At ease with his past and looking forward to the future, Leonard Cohen’s present is shaping up to yield his busiest year ever. (Ed. note: this story was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Harp magazine.)
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
When people speak about Leonard Cohen, their comments often take on a decided tone of reverence. “This is our Shelley, this is our Keats,” Bono is seen saying in Lian Lunson’s I’m Your Man, the acclaimed Cohen documentary/tribute concert film. It’s a sentiment you’ll find repeated throughout, as when Bono’s U2 bandmate the Edge notes, “He’s got this almost biblical significance.” Over the course of a career that’s produced notable recordings like “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “The Future” and “Hallelujah,” admiration for Cohen’s work only seems to increase, generation after generation.
But the man who inspires such devotion is himself soft-spoken and low-key in person, not to mention unfailingly courteous and polite; prior to an interview at his daughter’s antique shop, Boo Radley, on Melrose Avenue in LA, he pauses to pick up my fallen coat, murmuring, “Oh, don’t put this on the floor. It’s a beautiful red.” And while not given to extemporizing at great length, or over-indulging in self-analysis, once he’s settled in a chair near an old manual typewriter bearing a notice reading “Not for sale,” Cohen is relaxed, gracious, and quite willing to talk.
As it happens, there’s a lot to talk about. In addition to I’m Your Man, now out on DVD, this year also sees the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, and Columbia/Legacy’s reissue of his first three albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room, and Songs of Love and Hate (reviewed in the May Harp). In June comes the world premiere of Book of Longing, a concert piece with music by Philip Glass, based upon Cohen’s poetry book of the same name, published last year.
But right now, Cohen’s most interested in talking about another project, the closest thing to a new album from him since 2004’s Dear Heather.
Blue Alert is the major label debut by his girlfriend, Anjani Thomas (who’s solely credited by her first name on her records), and indeed, at leonardcohen.com it’s her music you hear playing on the site, not his. The lyrics are by Cohen, with Thomas composing the music and accompanying herself on piano. It’s the kind of highly atmospheric, jazz-influenced album you can imagine being played in a cocktail lounge, the kind of record you don’t want to play until after sundown.
“Yeah, it’s good for solitude, it’s good for quiet moments,” Cohen says of the record, as his eyes catch sight of some antique cocktail glasses on a nearby table. “It’s good with a drink. I wouldn’t mind filling one of these with a martini, for instance. You didn’t bring a martini, did you?” (Alas, I didn’t.)
Thomas, who hails from Hawaii, first worked with Cohen in 1984, as a backing vocalist on Various Positions, and the subsequent tour. Initially, she was not very familiar with Cohen’s work. “I’d heard other artists covering his material,” she says. “I really liked Roberta Flack’s cover of ‘Suzanne.’ But he was one of the few artists that never came to Hawaii. I had no idea of his prominence until we got to Europe [on tour] and I saw the reception he received, which was overwhelmingly gracious and warm and reverential. That made me sit up and go ‘Who is this guy?’”
But after two more albums (1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future), Cohen took a break, retiring to the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he eventually was ordained as a Buddhist monk. Thomas took her own sabbatical from the music business at the same time. After years based in New York City, working both as a solo artist and with others (including Carl Anderson and Osamu Kitajima), jobs had become scarce and she relocated to Austin. “I always liked Texas,” she explains. “And I said, ‘If I could have some kind of normal nine-to-five life I might as well go to some place that I like, and I really liked it there.’”
After five years, inspiration returned, and Thomas began working on her first solo album (perhaps not coincidentally, her relationship with Cohen began around the same time). “I’d never had a record deal, and I thought, ‘Boy, if I don’t do this now, I think I’m going to regret it my whole life,” she says. “So I sold my little house and used the money to make the record.” Anjani came out in 2000, followed by The Sacred Names in 2001, released on her own record label, Lilikoi. She describes the albums as “folk-jazz oriented but nothing approaching the gravitas of Blue Alert. And both of them sold about 10 copies!”
One can see the roots of Blue Alert on Cohen’s Dear Heather, on which Thomas plays a prominent role; his drawing of her adorns the cover, and she performs on most of the tracks, as well as co-writing two songs. “Nightingale,” which appears on both albums, offers a ready means of comparing their performing styles; Cohen’s version, after its à capella beginning, suddenly becomes a countryish romp, while Thomas’ take exhibits a cool restraint, coupled with a smooth, beguiling vocal (interestingly, Thomas arranged both versions).
It was around this time that Thomas found a completed song lyric on Cohen’s desk, and was particularly taken by the opening couplet: “There’s perfume burning in the air/Bits of beauty everywhere.” “It was the most mysterious and visually enticing lyric,” she says, and she immediately asked Cohen if she could write music for it. “I had seen a lot of Leonard’s lyrics and I never had the temerity to ask for a shot at one before,” she says. “I really to this day don’t know what overcame me, but something said, ‘This is so beautiful, I’d love to have a crack at it.’”
Cohen admits he “wasn’t thrilled with the idea” of someone taking lyrics he’d planned to use for himself. “Even Anjani,” he says. “I wasn’t overjoyed, because it’s hard to come up with anything, as you know. And people are always asking me for lyrics, it goes on a lot.” And even after finishing a demo, Thomas remained uncertain about Cohen’s reaction. “I was nervous,” she says. “Now you opened your big trapper! Because he’d never done a jazz tune per se, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m really not sure about this.’ But I played it and he instantly brightened up and said, ‘It’s a masterpiece, it’s perfect.’ And I thought, ‘Great, I’ve really got a song that you can sing.’ I thought I would just do some demos and then he would put his vocal on it. And he said, ‘Oh, it’s great, but I could never sing that,’ and I thought, ‘Well, I guess that was a futile exercise.’ But then he said, ‘No, we’ll put it aside. And we’ll see.’”
“I was really impressed by the demo,” explains Cohen. “It was a very different sound. I knew Anjani was a good singer, but I didn’t know she was that good. And when I heard she was that good, I surrendered to the project. Because something really happened to Anjani’s voice. It’s strange. It doesn’t often happen that somebody moves from competence into a unique excellence.”
With Cohen’s encouragement, Thomas trawled through his writings, mostly drawing on unfinished pieces the two would then work on together. “We just sort of edited each other,” she says. “More often than not, he’d have to change the lyric. And once he changed the lyric, I’d know where the music had to go. In ‘The Golden Gate,’ for example, originally there was a line about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. And I said, ‘Can we get some other names? ‘Cause the Fitzgeralds are just throwing me for a loop.’ He didn’t want to rewrite, but eventually he did. And once he did, I went ‘Okay, here it is.’”
The album was co-produced by Ed Sanders (who’d worked on Thomas’ previous records), Thomas and Cohen, marking the first time Cohen’s produced an artist other than himself. “It’s more that I had the power of veto,” Cohen stresses. “Anjani was not convinced that a record this unadorned could please, so occasionally we tried using other instruments. And that’s when my real producer’s activity came in; I would say ‘Let’s try it.’ But when we’d hear it, it would just get in the way of what Anjani was doing. She’s a very fine keyboard player and arranger, so anything we put on top of it obscured the whole moment. It’s quiet! And now it’s hard to find things that are quiet and beautiful. It’s fun to get overwhelmed by a groove and get into something, but this has some very special qualities.
“I don’t know if kids will like it, but it’s not designed for the market. It’s just what it is.”
Philip Glass saw an early draft of Cohen’s The Book of Longing book in the ‘90s, and as Cohen notes, the composer “was very, very interested in it.” At the time, however, both men were headed along different paths. “I went into the monastery, and he had other projects. And then he wrote me and said, ‘You know, I remember those poems. Are you doing anything with them?’ And I told him that the book was coming out and I sent him a manuscript. And he said I’d like to make a song cycle out of it, and I said of course. It was very casual. I just said yes.”
The show, which premieres at Toronto’s Luminato Festival June 1-3 before going on a brief tour, will feature an ensemble of singers and musicians, Cohen’s own pre-recorded voice, and a set based on drawings in the book. “Philip played me the demos a couple of months ago,” Cohen says. “Very very beautiful. But it’s not my position to critique Philip Glass. He’s one of our greatest composers. I think it will be entertaining. But it really is Philip’s project. I’m just delighted that the poems touched him such a way that he felt like producing them in a different medium.”
And while he prefers to look ahead to his next venture (“I’m not a very nostalgic person,” he says in the I’m Your Man film), both documentary and reissues did have Cohen reexamining his life and career, though he chuckles, “I really didn’t look very hard.” Though his first three albums are now considered landmark works, Cohen regards the reissues with a measure of detachment. “It’s a convention of the record companies,” he shrugs. “They put out the early albums again, if they seem to have lasted. And they’ve done a good job with these. But I haven’t really been that involved with it.”
Adding bonus tracks to reissues is another record company “convention,” and one Cohen readily admits he “wasn’t delighted” with: “I thought the albums could stand as they are.” But in the case of the first two albums, the bonus tracks offer some new insights as to how they might have turned out in that they were recorded by different producers than those who ended up working on the final albums. Songs of Leonard Cohen was originally going to be produced by John Hammond, who had a heart attack soon after recording began. And Cohen recorded early versions of “Bird on a Wire” and “You Know Who I Am” (re-recorded for Songs From a Room) with David Crosby. “I just bumped into him,” Cohen explains. “I was introduced to him, I think, by Joni Mitchell. And I said, ‘I’ve got a song, do you want to help me put it down?’ and he said sure.
“And then I don’t what happened, but I ended up in Nashville,” Cohen continues. “I’d bumped into [Columbia producer] Bob Johnston; I wanted to get out of town, and he said Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote ‘Bye Bye Love,’ had a little cabin that he was renting for 40 dollars a month, it’s pretty, did I want to go? I said yeah, so I moved down there for a couple years. If I’d stayed in Los Angeles perhaps I would’ve worked with David Crosby. But I really wanted to get out of town. Those are the paths you take. I didn’t know that part of the world, Tennessee. I bumped into people I would never have met under any other circumstances, the cowboys and people living out in the country.”
Those who have worshipped the albums for 40 years might be surprised to learn that Cohen remains critical of his own performance. “On the first record I thought the voice was all right,” he says, “but something was happening on the second album with my voice; I didn’t like the sound of it. On the third one the voice was a little bit better. Now, I feel more charitable to the little guy who was trying to put it together. And the songs are good. People liked them, you know, you can’t quarrel with that. I’m very happy that the records have lasted long enough so that it’s felt that they’re worthwhile looking at, worthwhile listening to.”
And Cohen also notes that the bonus tracks gave him a new perspective on his work. “The song on the first record called ‘Store Room,’ I didn’t really understand it,” he says. “Well, I did understand it, but I guess there was something I felt was obscure about it, that I don’t feel now. I feel that the guy was right on, and I understand why that song deserves a hearing. The recurring line is ‘Just a man taking what he needs from the store room.’ In a way, that’s what’s happening. People are acting with a kind of sense of end days, of final days, of desperation. And they’re taking what they need from the store room. The people that have the store room are trying to lock it up, and the people who don’t have it are trying to break into it.”
The Canadian-born Cohen won’t be drawn into a direct discussion of America’s current political climate. (“I’m a guest here, so it’s not appropriate for me to speak about it, a country that has been so gracious to me.”) But in his understated fashion, a clue to his views emerges when asked how he regarded America while growing up. “Well, Canadians see themselves as more sane, more gentle, more courteous,” he says. “I usually spend a lot of time in Montreal [where Cohen was born], but matters kept me here for the past year or two. I usually spend long periods of time there, and often in the winter, ‘cause it’s very very quiet then — and if you don’t have to wait at a bus stop and go to work in the morning it’s really great! There’s much to recommend the country. Montreal is probably the best city around. And, you know, we’re not at war. It’s a very different feeling. Though actually there are young men and women now on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but not to the extent, not involved to the extent… I mean, it hasn’t ripped society apart yet.”
Perhaps appropriately for a man who’s been lauded for his “biblical significance,” Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions co-produced I’m Your Man, meaning the film was potentially funded by profits from The Passion of the Christ (and Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark” did appear on Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ). “That would be okay with me,” he says. “But I think Lian really put it together on a shoestring. I believe Mel Gibson is a friend of hers, and his name on it I guess gave it a certain credibility.” And he’s amused to hear the film received a PG-13 rating for “some sex-related material.” “Oh yeah, really? Where?” he asks. “Strange, when you consider. ‘Sex-related’ compared to what?”
We decide the “sex” material in question must be Cohen’s drawings, some of which have naked women, or possibly the reference to oral sex in “Chelsea Hotel 2.”
And those anxious for Cohen to record his own work again should be pleased to learn that the film’s concert sequences have inspired him to consider touring in support of his next album, tentatively set for release later this year. “Yes, yes,” he confirms. “I haven’t been out since ’93. The years went by and I thought ‘I’ll never go out again.’ But every so often you do have that itch. You’ve heard that saying in rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t pay you to sing, they pay you to travel. But you forget about that stuff. The actual concerts are always compelling. If you’ve got good musicians, and you’re playing, and people know the songs, and they want to hear them live, it is a wonderful thing. And so I’m drawn to that.”
But pushed to talk about the album now in progress, Cohen again demurs. “Generally speaking, I don’t have anything to say about those things,” he says. “I wish I had something interesting to say. But I’m just plugging along trying to put something together.” Ed Sanders is equally circumspect: asked how the new work compares to Dear Heather, he merely notes it’s “a lot different.” “But the recording’s fun!” he adds. “Leonard and I have a good time. We sit down and we discuss a lot of topical and non-topical things and then occasionally we’re interrupted by a little recording. So that’s the way we work.”
And Cohen also makes it clear he’s not going to be rushed, evincing a thoughtfulness that explains both the lengthy gaps between projects and the care that makes his resultant work so enduring. “I’m not so interested in my own ideas,” he says. “I can trot out opinions like the next guy in a conversation sometimes, although I’m reluctant. When I hear myself talking, I’m not so interested in my opinions. So there’s some other level of perception that is deeper than an opinion. That’s what I find songwriting is about, is to get rid of the slogans, even the clever ones, even the sophisticated positions, and get to feelings and understandings that are just a little bit beneath the radar of opinions or intellection.
“So that’s why it takes a long time,” he continues. Before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I don’t have the conceptual skill to see something and discard it, I have to plug away and write it, and then discard it. Even if it’s good, I don’t like it if it has a slogan. Anything that resembles an easy position, that’s not interesting. So I’m not interested in my opinions, but I am somewhat interested in what I can uncover that is under the opinions.
“That’s where I like to go.”