Bruce Cockburn isn’t the type of artist who speaks to hear the sound of his own voice. He’ll shout from a mountaintop when it involves an issue he is passionate about, or a cause he supports.
But when it comes to his own music, he is content to let things happen.
That shouldn’t suggest he is closed to the idea of press and publicity. Ask him a question, and Cockburn will always give you an answer. Almost always, it’s an incredibly thoughtful one.
At this point, longtime fans of the singer-songwriter (whose career as a recording artist got underway in 1970) likely know where he stands on most matters.
But that doesn’t make Pacing the Cage, a documentary on the singer-songwriter released in June, any less enthralling.
The film unfolds like a long-form discussion on the topic of his art and influence, touching on everything from Cockburn’s politics to his religious beliefs.
Even though it was produced by his manager, Bernie Finkelstein, with Cockburn’s participation, the film doesn’t spoon-feed viewers or attempt to pull back the curtain on the complex native of Ottawa.
It simply examines him as an artist, writer and guitar player, and lets the music do the rest.
The film unfolds somewhat languidly. There is a linear narrative, to be sure, but even when Cockburn is speaking, he seems to present information about himself as a conversation starter, as opposed to a definitive answer to a specific question.
Though he is a public person who values his privacy, Cockburn said he eventually got used to the constant cameras during filming.
He was caught off-guard after seeing the final product, however.
“I don’t think there is anything in the film that I wasn’t aware of previously. But it does give you a different perspective seeing it unfolding on a screen,” he said. “It’s a little weird, actually.”
In the documentary, Cockburn, 68, says he feels as comfortable on the road as he does at home, which makes sense.
He has been performing since the mid ’60s, in various bands at first, before going solo for good in 1969. “It’s more about having a nomadic nature than anything else, I think,” he said of his endless tours.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. I do what I do because it allows me to do what I do. But I would have the same affinity for travel if I had to find some other means of getting it done.”
It has been a remarkable run for Cockburn. Among his many awards and achievements are 11 Juno Awards since 1971, including his most recent one in 2012.
He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and one of the country’s most revered humanitarians, with numerous honorary doctorates and degrees, including one from the University of Victoria.
He will be back on local soil next week for a performance at Butchart Gardens, only the second in the area since his Oct. 4, 2008, appearance at the school’s Farquhar Auditorium, during which he shared the stage with retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire.
The fundraising event was for a program, developed by UVic researchers, aimed at reintegrating child soldiers into their communities.
It is one of the many causes that Cockburn (who currently lives in San Francisco with his wife and young daughter) publicly supports.
He will forever be considered a political person, in part because of the material he performs in concert. It can be exhausting carrying such a weight all the time, so Cockburn lets as much light shine into his life as possible.
“You have to laugh. It would be hard to get through life without a dark sense of humour. The crap is out there, and the crap is genuinely crappy. There’s no getting around that. I may have paid attention to that more than some people do, and it gets to me at times how bad people can be, and how thoughtless.
“But at the same time, there’s that capacity we have for laughter and joy and beauty and love, which is also just as real. It’s important to not get hung up looking at just one side of it.”
He is known for covering tough territory in his music, but there is a side to Cockburn that the public does not often see, or chooses not to recognize.
Among the talking heads feting Cockburn in Pacing the Cage — Jackson Browne, Sylvia Tyson, Bono and Michael Ondaatje, to name a few — is his friend guitarist and producer Colin Linden, who describes Cockburn near-perfectly at one point.
“He takes the music very, very seriously, and he takes the causes that he is involved in very seriously,” Linden said. “He doesn’t take himself that seriously.”
Cockburn is front and centre throughout the film, and in his typically thoughtful way, talks playfully about things that make him tick.
Often during the film, he has a wry smile on his lips, as if to suggest he is letting viewers in on a little secret.
In the end, he feels the film gives an accurate portrayal of him as a person and artist, even though he blushes at the sight of his famous friends offering accolades.
“More disturbing in a way than what might be revealed about me was the legion of interesting people saying nice things about me,” Cockburn said with a laugh.
“These people were going on and on, and it’s like, ‘Come on, guys. This is embarrassing.’ ”
What: An evening with Bruce Cockburn
When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Butchart Gardens
Tickets: $30.20 ($22.65 for visitors with a 12-month pass to the gardens), $15.10 (youth) and $3 (child)
Notes: Pre-purchased Bruce Cockburn tickets will guarantee your admission if you arrive before 6 p.m. Event has limited general bench seating. Visitors are welcome to sit on the grass or bring a lawnchair.