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Illustration by Ashley Floréal

An insistent sage at age 78, Bruce Cockburn just released his 27th album, O Sun O Moon. The record is calm, magical and intensely human, with moments of sparkling lucidity that hark back to his 1979 masterpiece Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. From his home in San Francisco, he spoke about critics, the fate of troubadours and the benefits of staying vertical.

I’d ask how you are doing, but maybe you tell us on the album’s first song. “Time takes its toll, but in my soul I’m on a roll.” Does that sum it up?

Pretty much. I think I’m getting away with it so far, though age has had an effect for sure, and continues to do so. I don’t expect that is going to reverse itself.

You have issues with your back. Are you in discomfort?

I experience daily discomfort. But it doesn’t last all day. For an hour after I wake up in the morning there’s considerable pain. But once my body gets used to being upright instead of horizontal, the pain dissipates. It’s not that hard to live with.

I speak for all your fans when I say that we want you upright.

I appreciate that.

You’re getting some of the best reviews of your career. It’s safe to say that you’ve reached iconic status. Do you think that affects how your music is critiqued?

I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t read enough reviews to know. In fact, I haven’t seen a single review of this album. But the effect you’re talking about would not surprise me. Though it could cut both ways.

That critics might be tired of you?

When you’re coming up, everybody wants to get in on discovering you. There’s a lot of positive stuff, but some negative. Actually, in the old days the negative reviews helped just as much as the positive ones in terms of building an audience. There was a guy in Montreal who used to write terrible reviews of my shows. And yet people would come to see me in larger numbers every time I went there.

Bruce Cockburn: A life in seven songs

They’re still coming to see you. Do you make most of your money from touring these days, rather than recordings?

It’s always been a combination, but it’s really about the live stuff now. I’m more dependent on playing shows. Of course, we sell CDs at the shows.

Do you make much money on them, or are the new albums just something to tour on?

I get semi-annual statements from Truth North, my record label. There’s always some money. But it’s not what it once was. Most of the income I used to make from albums came from radio play. That doesn’t happen any more because everyone is streaming, and radio doesn’t play music like mine these days.

The death of the troubadour. Outside of hip hop, there’s not much truth-telling on the radio.

It’s certainly obvious that there’s lots of social criticism in hip hop, along with all the bombast and boasting about how much money you’re going to get. But songwriters are as affected by what’s in fashion as everybody else. When a certain style or approach is current, a lot of people will do that. Then someone will introduce a new element and people will swing in that direction.

Don’t we want the so-called three chords and the truth to always be in fashion?

I’m not in favour of polemics in songs, and I’m not in favour of what used to be called protest music in the sixties. It became fashionable to write protest songs, and people were writing some pretty bad songs. They might have been addressing an issue that required addressing, but they weren’t addressing it very well.

You’re going to upset the sandal-wearing people talking like that.

There were exceptions, including Phil Ochs and other people. But anytime people are writing in a particular way, maybe because it’s fashionable, the quality of the work is not likely to be that high. So, you wait for the groundbreakers. It happens every now and then. Someone comes up with a new angle on things, and a window will open up. But I don’t like to make pronouncements about this stuff. I’m not necessarily well-versed in what’s going on out there.

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn on the challenge of writing in reaction to a crisis

Do you listen to new music?

Most of what I hear is when I’m driving my daughter to school. I hear a lot of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, who are quite good at what they do. But there are a lot of people out there who are less worthy too.

Nobody reads poetry anymore. Maybe that’s affected songwriting.

When did people ever read poetry? But the power of the word is still there. You mentioned hip hop. Maybe that’s where the power is now. Most of what I hear doesn’t seem particularly interesting, but once in a while you hear something that is really good, where somebody is really saying something. It’s out there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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