It's funny how the obvious things are often the ones most easily overlooked. For years, Bruce Cockburn had been touring the United States and Canada with a band -- quite a good one, in fact -- and would devote much of each evening's performance to showing how well they played together. Then one year, for a change of pace, Cockburn went out as a solo performer. "When I did the solo tour, I discovered something I'd forgotten," he says over the phone from his home outside Toronto. "When people come to my shows, they come to hear songs. They don't necessarily come to hear a bravura musical performance.
"In the search for the various band sounds that I'd been going for through the '80s, I'd lost track of that," he adds. "The songs had become kind of a vehicle for a musical performance, in the way that jazz players approach music. I decided to alter that with the trio tour, but it still didn't go far enough, really."
So instead of fooling with his band some more, Cockburn decided that the best place to make changes was with his songwriting -- the reason, as he said, people wanted to see him in the first place. Although obviously some of his songs were getting across, Cockburn wanted to weed out some of the more overtly self-referential aspects to his writing.
"I wanted to write songs that people could understand," he says, laughing.
That's not to say Cockburn decided to dumb his songs down any; indeed, the dozen offerings on his newest album, "Nothing But a Burning Light," are as intelligent, incisive and engaging as any of his best work. But there is a difference in mood with this album, with an almost conversational scale to the material -- and that, says Cockburn, was prompted by yet another sudden realization.
"I wanted something that would fit into what people use music for most of the time -- in other words, to write tunes that people could sing, and lyrics that meant something to them."
Naturally, the songs still have a lot of Cockburn in them, but the frame of reference is rarely as personal as his early work was. In fact, there's a certain mythic quality to songs like "Kit Carson," "Soul of Man" and "Cry of a Tiny Baby" that makes it easy for almost any listener to understand immediately what Cockburn is getting at.
When asked about this myth-mongering, he confesses, "When I started writing songs for this album, I didn't know what was going to come out. And I don't from song to song; I never really know what the next idea's going to be. I may carry around an idea for a while, like with 'Kit Carson.' After I heard the true story, I wanted to write a song like that, but it was a while before I did."
As much as the specifics might change, some themes are constants in Cockburn's output -- his faith, for instance. Yet as obvious as his spirituality is, he refuses to wear his soul on his sleeve.
"What works for me is a subtler approach," he says. "I'd rather hear people talking about life in terms of their faith than spouting Biblical quotations or writing these kind of schmaltzy love songs to Jesus that people do.
"Interestingly enough, that kind of mentality was very much a part of the recording," he adds, pointing out that the musicians he recorded with -- including bassist Michael Been, drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Booker T. Jones and producer T-Bone Burnett -- were all involved to some degree in Christian music.
And because he had so much in common with these musicians, Cockburn reports that making music with them was that much easier. "There was a beautifully democratic feel in the studio, given the fact that these were all real hotshots," he says.
Cockburn adds that he was somewhat in awe of Jones before meeting him. "Booker T.'s 'Green Onions' was a major record in my life at the time it came out," he says. "It was kind of neat; Booker T. turns out to be the same age as me, actually. He was 17 when that record came out. It gave us something in common
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College
Tickets: $19.50, $15.50 with student I.D.
$ Call: (410) 481-6000