Leonard Cohen: Behind The Scenes, Part 1!
Hallelujah!: LEONARD COHEN SPECIAL
In the December issue of Uncut, we celebrate Leonard Cohen’s comeback by getting the inside story from his bandmates on their extraordinary year on the road. Here at uncut.co.ukover the next month, we’ll be posting the full, unedited transcripts of those interviews in a new, seven-part series.
Today we start with Sharon Robinson, his collaborator since 1979, with musical director Roscoe Beck, backing singers Charley and Hattie Webb and others to follow.
Part two of seven, published online next Wednesday (November 5)!
First signed on with Cohen for 1979’s Field Commander Cohen jaunt. She's co-written many songs with him (the first, “Summertime,” was covered by Diana Ross and Robert Flack) and produced and sang on his first albums of the new millennium, the excellent 10 New Songs and Dear Heather. Cohen painted the cover for her solo album, Everybody Knows - “A masterpiece,” according to the great man.
UNCUT: At what point did you become involved in this tour?
SHARON ROBINSON: I came in about a month into the process, in March. Leonard was definitely adjusting to another mode of living. The prospect of touring can be quite daunting. But I think he got through it quite nicely. He maintains a very hospitable and gracious demeanour no matter what’s going on. Occasionally you could see he was daunted during rehearsals. But he’s somewhat of a perfectionist, and I think he loves the work itself. That part of him takes over. No matter what the overriding issue is, his ability to get into the work is unchanged.
On the ’93 tour, the backing singers claimed that in rehearsals Leonard made them sing and sing till in tears.
Whatever work we did was completely appropriate to the task at hand. There were a couple of times when he would go on and on with a song. “So Long Marianne” I remember doing verse after verse after verse; I guess in an effort to get comfortable with it. Other than that it was completely appropriate. The rehearsals were long, and somewhat exhausting. But we had a big job to accomplish. To a large extent, the arrangements were taken directly from the original recordings of the songs. We would listen, and in many cases simply copy the record. Though a lot of that process occurred before I got there.
How about the first performance, in Fredericton. Was he nervous in the build up?
I think so. Moreso than our performance, he was not sure how the audience was going to receive the whole idea. He takes all of his work very seriously. He’d determined to do his best possible work. In that respect, he was a little worried before he went on. We go on stage as a team, and we wish ourselves a good show; it’s a group effort back-stage, right before the show. When the audience gives us their complete acceptance and warmth, it tends to take the tension out of it. I’m sure that happened in Fredericton.
Did you celebrate afterwards?
Leonard leaves the venue immediately after the show, so we don’t have a lot of opportunities to celebrate afterwards together. I think we have some celebrations that are well overdue!
How about when you made it over to Europe, for that first show in Dublin?
We weren’t sure whether our concert would translate in those larger, open-air venues. Because it is a rather intimate show. That was of concern to everyone. As it turned out, it translated really well. That has a lot to do with the audiences being very familiar with and committed to Leonard’s work as a whole. They go there to love it, and allow themselves to be immersed in it.
Glastonbury was one of the key dates on that first leg of the tour. It was certainly the biggest in terms of numbers. What’s your memories of it..?
The scale was incredible. Looking out from the stage, and barely being able to see the end of the crowd was really thrilling. It was fantastic. We were lucky there wasn’t much mud that day. I think Leonard was very pleasantly surprised by the response and the involvement of what was basically a younger crowd. During the time we were playing, I think he attracted most of the people that were there. That was something of a revelation to him. He wasn’t sure, the extent to which younger people are interested in his music. But it’s clear that that is a growing segment of his audience.
Leonard on tour: what other memories come to mind?
He’s a devoted workhorse. He works harder than any of the rest of us, and has reserves of energy that no one can quite tell where they come from. And he is moved by the response of the audience, and the overall sense of an almost spiritual connection that is going on between him, his work and his audience. The whole thing is a real phenomenon, and Leonard is very moved by that.
How different is he than when you toured with him before?
He’s a little older. He’s been through a number of personal changes. He’s quite a bit happier than when I knew him 30 years ago. His voice is lower, but he’s singing great. He’s doing very well. As he’s said, the unexpected lifting of a certain dark cloud, that depression that has been well-documented, is a big change.
Do you socialise much with Leonard?
Occasionally. Leonard and I are old friends, we’re very close, and those are magical moments for me. I always love connecting with my old pal. But in this environment it isn’t often possible, because these tours are somewhat of a 24/7 gig, and it takes a lot of focus off the show, to be able to do what we do during it.
Sometimes we’ll have something to eat, some coffee, and we talk about family, friends, and the state of things. The kind of things that close friends do. He doesn’t go to his old haunts much as we’re travelling. Except in Montreal, of course, which is his home. We went to a couple of his favourite places there. We often talk about how hard the work is, being on tour. But I asked Leonard once, during the last leg: “But aren’t you enjoying it?” And he did admit that he was enjoying the audience’s pure involvement in the music, and that there was something very special going on. I felt good about bringing that out!
Does he ever talk about the theft of his money that was the trigger for this?
Well yeah. He and I have talked about it quite a bit. But I was very pleased to see that it hasn’t, as far as I can tell, put a severe dent in Leonard’s mood. Something like that can really be devastating for a person. But he seems to be dealing with it really, really well.
Do you think the years at Mt. Baldi gave him a spiritual preparation for this test?
I think it must have, yes. Because one of the things you learn is that you don’t necessarily have to be attached to these things that are happening to you, on the outside world.
Is it fair to say that although the theft was an awful thing, this tour has been a gift for Leonard?
Well, I guess you’d have to look at it that way, in part. Because there’s a lot of value in discipline and work, and the structure of what we’re doing. That can all be quite therapeutic. I think there’s probably an element of that going on for Leonard.
When I first heard about the tour, it seemed awful that he’d have to go out on roa,d singing for his supper essentially. Would he rather not have done such a long tour, if he didn’t have some financial impetus to?
Perhaps. But if he’s feeling that and thinking that, it’s definitely not part of our day-to-day atmosphere. He’s completely involved in the music, and the excellence of its preparation.
And after the Big Chill. Did you celebrate then?
No. Everyone went their separate ways. We were somewhat anxious to get back to our lives, and families, and take care of things. There was an element of exhaustion at the end of the last tour. Not terrible. But it was time to go home. And so we went our separate ways. And reconvened at rehearsal.
So has the set changed much now you’ve started the second leg of the tour?
The set has changed a little. Leonard has added “The Partisan” to the show, and “Famous Blue Raincoat” is coming back in. There’s a heightened musicality, I think, that’s coming from the band. Because we know the set now, but there’s another point of view on it, based on time and experience, and having had some rest.
You’re all getting deeper into the songs?
Yes, I would say so. There’s more of an interaction between the various elements of the band. Our chops are up, in terms of this music.
Are new songs coming in?
Not yet. That was supposed to happen during August. But it didn’t! I’m not sure why.