Leonard Cohen on the Inner Workings of His New Album 'Popular Problems' (INTERVIEW)

The 80-year-old troubadour lifts the veil on his songwriting process and how he crafted some of the new tracks on his latest album.
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As if to confirm his reputation as a lover not a fighter, on the eve of his 80th birthday and the release of his exquisite 13th album, Popular Problems, Leonard Cohen’s hand quivers only slightly as he grips the microphone into which, in that singular, apostolic basso profondo, he will compel his guests, an intimate cadre of friends and journalists, to enjoy nine new songs.

“This goes by pretty fast,” Cohen winks, like some rogue or oracle, some firebrand or libertine, the almost amaranthine meanings of such a simple comment being one of the blessings and curses of Leonard Cohen’s being Leonard Cohen.

He is talking about the album, right?

So while the maestro’s grip in mixed company may be less than sure on that autumn evening, Cohen, by evidence of his elegant, intrepid new album and his lithe manner of holding court, rakish in a well-cut suit, a trademark fedora shored upon his knee, still holds in firm possession a twin nature that has become the stuff of myth and gospel, prattle and prayer. There is the wit that can be scabrous, the meditations that are by turns reverent and apocalyptic, the tenderness that shifts suddenly savage, the imperishable questing within and without that appears at once futile and cardinal, the humor often mordant and swiftly bewitched, the meter of longing, the rhyme of despair, the sullied shoes marching or stumbling ever toward that which will make us whole.

In the 35 years since his seminal I’m Your Man was released (when he was already 54 years old), Leonard Cohen’s greatest wisdom may be that he knows there are no answers, but he continues his search for them anyhow.

Though residents of Earth have apparently elected Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman as this generation’s de facto Voice of God – sagacious, pacifying, magisterial – fans of the 80-year old Canadian troubadour know full well that there is but one vocal exudation worth truly hearing, and it belongs to Cohen, the savagely compassionate bard of spiritual, romantic, and political chiaroscuro. In 1988’s “Tower of Song,” Cohen himself quipped, most ironically, that he “was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

In the world of so-called popular music, Cohen’s nearest kin might be Tom Waits, born of carnivals and graveyards if you ask him, each songsmith of specific vocal, uh, prowess, a relentless devotion to concerns insoluble (like, you know, love, death, faith, fidelity, and taxes), and a catalogue of tunes that is as landmark as it is, commercially speaking, niche. If there is one most radical distinction between the dynamic duo, it is this: Waits is always looking for a back entrance to Heaven, so he can sneak in and luxuriate in vandalizing the joint, while Cohen doubts such paradise even exists, but yearns for it nonetheless. 

As the proverbial needle drops to the groove of Cohen’s recently-released Popular Problems, crafted quickly on the heels of his 2012-2013 world tour (nearly 300 live dates attended by more than two-million fans in 31 countries), the newly-anointed octogenarian enters through the side door of the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles, where the event is being held, and joins his 6-year old grandson, Cassius, in the magnolia-framed garden. Crowned by nearly matching fedoras, they embrace.

The record spins – “I’m slowing down the tune/ I never liked it fast,” Cohen rumbles – an exultant collision of gravity, genre, drollery, and longing. “Slow” is three-minutes of gutter and howl, hunger and wisecracking, penned, Cohen says, like most of his other hundreds of recorded tunes: music first.

“I have a rhythm in mind (when I’m starting a new song), and a certain kind of position,” Cohen says. “That’s what makes the whole songwriting process slow for me. The music must be right first. It’s hard to get behind a lyric unless it has a setting that is appropriate.”

Sometimes a song offers its perfect chord to Cohen in an afternoon, and other times, 40 years go by and the maestro remains unsatisfied. The new album’s “Born in Chains,” is such a beast, a gospel-inflected growler that, though now recorded – and stunningly – Cohen insists is still not quite finished. “That song’s been kicking around for 40 years. I’ve rewritten the lyrics many, many times to accommodate the changes in my theological position – which is very insecure,” he says both in earnest and quip. “For the album, we (producer and occasional co-writer Patrick Leonard with Cohen) came up with this pure gospel version, which I think carries it along. But it's the one song on the record that I'm not 100% behind because I don’t think I really nailed it. There's a thumbtack in there with it. But it really needs a nail.”

Cohen figures that by taking “Born in Chains” out on next year’s world tour and performing the song another 300 or so times, he just might get closer to actually, finally finishing it.

Leonard Cohen's 3-CD/DVD Live in Dublin set from his 2013 show in Dublin's O2 arena goes on sale this week.

“As I've said before, being a songwriter is like being a nun. You're married to a mystery. It's not a particularly generous mystery. Not many people have that experience in matrimony anyway,” he says. “A lot of young writers ask me for advice. They're making a big mistake because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated. The only thing I can say is that a song will yield if you stick with it long enough, but long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration.”

He eases back in his chair for a moment, then adds, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.”

Leonard Cohen Photo

Cohen says he draws inspiration from Mozart, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Neil Diamond. “There’s good wine in every generation,” he says, “but I listen to all the people I grew up with.”

Another “new” song that took Cohen much time to compose is “A Street,” a version of which was published in print by The New Yorker in 2009. A slinking, grimy, undulating blues, the three-minute song laments the brutal passing of golden hours of “wine and roses,” while subtly kissed by a survivor’s gratitude. It is a song about 9/11, says Cohen. “I was standing on this corner where there used to be a street. I wrote ‘the party’s over,’ but I landed on my feet,” goes the lyric.

“It’s taken this long for (‘A Street’) to find that path of expression,” Cohen says, unapologetically. “On the other hand, songs like ‘You Got Me Singing’ and ‘Did I Ever Love You,’ those were written very quickly. Some of the songs came together with shockingly alarming speed. But usually I take a long, long time − partly because of addiction to perfection, partly just sheer laziness.”

The Canadian troubadour and international man of letters has snared the Zeitgeist time and again for more than a generation, soothsayer and apologist, Romantic and oracle at once, forsaking contemporary pop music for the classics, bewigged and not. Cohen says he draws inspiration from Mozart, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond (“I learned love from Neil Diamond,” Cohen deadpans), and yes, Tom Waits. “There’s good wine in every generation,” Cohen says, “but I listen to all the people I grew up with.”

At an age when most men are more likely to contemplate kicking the bucket, Cohen is instead wrapping work on a 14th album, already halfway done he says, then hitting the road for another world tour – if only so he can, at last, finish some of the songs he’s already recorded and been mindfully crafting for decades. “There’s nothing like singing for people,” he says, radiating gratitude. “Having that moment before the people, it changes the song, the delivery, and to accommodate the song to the moment is a wonderful opportunity to explore the song itself.”

On the closing track of Popular Problems, Cohen croons, a collision of gravel and grace, “You got me singing/ like a prisoner in a jail/ You got me singing/ like my pardon’s in the mail,” and it’s very clear, we are all characters in Cohen’s unfinished, though recorded, “Born In Chains,” each of us seeking a door, a window, “a crack in everything,” to borrow from another of his masterful tunes, by which to find a sliver of light, a passage to relief and redemption, perhaps another first kiss or a quiet place to say our prayers or rest our eyes.

“This goes by pretty fast,” Cohen warned at evening’s start, and he wasn’t lying. Outside in the garden, Cohen and his grandson, World Wars and countless love affairs apart in age, continue to frolic under the veil of night, two silhouettes bedecked in the finest hats, a French edition of Yahtzee discarded poolside, the rest of everything lying at their wait. However close to midnight, whether we were born in chains or are dancing to the end of love, Leonard Cohen demonstrates by example that it is never too late to play like a child, and that might be the kindest thing he could ever do.