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Mark Knopfler: I Love Writing Songs More Than Ever

Guitarist wrapping busy year with brief U.S. run

Mark Knopfler performs in Barcelona, Spain.
Miquel Benitez/Redferns via Getty Images
October 9, 2013 11:50 AM ET

When Mark Knopfler kicks off a short run of U.S. concerts in California later this month, it will mark the end of a busy year of touring for the singer, songwriter and guitarist. He spent much of the spring and summer crisscrossing Europe, playing just about everywhere – except Russia.

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Knopfler had a pair of concerts scheduled there, but his disgust with the country's recent human rights record under President Vladimir Putin – who is said to be a fan of Knopfler's – prompted the former Dire Straits leader to cancel shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg. "Throwing your own children into gulags is just not going to work," Knopfler tells Rolling Stone, referring to the imprisonment of two members of punk collective Pussy Riot for staging an anti-Putin protest in 2012. "Kids in gulags on hunger strike: you're joking. They're just kids. You don't necessarily have to agree with what they did, [but] they were being kids."

The singer also criticized a new Russian law requiring rights groups that receive funding from overseas, including Amnesty International, to register as "foreign agents," and expressed disbelief that Russian authorities are charging members of Greenpeace with piracy for their attempt last month to board a Russian oil platform in the Arctic.

"It's a ridiculous state of affairs, and everybody else is getting on board because they're terrified," Knopfler says. "I've supported Amnesty International from the very first album, which went to Number One in South Africa, and I gave away the proceeds from that."

That album was Dire Straits' 1978 debut. The band released six albums together before Knopfler turned to his solo career, which has yielded another seven LPs, including his latest, Privateering. (There have also been film soundtracks and collaborations with Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris.) The new album, just out in the U.S., reflects Knopfler's wide-ranging musical interests with a mix of American blues and English folk, with the occasional country flourish.

"I didn't want to just make a blues record, or another kind of record, so I mixed those guys in with a bunch of other stuff," he says.

There's no shortage of "other stuff": Knopfler, 64, says he's more in love with writing songs than he's ever been, and credits a sense of discipline that has developed with age for a stockpile of as many as 60 unrecorded tunes. "I've already started laying out the next record," he says.

Though he still connects with – and performs – many of the songs he wrote as a younger man, he says his perspective as a writer has definitely shifted over the years. "I don't know whether your heart ever necessarily changes, but time changes the way that you perceive the world," Knopfler says. "And you just hope it gives you more empathy and all those other things." 

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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