Dick Straub Interviews John Lissauer
Katonah Mill Studio, August 24, 2005
Recorded and Transcribed by Linda Straub
After a tour of the fantastic grounds around John's home, his separate studio, and his studio/office, we began our chat in his old sawmill office. John graciously complied with my autograph requests for New Skin, Various Positions and Recent Songs CDs. After briefly discussing his work with Leonard on those albums, we began to address Blue Alert. I also hoped to get John's unique perspective on other areas of the music industry.
DICK STRAUB (DS): Tell me how you got involved with Blue Alert.
JOHN LISSAUER (JS): When they first played me the record there were eight songs. They had just come to New York, it must have been April, and they gave it to me. It was astonishing because the lyrics were so compact and approachable. I don't want to say commercial, it's just that they are really accessible. Accessible imagery, compact short stories, nothing overly involved. Moreover, Anjani's melodies are unbelievably memorable. She's got a McCartney-esque melody writing style. So here are these songs…of Leonard's lyrics and they have great melodies as well.
These songs were just great. I couldn't believe how good they were. Anjani, who I've known forever, has this smoky, dusky, low, sexy voice and she's a world-class singer. She has always been able to do anything. She was like a Whitman Sampler of singing. Whatever you needed, Anjani could do it. She could sing jazz, she could sing R&B. But the trouble with that is they usually make you into very good jingle singers. Because they are impressionists, they are impersonators. You didn't get a real sense of who she was, because she was showing you the talent, so much talent. But you don't see the person when the talent dazzles you. That's why, with the Sinatra's of the world, you get the one thing.
So, here this record was. You have the songs here that matched her voice and she wasn't tempted do anything else; to say, "Oh, and I can do this, and I can do a country song." They had this total focus. I felt that they had great vocals, and were amazing songs. Since they received such a great response from the record labels for the album's purity and simplicity, they said, "this is where we're going to keep it."
I still thought that some frame was needed. But their approach has been to not let anything get in the way of the voice and the song - nothing, not even in the interludes, which is a very brave standpoint. As a producer and arranger, of course, it isn't what we love to do. (Laughs)
Anjani wanted my input on some songs. So they called…and asked me to come out and fiddle around with them. I went out and we actually worked for two days, the three of us, in the studio. I would keep auditioning parts and eventually we arrived at things that everyone liked.
(DS: "Thanks For The Dance," the concluding song, features some of John's instrumentation.)
DS: I don't know how you and Anjani first came into contact.
JL: I can tell you exactly. My first wife and I, my first wife was Erin Dickins, who sings on a lot of these things [pointing to the early Leonard Cohen albums]. She toured with us. Erin was in the original Manhattan Transfer. She was a very good singer, and I produced her and we were married for seven years. She did Leonard's first tour with me. Not his first, but our first together. In fact she was on both of them, and she sang on his record. We went to Hawaii on vacation and met a couple of really good Hawaiian musicians who just happened to be up and coming guys. They never got to the mainland but they were really good. Anjani was one of their friends. We didn't meet her while we were there, but these guys had been raving about us to her because Erin and I had written a lot of songs and gave them some for their records. I sat and played with the guys.
After we had come back to New York, about a year later actually, this girl called me and said, "Hi, I'm Anjani, I'm in New York."
DS: This was about what year?
JL: '82, because that's when I was divorced. We got together and she played me stuff and she was really good. A good piano player, and in those days almost Anita Baker like --jazz, pop kind of stuff. She sang this - I don't know if you've heard her sing?
DS: Yes, I've got several of her albums.
JL: She's done a bunch of different things over the years. It could be anything. She's got about four albums. And she sounded great and I tried to get her some background singer work. We wrote a little bit and she was playing me songs and she was really good. I was working on Leonard's record Various Positions. We were just finishing it up. She didn't get to sing on Various Positions. Did she? (looks at liner credits)
Oh, yes we did one song ["Hallelujah"] where we brought in Chrissy (Faith) and Anjani. And they all had the same low sultry voices. My first wife and these two girls, and Merle Miller. It was the four sexiest, smokiest, airiest sounding voices. But, Erin wasn't going to go out on the road with these guys. And, I couldn't go out. So, I was putting the band together, and I asked Anjani, because she could also play piano, which was a big thing.
We really got to know each other the best while rehearsing the band to go out on the road. The band was great. Three of the guys in the band were in Tractor, which was a very big country band in the '90s. They're from Tulsa. That's how I got to know her. [She's] tremendously interesting, and just a great singer, and fun. Very intelligent, you could have a conversation about everything. Very easy person to hang out with. She was working with a recording engineer from Canada, a friend of mine, and then she got married to a lawyer.
DS: [Robert] Kory?
JL: Kory. She helped me out, she sang some song demos for a number of very good things, plus we did four songs together. Anjani was looking…for herself. You know, she was not sure. Who is? And, then I lost touch with her for about ten years, probably.
DS: In the late 80's?
JL: Early 90s. She was in Northern California, Texas, she was in Oregon, then LA. Then she got back with Leonard and I had just been hearing about her because Leanne (Unger) has been out there since '90 or '91, I guess.
DS: What most appeals to you about Anjani's singing?
JL: Oh God, it's her sound and the delivery. You get every word. Most singers don't realize that the main job of an entertainer is to get it across. It's to get to the listener. Not to razzle-dazzle, it's to talk to them. That's why so many of the great artists of the past 20-30 years haven't always been the ones with the ridiculous voices, but they're the ones that get you, that you pay attention to, that you get every word of. And when she sings a song, you get every word. And these words are worth getting. There are no better - I'll give you the lyrics to one of the songs when I play it for you. They are just touching. Between the two of them, there's more maturity than the soul can stand. You hear it in her.
DS: What about Leonard, how did you first come into contact with him?
JL: When I first came to New York I got a loft. I had the only, the first musician loft in 1971 that I know of. It was on 18th Street, down by Barnes and Noble. It was a 3rd floor walk-up and it was actually a mafia after-hours club. It had a big bar with pictures of Sicily in it. It was a hang out. And then some other painter had it for a little while.
DS: 18th and?
JL: Between 6th and 5th. It was 30 by 60 feet, with thirty feet of glass at the front - big old windows. I got it for nothing. Rent was $100 a month or a hundred and a quarter, and it was huge, with a big bar and hardly any bathroom, just a little shower. But, over the years I fixed it up. So I had this place, and I wisely got a bunch of instruments and musicians came and hung out.
And everyone would come to John's loft and play, because it was a place that you could play. It wasn't residential so you could play at night - jam sessions and I had a grand piano, some electric pianos, guitar amps, bass amps, drums. People would leave their stuff there. It was a smart thing to do, but I didn't do it because I was smart. I did it because I like to play.
I had just moved in and I got a call to go to Montreal to record for this guy named Andre Perry, who was in Montreal. He built a great studio in a church, the first world-class studio that I had ever been in. So, he asked me to come up. I did a record for him, and we hit it off immediately. Then they put me together with a guy named Lewis Furey, who was also 21 or 22. I didn't know anything about him. He had these weird songs, sort of punk, sort of like Lou Reed songs. I did a record with him and organized a little show at a place called the Nelson Hotel, which is in the Old French Quarter. And it was wild -- he came out playing rock and roll violin. I was playing piano. I had hair down to here [gestures to middle of his back] - and we had two spectacularly beautiful background singers, singing and playing. I had these little melodicas, these little accordions that you blow. It was a little show, but it was very, very creative. We became like the rage. It was like the Beatles. It was really wild.
So I'm up there, with my hair down to here, and we're doing this show, and this guy comes up to me afterwards and says, "Hi, I'm Leonard Cohen. I'm going to be in New York in a couple of weeks. If you're there, I'd like to talk to you about a record." I had no idea who he was. I didn't know. I was a jazz guy. I was kind of a Leon Russell, Elton John guy.
DS: But he'd heard about you?
JL: He'd heard us live and he really liked that I'd put this show together. He knew Lewis, and Lewis had gone from [being] this unknown guy, and suddenly Lewis' career - Lewis was the man. It was a phenomenon I've never experienced since. I was so lucky. I was just in the right place at the right time.
So Leonard shows up at my New York loft one night and my girlfriend says, "Leonard Cohen's at the door with a pizza." She knows who he is and I really didn't. I vaguely knew "Suzanne" and I knew that he was a folk singer and he had some albums out, but I didn't know anything about him. So I'm not necessarily impressed or anything. We were just sitting around talking.
This was '73, the end of '72 when we started talking. We did three songs, at first, and they were really good. It was "Lover, Lover, Lover," "Chelsea Hotel," and, maybe "There Is A War," or something. So, I did those three songs and then we decided to finish the album. (New Skin for the Old Ceremony)
It was a terrifically creative process. And he was fun to work with, and he was so supportive of what I was - I had a lot of ideas, some of them good, some of them stupid, but the good ones stayed. We recorded maybe the greatest drunk song of all time. Well, actually two drunk songs. "Leaving Green Sleeves," of course. He insisted on it being on there because it showed that side. There is a Korean liquor called Ng Ka Py and it's just grain alcohol. Roshi used to drink it and Leonard had a huge tolerance for it. He got drunker, and the drunker he got, the more he loved the song. It was really quite beautiful at first. There's another drunk song on here, too, that Lorca really loves: "Is This What you Wanted."
DS: "Singer Must Die" is also one of my favorites on this album.
JL: Oh, yeah. There were a lot of good things on here. "Who By Fire" was particularly effective. There are five or six really good things on here - "Chelsea" I really like. And I still call him Field Commander.
DS: So, Erin, your first wife, was on this and she's singing "Who By Fire"?
DS: Did you follow Leonard's concerts?
JL: Well I did the two huge tours. I saw the '79 tour, which he did with Jennifer and Roscoe. I guess it was Passenger, probably. And the Ron and John band, as we called it, the one Anjani sang in - was an amazing band because these were country guys who never overplay. They [had] the maturity of Willie Nelson; the whole band of mature guys who didn't need to play all the time. They would wait. They would wait to sing "Tennessee Waltz." You hear them all singing; it's just uplifting. Nobody is ad libing and shining at Leonard's expense.
DS: So do you know whether Leonard might actually perform at the (Toronto) film festival? Perhaps do interviews?
JL: I don't know, but he's thinking of doing another record. It would be fun to work with him again. Every 15 years we do a record. I think it works out to about that.
DS: How is Anjani going to promote Blue Alert?
JL: She'll get a plan soon. "This is your shot," I told her. "It's a great record. It really will be fun. You get out there - and you'll wow them." We know that she's a good live performer - because I know people who have seen her and say she's phenomenal. She's so attractive and so good and so Peggy Lee-ishly sexy in that sort of 40's thing - she's really got this thing going.
DS: Your tours with Leonard were pretty popular.
JL: There was only standing room - there were sardine packed rooms everywhere, except for when we came to America. That's when I realized, how can this guy - he's essential American, sings in English - he's huge in Germany, Italy, France, England, but there's no audience here. They were so interested in the English language in Europe, and in folk singers. It was not a rock and roll Europe in the late '60s, early '70s. Creedence Clearwater was not touring Germany. Aznavour was, and Leonard and these kind of performers. There were no German rock bands. So the performers who were working over there were the ones who were intellectuals.
DS: More mature...
JL: Yeah, much more mature. Europe is more mature anyway. It was before Abba.
DS: How much singing did you do?
JL: I did a solo album in the early '80s. I did a lot of singing on commercials.
DS: It looks like you also play one or two instruments (many lining the room).
JL: Well, actually they were all packed up when I was on vacation. Sometimes there's a string of them. If I'm doing a film, for instance, then I need a lot of stuff. I've got sometimes 12 or 13 woodwinds out here. I had stopped playing all the woodwinds for about 15 years and then my son decided he wanted to play the saxophone in about '94 and I started playing again. When I came to New York I was like a session sax player in between productions. Now I play in the symphony and I do jazz concerts in the summers. It's a nice balance I have. (John also taught at his alma mater, Yale University.)
And, I play a lot of percussion stuff and the keyboards. So I do tend to play a lot of things. For one thing, when you hire a musician -- say you want to hire a marimba player for something. They come in and they want to play marimba. And maybe you just want the simplest thing. It is very hard, sometimes, to get a great musician to do something, to do just what the producer [or] what the arranger wants.
So, I find, I'm an avid sampler and I sample everything. I've got sample libraries. Everything that could be sampled I have, so sometimes, I will be the marimba player because rather than spend two hours begging a guy to play less and to play the crescendo that I and the artist may want - maybe we want this dhu-laaa-duh-laaaa-duh-laaaa-laaaa thing to happen. I can do it myself. So, I've gotten to the point where a lot of specialized things I do myself. If it's a woodwind thing, I can tell someone else how I want the key parts to be, or I can just do it and then it's faster.
DS: Let's get back to the album and listen to some songs that have your input.
JL: (at table) Let's look at this and then listen. I don't know if you've seen Leonard's little intertwined heart that looks like a Star of David kind of thing. He has a new book coming out, by the way, with caricatures and poetry.
John then goes to computer and plays Blue Alert, the title track. He follows that with a song which has a haunting refrain: we're saying goodbye / at the innermost door. John returns to table and picks up a lyric sheet with a drawing on it.
DS: That's a nice drawing.
JL: I think it's Anjani. His new book will be coming out next year. Every page is illustrated. He's got all kinds of cool stuff in it. This is the last song for the record, and in a way, it's a great ending song.
("Thanks For The Dance" is played.)
DS: Definitely a keeper!
JL: Yeah, that's how they are ending it. We take it into Marlene Dietrich land a little bit.
DS: It does sort of move you a little bit. (Huge understatement!) I would buy this even if it didn't have Leonard's name on it. This is marvelous material. Anjani's voice is perfect and that song could have "Hallelujah"/"Suzanne" success.
JL: I agree it's great stuff, and those three [tracks] show you what the record is.
Linda and Dick Straub are grateful to Anjani and John for allowing us the opportunity to have this conversation with such a notable musician/producer.
To sample more of John's engaging creativity, spend some time listening and viewing the materials on his website: http://www.johnlissauer.com/.