I came to Matthew Ryan a
little later than most people I know. The first song of Matthew’s I heard was
“The World is on Fire” from the album East Autumn Grin. The song was on
a mix tape from a friend sandwiched between The Clash (“Somebody Got Murdered”)
and Leonard Cohen (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). Knowing Matthew the way I do now, I’m
not sure he didn’t somehow engineer that himself. Matthew Ryan is one of the
most gifted, original and inspiring songwriters I’m aware of, and a listen to
any of his records will yield that conclusion but he has done my favorite work
of his career within the last five years, between the soaring, anthemic beauty
of Vs. the Silver State and the jagged, pulsating brilliance of From
a Late Night High Rise and Dear Lover. His voice is not just an
instrument, it’s a weapon. Coincidentally, Matthew covered “Somebody Got
Murdered” a few years back for an album called The Sandinista Project,
and here we are, talking about Leonard Cohen. Like I said, I’m not so sure he
didn’t somehow mastermind that mix tape placement.
Do you remember what it
was that drew you initially to Cohen? Was it early on or did you find him by
way of other artists, moving backwards through influences?
I remember hearing “Hey,
That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” The girl I was with at the time had blonde hair.
I was 16. The song humbled me, almost put romance in perspective. But you know
nothing can stop you from digging in, investing in that unwritten future. But
that song hit me hard. Made me think of my mom and dad, as well. It led me down
the path with Cohen. Once a writer does that for you, gratitude isn’t enough of
a word. It just kept going from there.
Cohen really is the only songwriter that
matters in my opinion. The others are good, but Cohen is great. How about you?
I found him through Dylan.
I heard a bootleg of Dylan covering “Hallelujah” from a tour he did
in 1988, I think, and that was my first exposure to that song, and to Cohen. I
was probably 15. It was right around that time that Dylan did Unplugged and had a sort of resurgence. Of course, over the next four or five years, I
heard every singer in the world cover “Hallelujah,” but it was one of
those hair-stands-on-end songs. I went backwards from there, and found Songs of
Love and Hate, and “Famous Blue Raincoat” stood me straight up, y’know?
“It’s four in the morning, the end of December.” Oh, okay. Not ten
words in and there’s a whole world in your head already.
Maybe that’s what sets
him apart for me. What is it for you about Cohen that sets him apart?
Ya know, these days artifice
is status quo. Arrogance and posturing are so much the main dish. Cohen is
perfect humility. He’s confident yet humble; in complete service to his art,
his expression. This kind of commitment isn’t something you happen upon. It’s
something that is worked towards. And that’s another thing, his pleasure in the
work. The follow through, the often perfect rhyme schemes and balance. And all
of this, achieving almost natural beauty — like high cliffs with softly
gutting landings and clarity. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a perfect example of
his gifts. It’s calm in the massacre of pretense, and somehow becomes heroic in
its ability to express gratitude. Some may think it’s a jab when he says,
“thanks for the trouble you took from her eye, I thought it was there for
good; so I never tried.” I always believed him. Cohen taught me that there
is no ownership of a woman or her heart. Not to say there isn’t jealousy or
pain in losing, but that there’s also beauty and revelation. He’s a generous
My favorite couplet in
the song, and maybe my favorite couplet of Cohen’s, is: “you treated my
woman to a flake of your life / and when she came back she was nobody’s
wife.” That’s the whole song distilled to two lines, how little was given
and how much was taken from it. I remember reading an interview (from 1975, I
think) where Cohen said the raincoat in question was actually his, a Burberry
coat he had loved. Clearly he’s not writing directly to himself but that was
really representative to me of the way he constructs characters and narratives,
and how his writing remains so true, even when the details are fudged, or
There has to be some level on which he’s writing to himself here,
Ya know, I think that’s
often the case that writers include themselves in the tapestry (for lack of a
better word) of character pieces. It seems only natural and possibly even more
honest. I mean, it’s a full disclosure to the tenth degree. “Famous Blue
Raincoat” is a masterpiece, an absolute necessary verse in the cannon that
explores the distance and struggle between men and women. It just has a
physicality about it; it feels lack that room on that night after revelation
and medicine. And that directs me to another aspect of it: the performance is
perfect. Cohen is one of my favorite singers, he’s not an actor, he’s a prop of
sorts. It’s almost like he exists only to support the words and the mood.
Yeah, he’s almost a
conduit, you know what I mean? Like, of course this is the voice that delivers
these words. No other voice could do them justice. I think of Waits as one of
the great “actors,” and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. You
always get the sense that Waits is making his voice a part of the song – an
instrument – whereas Cohen is conveying something. I don’t know that one is
“better” than the other, I guess it depends on what you’re listening
You’re right on about Waits.
He’s deserves an Oscar. I’ve always felt it was through his characters that he
found and built upon that language. What started out as a curiosity turned into
a brave path through poetry, jazz, romance, humor, dogma, bravado and strange
Do you think Cohen poops?
In ways you and I cannot
Kasey Anderson is a songwriter, singer, dog owner and bacon enthusiast from Portland, Oregon. His three albums, Dead Roses (2004), The Reckoning (2007), and Nowhere Nights (2010) have earned plenty of praise from critics (No Depression, USA
Today, The Onion) but, unfortunately, have not as yet yielded the
Swedish Fish endorsement Anderson so badly desires. If you’d like to
have Kasey Anderson sing, play harmonica and strum a guitar at you,
you’ll find him on tour all spring and summer (dates and info available
or if you’d simply like to read on as Anderson discusses various songs
with other artists, writers, friends and cohorts, you’re in the right