The 67-year-old Canadian musician is a household name in his homeland, but in the rest of the world he enjoys a somewhat lower profile, which you suspect suits him down to the ground. "It's fine to not be noticed," he laughs. "Really. It's nice not to be stared at in a restaurant."
This virtuoso guitarist, acclaimed songwriter, million-selling recording artist, Hall of Fame member and winner of multiple awards is no lover of the spotlight. Even now, almost half-a-century after he first started performing alone in the folk clubs and festivals of his native Ontario, Cockburn confesses: "I've never got used to being on stage. I'm more used to it than I was when I started out, but it does not come naturally. It comes very reluctantly, in fact. The feeling of being centred out has never been attractive to me, although in the very long term it has become less fraught with fear and panic."
There is nothing particularly shy or retiring about his songwriting, however. Cockburn – whose songs have been covered by, amongst many others, Elbow, Judy Collins, kd lang and Jerry Garcia – has a well-deserved reputation for tackling the thorniest topics, whether they be the complexities of war, the state of the environment or the role of the IMF. "Right from the get-go I felt that if you're going to put words with a piece of music then they might as well say something," he says. "When I started writing, the people I admired even more than Bob Dylan and John Lennon were Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. If your job is to write about life and the human experience, then all of it is suitable material."
His biggest hit, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, was written in the early 80s after he visited a Mexican refugee camp teeming with terrified Guatemalan refugees fleeing the regime of military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt. "That song was the result of a vivid first encounter with an aspect of third-world reality that I'd only seen on TV before," he says. "The biggest single trigger for the creative process is a very strong emotional reaction of some kind, and that tends to happen when you newly encounter something: when you're newly in love is when you write the most intense love songs, though it seems to be a rule that it's easier to make art about pain than it is about joy. I don't know why that should be the case."
In 2009 Cockburn visited another war zone, travelling to Afghanistan to play for the Canadian troops, whose ranks included his brother. The song Each One Lost, a highlight of his most recent album Small Source of Comfort, was born from that experience. "I would never choose to go to a place like that specifically for material," he says. "To put myself in front of a bunch of human misery just to get a song would be obscene, but I have a great curiosity about how people deal with those kinds of situations, and I've been in enough of them to find them interesting and sometimes exciting. I always have the hope that I'll be able to distil whatever it is that I encounter into something I can share with other people."
Born in Ottowa in 1945, Cockburn first fell in love with the earliest stirrings of rock 'n' roll. It was Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers who first inspired him to pick up a guitar, and "although I now think of myself as a writer more than anything else, my deep love for and relationship with the guitar predates that." In the mid-60s he went on to study jazz at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music, and later gravitated towards folk music, "especially the old-time, acoustic country-blues of 'Mississippi' John Hurt and people like that."
All these influences inform his music, which remains pleasingly tricky to define. His eclectic style has, he says, "been the curse of my existence commercially, but I like the lack of easy labelling. I prefer things that way, from the art point of view it works just fine, although it has made it hard for the people who are involved in marketing my music."
Reaching the end of a year of touring Small Source of Comfort, he's looking forward to returning to Edinburgh, a city that is "almost home base for me. The Cockburns come from around Jedburgh, and it's nice to walk around in a city that has a Cockburn Street. It's a steep one, though! We're sorry about that."
Since the arrival of a baby daughter nine months ago, touring has become yet another learning curve. While Cockburn is travelling between gigs in the tour van, she is burbling away in the background. "She's taking up much of my time," he says. "I have an older daughter who now has three kids of her own, and when she was little we didn't tour in a bus and we had barely toured on this side of the ocean, so this is something new. She handles it very well." He laughs. "I guess later on they get less portable."
Bruce Cockburn plays the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow
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