France-Inter radio
June 27, 2001

"C'est Lenoir"
with Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson
and Leanne Ungar

Interview by Bernard Lenoir and Hugo Casavetti

Transcribed and Translated by Patrice Clos and Marie Mazur

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"Lover Lover Lover" from Field Commander Cohen is played.

Lenoir: Good evening, Leonard Cohen.

Cohen: Thank you, I'm very glad to be here.

Lenoir: We are too, you cannot imagine. There are two young women with you. Please, can you introduce them to us?

Cohen: Yes, Leanne Ungar, who is the sound engineer, who has worked with me on maybe six or seven or eight records and has also done many other important singers like Laurie Anderson. And Sharon Robinson, who produced the album and co-wrote it and arranged all the songs and is singing the background. In fact, I have a very tiny role.

Casavetti: However embarrassing it is to start pestering and questioning someone going by the name of the silent man, still we'd like to know what you've been up to the last eight years.

Cohen: I was in a Zen monastery for five or six years. I was the cook for the old master and his attendant. Also, I was working at the monastery like everybody else, and also scratching away in notebooks. Then I came down a couple of years ago.

Lenoir: So, during this time there was no music, no writing?

Cohen: I didn't write a lot. I continued to write many things, but not music.

Lenoir: But I've heard you were the only one to have a synthesizer in your jail.

Cohen: In the cabin...

Lenoir: The cabin.

Cohen: Yes, I'd play the songs, but I had no idea how to complete them the way you hear them tonight.

Casavetti: Was it actually planned that you were going to semi-retire?

Cohen: Well, as much as any plan. There is a saying, the devil laughs when we make plans. I had finished the tour and I thought a certain epoch of my life had come to an end. It seemed that that public side of things was over. It was not a dramatic decision. But I felt that I needed some structure in my life, so I went into this kind of boot camp.

Lenoir: We are a little bit surprised that you came back from the monastery. Have you really detached from everything there?

Cohen: Not a matter of detachment, just a matter of a kind of graceful opportunity. I felt that at a certain moment my studies with Roshi had come to a conclusion, so I asked him permission to go down the mountain. At the same time, I bumped into Sharon, who I hadn't seen for awhile. We started with one song and then another and Leanne was there. Before you knew it, we were in another kind of monastery doing this song day after day for two years.

"In My Secret Life" from the new album Ten New Songs is played.

Lenoir: The album will be released, when, in October?

Cohen: Yes, October.

Lenoir: Thank you Leonard, for this exclusive. Your album, Ten New Songs, seems very calm as compared to your previous work, The Future, which was almost disturbing, it was a view of our world that did not seem happy.

Cohen: That's true. There's a kind of peaceful feeling that runs through this record, resolution, reconciliation.

Casavetti: There is also a feeling of starkness in the words. This feeling I have, I've just listened to it once, it is a kind of post-script bare of Leonard Cohen, is that right? It seems much more direct.

Cohen: It's very simple. Sharon, what do you think? You've put these lyrics to music.

Robinson: About the melodies, you mean?

Cohen: ...and the words.

Sharon: The words are wonderful. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to write melodies to these words.

Cohen: Only Sharon could do this. Only Sharon is able to create these songs. I gave her rather simple words but an ample amount of words and she decided to arrange even the words. She arranged all the music but also she arranged the words. She chose some to be verses, some to be the chorus, some to be bridges in the middle.

Casavetti: Do you feel bad about cutting up Leonard's words?

Robinson: Well, there wasn't that much cutting up to be done. I think the songs, as poems, they were very close to songs already. There was maybe a verse here or there that needed to be moved or that sounded like a chorus instead of a verse. It wasn't a lot of change that I needed to make.

Casavetti: After having worked already on Leonard's songs and words, is that something you felt in the writing, that something has changed?

Robionson: Changed from...

Casavetti: From the last time you worked together.

Robinson: I feel that this body of work has a point of view that's very, very clear, and very deep but very easy to understand. In that sense it was nice to work on song after song that expressed that certain point of view.

Casavetti: So is this simplicity the Zen influence that has been going on for years, it's finally come out? Has it been a struggle after all these years to just write with very few words?

Cohen: After many years of spiritual activity my great revelation, which I happily and gratefully received on Mt. Baldy, was that I have no aptitude at all for the spiritual life. With that understanding, I was able to completely relax and leave and go back to my ordinary work.

"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" is played, a cover by The Vogues.

"Boogie Street" from the new album Ten New Songs is played.

Lenoir: Leonard, one always hears voices of girls in your songs. Until now, it was the work of chorus-singers, but these songs, with Sharon, it is almost the work of two soloists or a duet.

Cohen: It is all Sharon, she is the chorus-singers.

Casavetti: No, Leonard is the chorus-singer for Sharon.

Cohen: Yes, that's right.

Casavetti: What was your feeling about always being the female voice behind Leonard Cohen songs from the beginning? What was your relationship to the songs then and now coming in and working on them? What could you bring differently to the songs? Have you a feeling about that?

Robinson: Well actually, it was the process of making the record that brought us to where we are now with it, in terms of the vocals. Initially my idea was that I was doing arrangements that would eventually be re-sung by a lot of other singers...

Cohen: ...and replayed by a lot of other musicians.

Robinson: ...and replayed by other musicians. We started to like the unified feeling of the whole, the way it was coming out. In fact Leonard insisted on keeping it the way it was, the way it is.

Lenoir: You've always sung using female background voices, it seems you need that. Why?

Cohen: It's because I can't stand the sound of my own voice and I need to have it surrounded by very agreeable sounds singing in harmony with me. Then I can actually get from the beginning to the end of the song. In this particular enterprise with Sharon, I tried to escape and have her sing them alone.

Casavetti: At the time of The Future, I remember you talking about it, your voice had never been deeper. At the time you think it's going to get deeper and deeper, I don't know how deep it can go. Only Johnny Cash can go deeper.

Cohen: Watch out Johnny Cash (laughs). Well, I thought it would reach a certain level of depth. I had given up cigarettes, but now that I've started smoking again, I know there's no limit.

Casavetti: You wanted to sing very early, it's just that you never recorded for years. But you had faith in your voice, didn't you?

Cohen: Faith is not quite (laughs) the right word. I was stuck with it.

Lenoir: You once wrote a poem about what it was like to be 52. How are you, how old are you now?

Cohen: 67 years old.

Lenoir: But you are beautiful! Do you think your spiritual work over the years has helped you to stay so young? Maybe you have no anxiety, no fears in the monastery? Do you feel you have liberated yourself of all these things? Are you more at peace now?

Casavetti: Well you were 52 years old 15 years ago when you were looking in the mirror as the poem suggests, and you needed someone in the mirror to say, come on, hold on, you can make it. So 15 years later, and many years in the monastery...

Cohen: I've been complaining for a long time (laughs).

Casavetti: You've always been a moaner (laughs).

Lenoir: Are you haunted by all the problems of society or has Zen liberated you?

Leonard: It's too late to be depressed.

"Hallelujah" is played, a cover by Rufus Wainwright.

Lenoir: I noticed you listened to that song with your eyes closed, as if it were a religious experience. What were you thinking while you were listening to this song?

Cohen: The interpretation, it's very good. Rufus is a friend of my daughter, he comes to our home when he's in LA. I know his father. They are like family. Rufus' voice is very sweet and sincere.

Lenoir: Could you imagine that this wonderful song would be covered by so many talented artists, Buckley, John Cale?

Cohen: I'm always happy. You know we come on programs like this and we speak about our songs and our work as if we were really directing it, as if we were really in control. But we have nothing to do with these kinds of songs that come now and then. I am just stunned because I don't feel it's the work of my own hand nor the work of his. So, I just listen with a sense of gratitude.

Lenoir: You have a son, Adam, who is singing now. What does he think about the "son of" label? There are many children of artists, Lennon, Richard Thomson, Dylan.

Cohen: It's always with a great deal of anxiety that one sees one's own child go into this enterprise roughly described as show business. One has one's fingers crossed all the time. I know Loudon Wainwright feels the same way and Bob Dylan feels the same way and any parent feels this way when their child enters into this arena. Even though they're immensely gifted, all these kids, these are not kids that are just playing on their parents' name, these are kids that are really gifted. Even so, one has one's fingers crossed because it's not the easiest job.

Casavetti: Do you feel any responsibility for their talent?

Cohen: It's been my experience with kids that they come out just like they are. I don't know if everybody's a parent here, but you can see the kids immediately, they're different, they have different responses. Of course, environment is important but there is something about the way the kids come out that defines them for the rest of their lives. One really can't intrude on the destiny of another, even one's own child.

Casavetti: The co-author of "Everybody Knows" is here, Sharon Robinson. Would you ever imagine that this song would be used to illustrate a nude scene, a striptease in the movie Exotica?

Cohen: You saw that Sharon, that movie Exotica?

Robionson: I've seen it.

Casavetti: "Everyone Knows" was used for essentially a striptease. Would you ever imagine that's how it ends?

Leonard: I wouldn't put it that way, but it's got a good groove.

Lenoir: Are you happy to find your songs in movies without asking you first? I suppose you were informed about Atom Egoyan's use of the song in Exotica, you met him in Canada.

Cohen: His work is very professional.

Lenoir: Are you surprised to hear your music in movies?

Cohen: I'm very happy when anybody sings one of my songs or uses one of my songs. My critical faculties go immediately into suspension and I'm just happy about it.

"Here It Is" from the new album Ten New Songs is played.

Casavetti: In the daily newspaper Liberation tonight, they announced your appearance tonight as just, "Leonard Cohen, Singer." Does that suit you?

Cohen: That's good. It's inaccurate, but I accept.

Lenoir: Will we have a chance to see you on stage in Paris, maybe a tour in Europe? Are you aware how much your public is hoping for a tour?

Cohen: That's very kind of you. But I don't know really. Maybe.

Lenoir: Do you really want to tour again, to be on stage again?

Cohen: I like drinking and singing on the road, that's good. The preparations, the rehearsals, all of that is a bit hard, but the singing is good.

Lenoir: So we will hope to see you on stage soon. Thank you.

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