(10-07) 04:00 PDT Los Angeles -- To record his new album, Leonard Cohen would rise in the middle of the night and walk outside to the studio he built above the garage in his Crenshaw district backyard. Lacking soundproofing, he could get three hours' recording done before the birds awakened, dogs started barking and traffic built up on nearby Olympic Boulevard.
Most musicians were just getting to bed when Cohen would be getting up, but the schedule was not unknown to him. Cohen, who has not released a new album in nine years, lived more than five of those years in a Zen Buddhist monastery built in an old Boy Scout camp above the snow line in the San Gabriel Mountains. He worked as cook and secretary to a spiritual teacher he has known for more than 30 years, routinely waking at 3 a.m. to begin the prayer rituals.
At Mount Baldy, Cohen spent long hours cooking and cleaning, and in silent contemplation. He shaved his head and wore the monks' robes. Meals were taken in silence. Much communication was done with hand gestures, bells and clappers.
"Conversations are not encouraged," Cohen said.
To his not inconsiderable satisfaction, "Ten New Songs," to be released Tuesday, comes at a time when Cohen, 66, finds himself lionized and exalted far beyond the intense cult following he enjoyed for the first 25 years of his career.
"Younger musicians have found their way to my work -- there've been about 18 tribute albums," he said. "In Croatian, Spanish, Russian . . ."
The phenomenon began in 1987 when his former background vocalist Jennifer Warnes scored a surprise hit with "Famous Blue Raincoat," an album composed entirely of Cohen songs (she rejected his title suggestion, "Jenny Sings Lenny"). The 1991 tribute album, "I'm Your Fan," which featured Cohen covers by alternative-rock devotees such as R.E.M., the Pixies and Nick Cave, was followed by the 1995 mainstream Cohen tribute "Tower of Song," which included Cohen songs by Don Henley, Sting, Bono, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson and others. Newcomer Jeff Buckley made something of a signature song out of Cohen's "Hallelujah" on his acclaimed 1994 debut album.
Cohen himself produced his sly masterpiece, "I'm Your Man," in 1988 and followed in 1992 with the apocalyptic wit of "The Future." In 1993, Cohen, who published several volumes of poetry and two novels before he made his first album in 1966, collected previously published verse and song lyrics for an anthology, "Stranger Music," and then disappeared to Mount Baldy for the next five years. When he descended, he brought some 250 new songs and poems with him.
Turning the new songs into a finished record became a collaboration with another former background vocalist, Sharon Robinson, who first toured with Cohen in 1979 and had written songs with him as far back as "Everybody Knows" on "I'm Your Man."
"I gave her a few of the lyrics even though I'd begun the music myself," he said. "But I liked her approach better."
The only other musician who even briefly appears on the album is the husband of engineer Leanne Ungar (who has recorded Cohen albums since 1974). Guitarist Bob Metzger, who has also played in Cohen's live bands, added a guitar part to the song "In My Secret Life." The rest is virtually all Cohen and Robinson. They share all songwriting credits. Robinson played all the instrumental parts and sang all the harmony vocals. Many of the songs are virtually duets. The album cover is a portrait of them taken by a camera attached to Cohen's computer. When engineer Ungar saw the photo, she called it a picture of two people with one mind.
"I kept inviting her to make more and more of a contribution," Cohen said. "She's very modest. She thought we would replace the digital sounds with real instruments, that we'd replace some of her backups and duets with other singers. After a while, I kept insisting that we keep her tracks, her duets and backgrounds. It was clear after about the fourth or fifth song that we were going to do this together. Alone."
They passed hard drives back and forth and worked on the album at their own respective digital home studios. Cohen's studio is homey and comfortable. Treetops are visible through windows that let in plenty of light (as opposed to the typical recording studio bunker). There is a keyboard and a microphone, a small Tascam recorder. The computer hardware is tucked in a closet.
It is a studio that could be used to record quiet music only at off hours, which is why Cohen worked on monk time. But producer Robinson created such a rich tableau of music and vocals, the record sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral, not this modest backyard aerie.
Cohen is lounging around his home in a black stingy brim fedora, gray T- shirt and charcoal sport coat. He speaks in a low, soft voice and lights occasional cigarettes. His home is an unremarkable duplex in a quiet, nondescript mid-Los Angeles neighborhood not substantially changed since the '50s. His grown daughter lives downstairs and his son, also a songwriter, lives around the corner. Inconspicuous signs of his Jewish faith hang on the walls; his Zen master sees no conflict.
On the broad desktop, he keeps a photo of Irving Layton, the man who published Cohen's first poems in his native Canada almost 50 years ago. Cohen opens his Mac laptop and scrolls down the directory of text files containing his song lyrics. Version after version of each song is listed, almost every one labeled "Final," as in "Alexandria 15 Final," or "Alexandria 16 Final." Cohen calls the notation "optimistic." He quotes W.H. Auden: "A poem is never done -- it's abandoned."
WRITING IT ALL DOWN
But he doesn't simply revise. He starts by filling up notebooks. The best of the handwritten material he transfers to the laptop. He writes dozens of verses for every song. He deliberately exhausts himself on topics. "It's always taken a long time to get beneath your opinions," he said, "because one's opinions are tiresome, predictable. You can summon them up during conversation over a beer or something just to keep the talk going. In the songs, I like to get beneath all that, and it takes a long time to write away the opinions and beliefs."
A lot of the verse in his laptop is part of a work-in-progress, "The Book of Longing," that Cohen has been writing for years. He often attaches little computer sketches to the bottom of his whimsical poems, which he describes as "send-ups of the spiritual life." He has another directory full of files with his computer drawings: garish, humorous self-portraits, erotic nudes. He declines to call himself a poet, saying that many of the verses could wind up either as poems or songs. "Usually if I'm working in unrhymed form, it's not going to be a song," he said.
He long ago grew accustomed to his glacial pace of songwriting. "Of course it takes just as long to write a bad novel as it does a great one," he said.
Cohen recalled a dinner conversation with Bob Dylan in Paris. Dylan had been performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" and felt like talking songwriting. Cohen had been impressed with a recent Dylan song, "I and I." Dylan asked Cohen how long it took to write "Hallelujah."
"I lied," said Cohen. "I told him it took two years, but it took more like three, maybe four years."
Cohen asked Dylan how long he spent writing "I and I." Fifteen minutes, said Dylan.
"Of course he undoubtedly lied, too," said Cohen. "It probably took him 10 minutes. I don't belong to that school. I'd like to be in that school, but I'm not."