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.

Phlog

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

I am, as some of you may know, a flag-flying, gold-medal technophobe. My friends at MOJO will confirm that when I walked into the office they would hug their computers close to their chests to protect them from my destructive analog energy. And my nine-year-old mobile goes to a special school for un-smart phones. So I suppose it was a bit ambitious to buy a mini i-Pad. So far I’ve managed not to break it (though I did break something digital – my big toe!).
Since I seem to be getting along better with taking photos on its camera than typing words on its little keyboard, may I present, as a tribute to my new device, a mini Phlog.

Starting with a mini video, a few seconds from the gig ‘The Night Before Leonard’ at the Marsh in Berkeley, the day before Leonard Cohen’s show at the Paramount Theatre. That’s Matthew Szemela on violin, Colleen Browne on bass and colour-coordination, and me being pale and mysterious on the uke.
— oops, just as I was feeling confident, my first failure. It won’t upload.

So let’s move straight onto: Sylvie (plus Julie, Perla and Ronee) Goes To Austin!

En route to the airport: We really must address the disturbing issue of suicidal instruments before it’s too late. At the subway station I spotted this tragic recorder just after it threw itself at the live rail.

We must address the disturbing issue of suicidal musical instruments before it’s too late. On the way to the airport I spotted this tragic recorder on the subway just after it threw itself at the live rail.

Here we are in sunny Austin, brilliant sunlight, a perfect day. Greg Ashley and I have arranged to meet up to run through a few Leonard songs together the day before my gig at South Congress Books. Since everywhere in Austin’s mobbed with people during SXSW, we drove down a back street, parked and set off on foot to find an empty sidewalk where we could sit and play, and we spotted this place on the way, which was selling a PA system. One of the songs we did was True Love Leaves No Traces – from ‘Death of A Ladies Man’, the album Leonard Cohen made with Phil Spector. Greg’s band has recorded a cover of the whole album, released in cassette-form, perfect for technophobes.

Jesus Deaf Church, Austin, TX, speakers for sale

And here’s Greg in the bookshop’s parking lot the following day. In the doorway, John Barton, my old friend from Austin who arranged the gig. Thurston Moore was there too, but I forgot to get my i-Pad out for that.

Same parking lot but me this time, with my uke and a free pair of sunglasses promoting something or other, which I’ve fallen unreasonably in love with.

Free sunglasses!

This is the poster for the gig Julie Christensen, Ronee Blakley and I did at Austin Java, a cool cafe on Barton Springs Rd. The acoustics were so sweet and warm – which I credit to them having a huge tree indoors, too big to hug, growing up through the floorboards and out through the roof.

Austin Java

And finally… I Want You, one of the newish US TV pop idol contest shows, has seen sense and become I Want Uke!

I Want Uke

Well, thanks for watching. Next stop: New York City!

Spring forward – look back

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Last night the clocks went forward, but me and my blog still seem to be in retrograde. Every adventure I’ve had these past week (tons) I’ve meant to hit the keyboard and blog about it. But instead I’d hit the hay, then head off the next day for another escapade. Hard to imagine sometimes that less than a year ago I was stuck at my desk, staring at 600 sheets of paper, the manuscript of my Leonard Cohen book. Now I’m running about all over, book under one arm, uke under the other.

I’m just looking at my tour page to remind myself of what I’ve been up to these past weeks and grinning broadly. Like getting up onstage with a San Francisco Prog Rock band, Hot Lunch, or playing in my singer-songwriter friend Lucas Ohio’s band. Or being invited by another friend, Victoria Zackheim, to join her and a bill of great women writers, including Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Barbara Graham, Mara Purl, at a weekend of ‘Women’s Voices’. Or being part of the brilliant ‘Word Performances, with Doug Cordell, Tim Toaster Henderson, Crystal Reiss, Cybele Zufolo Siegel, Sarah Griff, Phil Lumsden and more.
Here’s a link to Part 1 of my reading: http://youtu.be/vu98fNzr-LY And here’s Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JxulAHopd8 – –with this solo uke spot in the middle http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFVSM0wI16w&feature=endscreen&NR=1

One of the craziest nights was a Litquake/Noisepop event called ‘Way Behind The Music’, in which a bunch of musicians and writers (including my pals Eric Shea from Hot Lunch and John Doe) were handed passages to read onstage from celebrity autobiographies. I got Rod Stewart – whose book I’d read, so I had an idea what to expect – and David Cassidy, which I hadn’t. So I found myself standing under the spotlight, narrating an unexpected, over-the-top tale of Cassidy, a groupie and a cholestroload of butter. I cracked up a few times, but with the help of a margerita managed to make it to the end!

The past week I’ve been back on the Leonard Cohen trail. With Leonard coming to the Bay Area for a concert at the Paramount Theatre, I did a free show called ‘The Night Before Leonard’ in the cocktail lounge of a theatre called the Marsh. I had two great accompanists – Matthew Szemela on violin and Colleen Browne, formerly of Pale Saints and the Wronglers, on bass. The following morning I was on a plane to Portland and a theatre full of people (450- my Woodstock!) for Live Wire! radio.

So now I’m home, busy writing an article for MOJO – Stephen Stills, who I interviewed the other day, and who told me this great story about Neil Young and his mum…. oh, I’ll tell you that later. As the late, great Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” A bit like everything else right now. Take care, and I’ll check back in soon. xx