Clearing away the smoke: biographer and Cohen connect by love of ukulele (The Australian)

WRITER Sylvie Simmons absorbed so much of singer Leonard Cohen’s work while she was writing his biography that some of his talent and his material rubbed off.

That’s why the veteran English music journalist, a guest of this week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, turned her world promotional campaign for I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, into a mini-concert tour in which she and her ukulele pay tribute to the acclaimed Canadian songwriter’s best work.

“Everybody who’s a music journalist is accused of being a failed rock star or a closet rock star,” Simmons said in Sydney yesterday. “I just waited 37 years to do it.”

The San Francisco-based writer, who has interviewed just about every rock star worth talking to since starting her career with the British magazine Sounds in the late 1970s, said she shares her passion for the uke with the subject of her book, which she spent three years working on.

“Cohen himself played the ukulele so there’s a connection there,” she said.

The writer, who has written biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, travelled with her uke when she was researching and doing interviews for her Cohen book.

She came up with the idea to perform as part of her tour to launch I’m Your Man in the US last year, enlisting local musicians to help her in each city through her connections as a journalist.

‘It came everywhere on my travels,” she said of her instrument. “It was a companion. So I thought, well, this uke has been everywhere with me and I’ve jammed with monks and rabbis on it, so I’m going to sing some of Leonard’s songs.”

Simmons has had a long association with the singer. She wrote the liner notes for his 1970 album Live From the Isle of Wight and interviewed him several times during his career before embarking on the biography.

“The genesis of the book was writing a feature on him for Mojo magazine in England in 2001,” she said. “The interview lasted three days. Anyone who has spent that amount of time with him would think they had him nailed. But he had blown smoke in my eyes. He’s so straightforward and seemingly honest and naked in his way of talking to you, but he doesn’t tell you everything. My starting point with the book was to fill in those gaps.”

I’m Your Man made the New York Times bestsellers list when published last year and has enjoyed critical acclaim around the world.

This is the writer’s first visit to Australia, but she said she had an affinity for the country through some of the artists she had interviewed and written about.

“I was writing about AC/DC very early on in their lives so there is a connection that way,” she said.

Simmons will conclude her Australian visit with a concert in Petersham tomorrow, joined by local performers to interpret Cohen’s finest moments.

by Iain Sheddan for The Australian

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