Toronto's Globe & Mail, Canada
October 11, 2001

The California Girl and the Ladies' Man

by Doug Saunders

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LOS ANGELES -- This is not every songwriter's dream: To spend more than two years working on exactly 10 songs, in collaboration with a gruff old lyricist who prefers to work at the crack of dawn, whose plodding perfectionism famously entails endless months of rewrites, false starts and last-minute reversals, whose vocal range encompasses exactly one very low octave.

Yet here, on the cover photo Leonard Cohen took for his latest album, and on the writing credits for each of its 10 songs, is Sharon Robinson, a sunny Californian whose most public accomplishment to date had been penning the Patti LaBelle hit "New Attitude." At first glance, she is the last person you'd expect to be the unindicted co-conspirator in Cohen's latest act of serial melancholy.

Somehow, though, there is an intense and long-standing creative bond between the 66-year-old Canadian poet and the California girl, born in San Francisco and raised on some of L.A.'s grittier streets, who had built her life on singing and penning songs for the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts, making hits for the Pointer Sisters and Roberta Flack and the Temptations. Nobody expected Leonard Cohen to become half of a songwriting team, something like a depressives' version of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Given their mutual affinity for Zen Buddhism, it might be fitting to call it a yin-yang thing.

"He never has explained why he works with me," Robinson says with a laugh as we stretch out one sunny afternoon beside the grand piano in the living room of her cozy Hollywood house, packed with music and mementos. "He's very generous and gracious. I think that I was just able to provide an atmosphere that's comfortable for him to express himself and get his work done." The better question, and the more interesting one, is why Robinson has decided to give so much of her life over to Cohen.

She lives at the base of the Hollywood Hills, within a mudslide's distance of the precipitous dwellings of the stars, and in the shadow of the giant white letters of the Hollywood sign. In fact, as you approach her house, there is a road sign that reads "No Access to Hollywood Sign," as if the gods of fame were telling her to turn away from the glitter, into something deeper and more difficult.

This is exactly what she has done, almost literally: Every day for the past two years, she has turned away from the Hollywood sign and made a 20-minute drive south from her house, to the rickety working-class neighbourhood in L.A. that she once called home. As chance would have it, this is where Leonard Cohen has hung his hat for the past two decades.

Cohen chose this highly unfashionable neighbourhood in large part because it is a short drive to the temple of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the 92-year-old Zen master whom Cohen considers a great friend and spiritual guide of sorts. Which leads us to another coincidence of fate: Robinson, too, is a sometime devotee of Sasaki Roshi, and their spiritual affinity may help explain their creative rapport.

But our tale really begins in the late 1970s, when Robinson was a struggling musician. One day she got a call from Jennifer Warnes, Cohen's backup singer (and later the creator of Famous Blue Raincoat, the first and most successful of many Cohen tribute albums). Would she audition for a backup post?

She stayed on for two concert tours. Not long after the second, in the early 1980s, Cohen showed Robinson a couple of lines he'd been working on, and wondered if she could help them out with some music. Almost 10 years later, they would finish "Everybody Knows," his wittiest and possibly his best song. Immediately after, they wrote "Waiting For The Miracle" together.

At this point, though, Cohen was getting jaded and disillusioned with the music game. He disappeared into Roshi's monastery at the top of California's Mount Baldy for five years. But Robinson was waiting at the bottom, with plans. "Sometime in 1999, he was back from the mountain and he'd been to India, he'd came back, and I went over to see him," she remembers. "I had an agenda in mind: I wanted to write some more songs."

On their first meeting, they did nothing more than listen to Indian chant music. This was clearly not going to be a quick job. So Robinson urged Cohen to build a digital recording studio in his home, identical to the one in hers, with the same electronic instruments. When it was done, they could collaborate in a very 21st-century way: exchanging hard drives full of information. No record company, no producers, no engineers.

"Because our studios are both in our homes, it lets him control everything, and it lets him work any time of the day or the night that he wants to, and it lets him play a melody or sing one however many times he needs to." Like Stanley Kubrick making a film, Leonard Cohen likes to retake and burnish things until they have lost any distracting gleam and lustre. The trademark Cohen orchestration that drives non-fans insane -- artificial, vague, plastic, inhuman -- is a very deliberate act.

"There's a lot of taking-away of things that might distract from the whole," Robinson says. "I wrote a lot of parts that ended up being taken out. There were parts that I thought were beautiful. And I'd bring them over, and he'd say, 'That's beautiful.' Then a minute later he'd say: 'It's too beautiful. We've got to get rid of it.'"

However, in at least one instance, Robinson was as aggressive in this art of subtraction. Cohen's 1969 album Songs From A Room had been rife with the boingy tones of a jew's-harp, and he was threatening to repeat the act.

Robinson, performing some kind of Zen jujitsu, managed to turn this instrumental horror to her advantage. "I said, 'Okay, on the next album we'll build some songs around the jew's-harp,'" she says. It got him off her back, and it guaranteed her another two-year gig, after what will doubtless be another long, long wait.

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