by Tony Wilson

New Musical Express, March 25, 1972


OF ALL singer-songwriters to emerge in the last five years, Leonard Cohen is the most unique.

His style is highly individual and his way of creating lyrics is literary. But then that isn’t surprising for a man who was already a prize winning poet and published novelist before his albums sold widely enough to make him an international name in the third-stream of contemporary music, the area between folk and pop.

Cohen is currently visiting Britain. He opened last Saturday in Dublin and on the Sunday I met him at his hotel.

Of his creative life, he told me: "The kind of interest my songs created meant that for some time I found myself moving into that area, to the exclusion of the other forms. But now I'm getting back to the older forms. I've just finished a new book of poems."

Of songwriting, Cohen commented: "When you finish a song you can present it immediately in a finished way.

"Most of the songs I've recorded in the last three years came out of one extremely fertile period when I wrote about a 100 songs, and I've taken them and moved them around.

"But that phase is over now and I've begun working on a new kind of song. When I think of songs, I think beyond the one I've got. I'm into one now that I think is great."

Cohen writes the kind of songs that send people off theorising as to their meaning.

"Establishing a theme in a song comes later," said Cohen. "I don't really know what it is any more than I know what the theme of my life is, or anybody else's is. I don't know what the themes of my songs are.

"If I had some very special message to lay across I would not hesitate to do so if I thought it would make the work easier, but I don't have such a message."

Asked how much the happenings and events in his own life have influenced his writing, he replied: "My life seems empty. I'm not saying this in any sense of despair. I mean the quality is empty. It doesn't have many events, so the song has to come out of some other place. It's not an event and it's not a message, it's another kind of colour."

Did he apply the same technique in song-writing as in poetry-writing?

"It's basically like a courting process, like hunting women. Most of the time it's a hassle. And you feel you're not really getting as much as you should, and you're unsatisfied. And from time to time there doesn't seem to be anything you can do. Of course from time to time you connect. The time you don't connect, you just kind of scratch."

The interpretations placed on Cohen's songs vary from listener to listener. What people make of his songs often surprises him.

"But the songs are empty, and you can put into them what you want to put into them.

"My voice just happens to be monotonous, I'm somewhat whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully too. It's a completely biological accident that my songs sound melancholy when I sing them."

He talked about concerts - the sell-out Dublin one in particular.

"I don't want to pretend I was the man who was writing those songs in a room. I'd already written them. I don't lay some dramatic trip on them about how I felt as I wrote them at the desk.

"At the concert I wasn't at the desk. I was singing songs they knew. I don't want to pretend we live every single moment of the song."

Did he enjoy working in public?

"This is the second time I've done it. It's hard to say anything about it because it went very easy last night, so I'm tempted to say it's easy. But if it's a wipe-out in Glasgow, I'll develop some sob story about it."

Recalling his first public appearance Cohen said that it was terrifying.

"I couldn't finish the song. I couldn't tune the guitar. I thought it must be my ears. The guitar must be in tune. I started singing and I couldn't finish the song, I had to excuse myself.

"But a live performance gives you a chance to put your character on the line. There are a lot of things you can do on stage. You can sell it to the audience, you can withdraw, you can indulge in many, many kind of fantasies.

"And it's always a very interesting test of character, because you know when you are betraying yourself."

During the course of the Dublin show, Cohen was asked to recite some of his poetry. He obliged with an amusing three-liner written to a girl some years ago.

"I never really enjoyed myself doing poetry from the stage, but I'm sorry I didn't have a book of poems with me because people were so hospitable and interested and I did feel so relaxed. I might just have said 'Well here are some poems I've written, if you want to hear them.'

"Once again I couldn't read the poems and pretend to recreate the emotion that brought forth the poems, but I would have done it if I had had a book of poems.

"But it's something that smacks a bit of the Sunday School, kind of ramming something down people's throats. My own collected emotions are best kept between two hard covers."

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