An island's songwriting treasure revived

Justin Brake
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At 60, local musician John Cossar releases debut album and gives birth to lifetimes of song

John Cossar puts his lifetime of experience into the lyrics of his songs.— Submitted photo

Every now and again I'd see a man with long greying hair walking the streets of downtown St. John's, toting a guitar case everywhere he went.

He'd look me straight in the eye if we passed on the sidewalk, but no words were ever exchanged, perhaps because his piercing blue eyes bemused me every time.

There was something different about him, something I would never understand unless I actually met him. So my curiosity persisted until we finally crossed paths one evening last summer outside The Ship in Solomon's Lane.

I introduced myself and, though we'd just met, our conversation about music and life left me feeling like this was some kind of reunion of old acquaintances.

So when I told John Cossar I'd spent my last buck on getting in to see this band, I wasn't surprised when he pulled a $20 bill from his pocket and offered to break it so he could give me half.

"I was broke this morning too, but things always seem to work out," he said, explaining that a friend had just handed him the $20 earlier that day.

It was a kind gesture, but I didn't take the money. I just remembered the sincerity behind his offer and something he said about making his first record at the age of 60.

Well, that record's out now and, as it happens, "Another Bridge to Burn" is probably one of the best folk-rock albums from these parts in recent memory.

Set apart

I sat and talked with Cossar again last week at the café where he tells me he penned a lot of his songs, and I gradually became acutely aware that something does in fact set him apart from most people.

In his eyes, words and songs, Cossar offers a kind of unabashed honesty that's rare these days.

"You go around with your own hopes and dreams and wishes and things, and in this case my other life had just come to an end," he says, pointing to the leather chair where he sat the day he made a choice five years ago. "And I'm almost starting from day one with zero - no money and no plan, except, 'What is it I really want to do?'

"I think I want to see if I can write songs and sell them. That's my passion. I didn't know it was my passion, just as well," he continues. "But I went, 'God, I can actually write!' And so a wonder world opened up and what should have been the five hardest years of my life turned out to be the most magical thing that I've ever experienced."

Ten years ago, Cossar lost his wife of 22 years, his high school sweetheart from Burgeo, and probably one of the most unappreciated artists he knew, Betty, to breast cancer.

Emotion in songs

During our interview, Cossar doesn't talk much about his "past life," but in the way he occasionally tears up while trying to tell his story without direct reference to certain people and events, and in the lyrics and emotion in his songs, it seems he's en route to one life from another.

He left Burgeo 30 years ago, spent some time in Halifax before moving to St. John's, and with Betty raised their daughter, Danielle, all while Cossar transitioned through countless jobs and trades to support his family and his wife's passion for art.

He says those who've met him along the way, including during his 17 years as a baker and time as a family man, "know me as somebody else, if you know what I mean. All I'm saying is I'm John the musician. If you didn't know me back when I was 14 to 28, I'm sorry, this is who I am now. And those back in Burgeo, they would just know me as this guy who moved away."

'To hell and back'

Cossar remarried "too soon" after Betty's passing, he says, and eventually, after a divorce, hit rock bottom.

"And here I am, with a whole lot of too much to cram into an evening to tell, you know? A lot of life experience. I've been to hell and back," he says, pausing for a moment while his eyes fill with water and a smile emerges. "But I'm back, you know?

"I've suddenly discovered I can write," he continues. "It's one of those things that sometimes is in your blind spot.

"Everything that had happened to me was so overwhelming and sad and unforgettable that I thought about how to write it and rhyme-so if I write this, then I've got to think about it," he says, explaining the therapeutic essence he experiences in songwriting.

"I'm looking for an ending to that thought - please, give me an ending to that thought. And there it is. I don't even know what it is - it's something I subconsciously felt. And I sit back and think about that, another little thing, and it resolves. Over time it just resolves."

Though he'd never agree, Cossar's songwriting is on par with Atlantic Canada's best, including Ron Hynes and Al Tuck. And though he says he "can't sing," he shares that vocal quality of Bob Dylan or John Prine, where a voice that wouldn't necessarily make the choir is elevated to sonic beauty by its emotional delivery. Cossar's songs, without exaggeration, radiate from a much deeper place than most of his contemporaries'.

"Like a Drunkard on a Spree" is his story.

"That took me nine months to write, and I loved every second of it," he says.

"When I ended up by myself I very deliberately gave away every cent I had ... so I could say I am absolutely busted. I had nowhere to go. I gave up everything and slept on my daughter's couch for four months. Got my own place after that, but I was rock bottom and started from there."

Forced to play

"When I had no food ... busking was something that I pretty much had to do," he continues. "I learned a lot. I learned if you were singing to two people then they will run away from you. But if you sing for yourself and just close your eyes and get lost in what you're doing, which is all I was doing when I was writing," he says, ending the thought and moving to realization, "coincidentally, I needed to be there.

"I would go down every day and busk ... and man, I hadn't played a guitar for 35 years with any intent, and I didn't know how to play, didn't know how to sing," he continues.

"I had no self-confidence and it beat the shit out of me. So I'm down there learning like crazy and all of a sudden, one night, I realize that I got to stop. And it was cold as bejesus and it was getting dark, and the wind was whistling down on the corner of George and Water Street and it was f--kin' snowin' and it was minus two and I couldn't feel my fingers," he says, pausing to seize the memory as his eyes water again.

"And my gloves had f--kin' holes in 'em, and and I'm thinkin', I gotta stop. And I'm cussin', 'Where did the f--kin' summer go?'" he continues, his voice trembling. "I was just, for the first time in my life, learning.

"Every day was like that, and I never learned so much so fast in my life, and all of a sudden it's snowing and I'm still starving and still poor. But I was pissed because I had to stop: 'I can't do this anymore. I got to find a way to play indoors - I gotta get good fast enough that I can do it.'

"But as I'm walking home the poet in me took over, and ... I'm thinking, where did the year go? A year went by just like it was a season. It was just really short, and the season went by like a day. And, OK, years go by like seasons, seasons go by like days, and I'm sorry, but this is startin'," he says, cutting himself off to recite what became the line that inspired his own personal magnum opus, "'And the days go by like turning pages from the cradle to the grave.'

"And I thought, that's a really nice lyric and I f--kin' well better write something nice behind that. And then I started to pay attention. My son, there are so many stories connected to that, that my experience in the nine months of writing that wowed me to all kinds of stuff that I couldn't begin to explain because they're all side stories.

"This is where my subconscious life (began): 'I'm beat, I'm done, I'm weak, I'm bottomed out. And I'm gonna spend all my time and money like a drunkard on a spree 'cause if you're gone time can't go fast enough for me.' Well there's the story in that verse - that's all my life right there. And it went, and it went, and it went. If I died right on the spot after finishing that I would have been a happy camper.

"The thing is, I'm fulfilling what I was put here to do," Cossar had told me earlier in the conversation, expressing the epiphany with a smile. "I know this, so I'm happy for me. And this (album) is a representation of what I'm doing at the moment. But it didn't stop," he continued, opening a notebook and flipping through the pages of lyrics. "I've got books and books of it, so (the album) is just a small piece of it all."

Backed by band

On "Another Bridge to Burn" Cossar is backed by an incredibly tight band, featuring Dan Rubin, Rick Lambe, Chris Kirby and Rick Hollett, and a handful of other local musicians who contributed to the songs, including Cossar's daughter Danielle, Rozalind MacPhail, Andrew McCarthy and Joanna Barker, among others.

At 60, life has only just begun for Cossar, because that's the only way he'd have it. There's no question that his music will travel far and wide, carrying with it the honesty, compassion and wisdom implicit in his songs.

He and his band will celebrate the release of "Another Bridge to Burn" Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Gower Street United Church Hall. Tickets are $10 in advance at O'Brien's Music and Fred's Records, or $12 at the door.

For more information, visit



Organizations: Gower Street United Church Hall, Fred's

Geographic location: St. John's, Burgeo, Halifax Atlantic Canada Water Street

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Recent comments

  • angela moore
    November 18, 2011 - 12:01

    i knew you would do it when i sat in michelles app and heard you sing good luck and god blless

  • Brenda Sheaves
    November 18, 2011 - 09:05

    I loved your interview with John. He has been playing guitar since he was a young boy and I know this is what he was always interested in. I hope he does well with his chosen profession. Good Luck, John!