Thoughts on the eve of a new album

Friday, November 7th, 2014

It was two and a quarter years ago, with the first edition of I’m Your Man The Life of Leonard Cohen about to come out, when I had the crazy dream of going on the road with my book and a ukulele, reading, talking about Leonard and singing his songs. Taking my uke, if I’m to be honest,  was as much a security blanket as anything else. Writers, especially writers of lengthy books, tend to spend more time alone, sitting and staring at the wall, than standing  in front of  a roomful people pretending they’re not shy. So, at least at the outset, until I gradually got comfortable with performing, my ukulele was  something to hide behind. It was also good company. During the year or so I travelled the world researching and interviewing people for the book, I took the uke with me everywhere, from a seedy rental apartment in Montreal to a hut in the monastery on Mt Baldy. Ukes tend to make you friends – a bit like a puppy, but with nothing to clean up!  The tour – well some of you reading this might have come to one of the shows, either  in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, New Zealand or Australia during 2012-2014.

Today I was deleting a bunch of old files from my computer to try and speed it up, and and I came across this one: a video. A friend had suggested that if I was going to tour, I ought to post a Youtube video. I’d never made  one before so I called my friend Christian, an indie record producer, and asked if he knew someone who could shoot it. One of his artists, Annie Girl, had made an album which featured classical musicians as well as her rock band the Flight; I’d loved that album and had made it my Americana album of the month in MOJO. I asked Christian if he could hire the violin player for my video and I said I’d like to shoot at night, maybe two or three Leonard Cohen songs, me and the violin player in my bedroom. I would call the video  Songs from a Bedroom in tribute to Leonard’s second album.

A few days later he turned up mid-afternoon, on the hottest day of the year, with a video maker and a violin player  – the great Matthew Szemela. But he’d also brought with him a viola player, the brilliant Charith Premawardhana, and a shy young woman with an acoustic guitar who it turned out was Annie Girl. It was the first time I’d met any of them. I swiftly printed off two more chord sheets and we piled into my bedroom, closed the black-out curtain and lit candles to make an artificial night.

Annie sat beside me on the bed, Matthew and Charith sat on the floor, all of us sweating pints from the heat. The next door neighbours had thrown open their windows to let in the sun and were playing Mexican music at full-blast, the bass rattling the candlesticks on my bedside table. I love mariachi, but not so much when trying to record a Leonard Cohen song. So Christian, being fluent in Spanish, went next door to try and quieten things down. Apparently he offered them $50 to turn the music off for an hour. (Memo to self: I.O. Christian 50 bucks.)

And this was the first song we recorded: Famous Blue Raincoat. Just one take. Charith’s viola-playing still gives me goosebumps. As to Matthew’s violin – unbelievable! You might notice in the footage tha his violin solo made me cry; I had to lean my head back and try to get the tears to run back inside my head again before coming back in for the final verse.

Annie, who had never heard of Leonard Cohen before that day, went on to love his songs and play many of them with me on the S.F Bay Area leg of the tour.  We often sit around the apartment and jam- her songs as well as mine. I love her songs. She’s playing electric guitar this days and doing a gig at  the Chapel in San Francisco tomorrow ( Saturday) night;  you should check her out.

Anyway here it is, Leonard Cohen’s mother Masha’s favourite song and mine, my first-ever video, which led to a book tour, which in turn  led to me plucking up the courage to go into a studio and record my own songs and release my debut album on Light In The Attic Records, Sylvie.

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Happy birthday Leonard Cohen: 78 years old today. Judging by his tour schedule, he’s celebrating it on a bus, with his band, going from Turkey to Romania  – which he’ll follow with eight concerts in five different countries before heading back to the States, where he’ll be touring until the end of the year. Or, as he told me, until he’s in his eighties. What kept him going, he said, was the promise that he’d made himself to take up smoking again on his eightieth birthday. He liked the idea of sneaking behind the tour bus for a quiet smoke.

So I just went out and bought him a 78th birthday present. A pack of cigarettes. You never know, they night be entirely illegal in California by 2014.  I’ve hidden them away for safekeeping and I’ll hand them over when he comes of age.

I also bought a cupcake and a candle which I’ll take with me to Moe’s in Berkeley for tonight’s reading and music (Leonard Cohen never felt there was any difference between the music and the word, and neither do I). Tonight on Telegraph avenue there I’ll be with my book, my uke, and tonight’s excellent accompanists who’ll do their damnedest to make me listenable – the fabulous Heidi Clare, bluegrass queen, on fiddle, Ralph Carney, jazzman and Tom Waits accompanist, on trumpet and other blowable items, no doubt, and Annie Girl of Annie Girl and the Flight on guitar and me on uke. Hope to see some of you there.