INTERVIEW WITH LEONARD COHEN |
KCRW FM, LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 18, 1997
Interviewed by Chris Doritos
Transcription by Roxanna Bahro
You can actually hear this interview in RealAudio (41:40 min)
at Morning Becomes Eclectic
Chris Doritos: Leonard Cohen released his first album by Christmas that year, 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen. Since then he has released 11 albums of songs and they have been covered over the years by Jennifer Warrens, REM, Peter Gabriel, U2's Bono, Nick Cave, Diana Ross [goes on], this is just to name a few. And we recently just heard from Leonard and we heard about a couple of new tribute albums one from The Czech Republic and one from Spain a Flamenco tribute album, and that now makes what six tribute albums in all the other ones being Jennifer Warrens, I'm Your Fan, A Norwegian Tribute album, and Tower of Song a collection of performances by [the names of some of the artists]. 1990's Trouser Press, which is sort of like the bible of mainstream rock lamented that: " Leonard is better known from usually inferior versions of his songs." Well, we'll get Leonard's take as he joins us this hour on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, right now it's Bono's version of Hallelujah.
[song: Hallelujah by Bono from "Tower of Song tribute album"]
Chris: - That's Hallelujah originally found on the Leonard's album Various Positions release 1984 Columbia records. That's a version from Bono of U2 taken from Tower of Song, a Tribute album, of course a tribute to the writings of Leonard. I'm Chris Doritos on Morning Becomes Eclectic KCRW happy to have in the studio, Leonard, welcome. [some minor technical difficulties]
Chris: - welcome back.
Leonard: Thanks for having me down, I appreciate it.
Chris: - It's good to have you here. I was startled when I got the phone call from Kelley at your office. She says, "yeah we got these wild tribute albums. One from the Czech Republic and one from Spain." These just landed in your mailbox?
Leonard: yeah, they landed in the mailbox. And I was very impressed by the performances and the treatment and I thought who can I turn to, to let people hear this. Because these records are not readily available, or even available at all, here in America. So I thought I'd like people to hear them.
Chris: - Yeah, of course they have been exposed to a lot of other cover versions of your songs. I'm sure, some that you've favored and some that you haven't. Leonard: I heard those remarks you made about that excerpt from that….
Chris: -The Trouser Press, yes, saying that most people are only aware of you "by way of inferior cover versions of your songs."
Leonard: I appreciate the charity in that observation. But as for myself, whenever I hear anybody do one of my songs my critical judgements go into immediate suspended animation. I'm just knocked out when anybody does a cover of mine.
Chris: - Yeah, I guess it would be hard for you to make any kind of assessment.
Leonard: First of all I am happy that someone has heard the song and is moved to cover it. Second, of all it gives me a completely fresh take on the song and I can then enter it into my own judgmental process.
Chris: - Do you feel though that a song if it's well written is going to survive perhaps less than adequate treatment?
Leonard: I think there are songs that are better done than I have done them. Just more successful versions of the songs that I have done. For instance, We were talking about Billy Joel's Light as a Breeze I think it's a much much better version of the one I came up with.
Chris: - It's odd because I hear so much more irony in your version, than I hear in Billy Joel's.
Leonard: Yeah, well I've got irony for both of us. I'd like to hear another aspect.
Chris: - I see!! It interesting that really the first song of yours that was released was actually a cover, Judy Collins, right? .
Leonard: Yes, Judy Collins was actually very helpful in getting me started. .
Chris: - We're actually going to hear the original, well not the original version of "Hallelujah", but one of your own version of "Hallelujah" here. Maybe you could set up for us the writing of this song. And I should tease people that we will be hearing the Flamenco version of it here in just a moment. .
Leonard: It's a song that like most of them took a long time to write. It went through many versions and I am singing from different versions of the song that has been recorded and covered. I think this is a performance at Austin City Limits. I'm not sure I think that's where it comes from. .
Chris: - Yes from 1988. This is on the Cohen Live album from Columbia Records. Leonard on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. .
[Song: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen] .
Chris: - That's from the Cohen Live album released by Columbia Records in 1994. It's a recording of the 1988 Austin City Limits of "Hallelujah." Leonard is with us, Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. It makes a lot of sense, when I got this Flamenco tribute album, it's not just your work but also along side
your work the writings of Federico Garca Lorca. .
Leonard: It's a kind of tribute album to Lorca and Cohen. It's very good company. .
Chris: - You've been a fan of Lorca's since 1949 I understand. .
Leonard: I stumbled on a book of his in a second hand book store when I was a kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and I found something in there that just resonated in my own heart. It was universe that I already inhabited, so I claimed him as my brother. In fact I named by daughter Lorca. She's here right now. .
Chris: - Yes, she is indeed. You've said of Lorca that he ruined your life. .
Leonard: In the sense that once I knew that there was this landscape that he'd established, I wanted to stay there most of the time. .
Chris: - So there was no turning back. .
Leonard: There was no turning back. .
Chris: - Well, that was the same year I guess that you bought a guitar and dove into flamenco, taking a few lessons from somebody shortly thereafter. .
Leonard: There was a young man in the park behind my mother's house. A dark young man, very handsome, played flamenco guitar. I asked him if he would give me a few lessons. He did. He gave me three or four lessons. On the basis of those lessons I wrote most of my songs. He showed me some changes with the guitar that was very very important to me. He didn't turn up for the final lesson, and I phoned his boarding house, they told he'd committed suicide. I don't know whether that was because of the progress with his student; or I think perhaps he had other issues. .
Chris: - Well, you've had a found ness for flamenco ever since I would think. .
Leonard: I love the music. .
Chris: - When you heard this album by Morente what were your feelings? .
Leonard: I thought I'd better get a hold of Chris Doritis. I really want people to hear this and nobody is going to hear it. I think it is music and delivery and confidence that is very rare. .
Chris: - Do anything about this guy Morente? .
Leonard: I know that he stands at the very center of his own tradition. That he is
one the leading flamenco players in Spain. .
Chris: - Has there ever been a conversation between the two of you. .
Leonard: We met at a bar in Spain when I was doing a concert tour there, actually the bar where Lorca used to drink. And, we paid each other our respects. .
[song: Aleluya by Enrique Morente, from "OMega"] .
Chris: - That's spectacular. .
Leonard: Isn't it something. .
Chris: - So powerful. That's a guy called Morente.
Leonard: Morente. .
Chris: - And the album is called Omega, It's really an overview collection of Cohen and Lorca and it's available only in Spain. .
Chris: - And the song, really it's not really necessary a great surprise that he chose this song. But when you look at some of the other songs on the album
for example "First We Take Manhattan." .
Leonard: I don't know the destiny of this record. .
Chris: - It is quite spectacular. There was a tribute album that was put out in Norway, and this one from Spain and another we hear a little later on from the Czech Republic is there any indication of the songs getting lost in the translation, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. .
Leonard: I don't think so. What I like about Morente's work is that he takes my songs right into his own terrain. He doesn't feel obliged to make any references to my version or they are very subtle. The fact that he saw there was a flamenco reality to the work is what touches me most deeply. So he brings it right into the center his own tradition and manifests it as an artifact of his own culture. That's what I love about it, that it is his. .
Leonard: That's a very interesting version. .
Chris: - Yeah, it's an odd choice. Let's check out the original first. .
Leonard: I'll try to remember this one. .
[song: First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen] .
Chris: - That's how it sounded back in 1988 on the album I'm Your Man. "First We Take Manhattan." You know I have to say I have liked the versions I have heard by Jennifer Warrens and by REM, consistently when I have heard somebody do this song I tend to love it. This one is remarkably different, from Morente. .
Leonard: Yeah, the percussive approach to the song of Morente's, I think is
[song: Manhattan by Enrique Morente, from "Omega"] .
Chris: - From Enrique Morente, this is an album called Omega, It's a tribute to the writings of Lorca and Cohen. Leonard is with us this morning. This guys is pretty much a straight a head flamenco player. But he does experiment. .
Leonard: He is regarded as the leading innovator in flamenco. He's brought in
Jazz elements, Folk elements, Rock&Roll. I see. So He's an experimenter. .
Chris: - He's an experimenter, but he also stands at the center of his own tradition. Have you guys talked after you've received the album. .
Leonard: I sent him two dozen roses. .
Chris: - That's fantastic. So really at the heart of your adoration of this project is your appreciation of his understanding of the heart behind the songs. .
Leonard: The fact that he saw something in my songs that could be translated into flamenco music is what touches me. Cause a lot of the changes in for example First We Take Manhattan are flamenco changes. So that he saw that these songs had a reference to something that he understood and that we meet there and that he made those songs into flamenco songs. .
Chris: - That's fantastic. You know as you look over the various covers, there have been six tribute albums. [he runs through the list again] In almost every instance when they do cover your song they try to emulate your vocal style the sound of your voice. So you don't hear someone do Suzanne with a gruff voice. You don't here someone do I'm Your Man in the softer tenor sound of Leonard. .
Leonard: Well, fifty thousand cigarettes later, they haven't been able to follow my career really with any dedication. .
Chris: - Well Suzanne is the most covered song. .
Leonard: I think so. .
Chris: - Yet, the original was included recently in Breaking The Waves. .
Leonard: I didn't see that but people told me about it. .
Chris: - It is very nice placement and it's great to have it on the sound track. Now this the Czech compilation that we have here. Tell me a little about this cause I have never heard of this guy. .
Leonard: I don't know anything about. There is a picture of his naked from the
waist up on the cover. He has a magnificent physique. .
Chris: - And he is brandishing a tattoo. .
Leonard: He's the kind of guy I was meant to be. .
Chris: - That's an interesting way of looking at this project. You've said before that really what drove you to writing was the fact that you weren't getting the women you wanted. .
Leonard: Trying to get a date. .
Chris: - Is it still true. .
Leonard: YEAH! .
Chris: - Well were gonna go to what is the last song on the compilation I can't say his name I think It's Juraj Kukura. .
Leonard: Sounds good to me. .
Chris: - This guy is from the Czech republic and I'm not even gonna try to say the name of the album but it's a song of Leonard's. .
[song: Suzanne by Juraj Kukura, from Jsem Tvuj Muz album] .
Chris: - That's "Suzanne" interpreted by an artist from the Czech Republic, Juraj Kukura, and perhaps there is somebody in the audience that knows something about this guy. I'd be curious to find out more about him. This is a tribute album to the writings of Leonard, form what I could tell Tommu Records out of the Czech Republic. As far as finding this I think I'd be pretty tough, unless you are traveling around Europe. .
Leonard: It's a very fine piece of work. .
Chris: - Yeah, Yeah, it is. It's quite interesting. Now you actually have been in a bit of a recluse state for the last couple of years. .
Leonard: Well, not really I've been in a monastery, but it's a very opposite of the kind of a recluse situation. .
Chris: - What parties every weekend? .
Leonard: Well the thing is, you know when you're living the civilian life, usually you go home, and shut your door, and turn on the TV set. You know if you're alone. But living in community is a very opposite of recluse life, because your continually working with people, and cooking, cleaning-up, and you know, you're very much involved with everybody else. .
Chris: - I see. Have you been writing lately? .
Leonard: Yes I've been blackening pages, here and there, and scratching away. .
Chris: - The reason I ask is because I was curious when we might get another studio album from you. .
Leonard: I've been getting the same interest from the record company. .
Chris: - That's good, that's a positive sign. .
Leonard: There is no special time or date for it. It's gonna take a while. .
Chris: - It is gonna take a while. .
Leonard: I'm just finishing a book now. I've been concentrating on that for the past few months. .
Chris: - Is there anything you could tell us about it, at this point. .
Leonard: Oh it's just a collection pieces over the past few years. .
Chris: - I see. So, are they new writings? .
Leonard: New writings. .
Chris: - They are new writings. The last studio album was the Future from 1992. It actually had a couple of songs on there that you didn't write; that were cover versions. You turning, putting the shoe on the other foot in a way.
Leonard: Well, both those songs were songs I like very much. The song by
Irving Berlin was originally in ¾ time, and I turned it into a 4/4 song, and I always loved it. It's very beautifully constructed as a song, and I think the lyric is very touching. So, I went in there with Steve Lindsey, a producer, and some really excellent musicians, and we prepared a drink that I had invented called the red needle. It's basically, Tequila, Cranberry juice, and lime, and some other elements. And after I had distributed this drink, and people had sampled it, we produced this track. .
[song: Always by Leonard Cohen] .
Chris: - Irving Berlin's "Always" interpreted by Leonard, from the Future album, 1992. I'm Chris: , Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. Leonard is with us. I guess at some point after you picked up a guitar, when you were a teenager, you were calling yourself a songwriter. Weren't you? I'm trying to think of how you think of yourself. Do you think of yourself as poet, a songwriter, a writer. .
Leonard: Any of those is ok. I never had a real description of myself that I apply to myself. Any description is ok. I am a songwriter, who used to live in LA. .
Chris: - Well, it's interesting that you were driven to pick up the writings of Irving Berlin or Fredrick Knight in the other case. Is it something that you thing you'll do again? Pick up somebody else's song and approach it. .
Leonard: Oh, I hope so. .
Chris: - So, you don't really have any idea what this next album will be. .
Leonard: I should have brought a track down. .
Chris: - Really! So you do have some things actually recorded. .
Leonard: Yeah! .
Chris: - Oh, that's great. That's means that it's in the process, it's coming...
Leonard: It's coming...
Chris: - I should also point out that your son, Adam...
Leonard: Oh, my son does beautiful work. He is the real thing... He really knows how to sing
Chris: - He just recently got a record deal
Leonard: Yes, he signed with Sony and he is in the midst of recording now. He's written some very very beautiful songs. I'm very very proud of him. .
Chris: - So, how would you describe his approach? .
Leonard: Well, first of his his voice has a quality that is very compelling. He has almost perfect pitch. So, you know he didn't get that from me. And his movement, his phrasing, his musical approach is very very sophisticated. It's kind of it's hard to describe. it's new it's a new thing. .
Chris: - And when can we expect to hear something from him? That'll be what, six months to a year. .
Leonard: I think something like that .
Chris: - Ok, well we're gonna go out with what you described early this hour as your favorite cover Billy Joel's version of a song of yours. .
Leonard: Yeah, it's a very beautiful song; the way Billy sings it. .
Chris: - Well, thank you for bringing this stuff in, I mean it's been a treat hearing these odd but wonderful versions of your songs, and if it's ok with you well keep these in the library and share them. .
Leonard: Oh, thank you. Thank you for asking me down, I appreciate it. .
Chris: - Thanks for making the call. .