a football field, so there’d be half a dozen people sitting at the other end of the room, in the dark, behind the light show, you couldn’t see them

“I learned, after doing this for a few months … I realized that actually I could feel when people were paying attention. And there always was somebody who was …

“Ever since then I’ve understood that anything you do there’s always going to be somebody there. Whether you can count on that to make a living off of, is another issue.

“But thank God for me it’s worked the way it did.”

Bruce Cockburn performs Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.