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"Cohen's muse -- or is it the other way around?"

by James Adams

Toronto Globe and Mail

May 12, 2006
Leonard Cohen has long had the reputation of being a ladies' man. Yet for all the "conquests" of his 71 years, the apparent richness of his social life and the women he has celebrated in song and poetry, he's been a solitary figure, too -- "the infamous lover who lives alone," as one of his biographers has described him, the Jewish boulevardier with a taste for Zen monasticism.

So it's been something of a surprise in recent months to see the creator of "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" associating himself so publicly with Anjani Thomas, the fortysomething singer-songwriter whose latest recording he both produced and co-wrote.

Released last week , Blue Alert sports Cohen's name on the front and the back of its jewel case. That's him in the pictures on pages 8, 9 and 12 of the CD booklet, and it's his daughter, Lorca, 32, who shot all the photographs. In January, when Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Thomas accompanied him to the televised ceremony in Toronto and he, in turn, helped her do advance promotion for the 10 songs on Blue Alert.

They're going to be in Toronto again tomorrow, this time for an appearance at the Bloor-and-Bay flagship store of Indigo Books and Music. The main draw, of course, will be Cohen, who's just released Book of Longing, his first volume of new poems in more than 20 years. But Anjani (her preferred professional moniker) will be performing five songs for the expected crush -- an aural appetizer for the opening slot she's expected to have when Cohen embarks on a concert tour later this year or early next.

Thomas is hardly a showbiz neophyte, however, nor is Cohen her Svengali. Half-Hawaiian, half-Okinawan, the Honolulu native has two previous solo records to her credit. In 1984 she met Cohen and subsequently provided background vocals on several of his recordings and later performed with his touring band as keyboardist and singer. Moreover, she's the ex-wife of noted Hollywood entertainment lawyer, Robert Kory, who also happens to represent Cohen, as well as a client of Macklam/Feldman Management, the Vancouver agency that took over Cohen's troubled affairs in late 2004 after the singer-songwriter acrimoniously split from Kelley Lynch, his manager of more than 20 years.

You'd think Thomas might feel a touch, well . . . uneasy at being so much under or at least beside Cohen's shadow. All the lyrics on Blue Alert are Cohen's and, on many occasions, you anticipate Cohen's rumbly monotone to join her to traverse the songs' waltzy melodies. But, as Thomas quietly insisted during a recent interview, "I don't think of it as being the shadow of Leonard, but the grace of Leonard. This is certainly the most fulfilling piece of music I've done. If anything, Leonard is an inspiration. In some ways, this marks the beginning of my career. In terms of personal growth, musical growth, it's the sound of where I want to be. I feel like I'm finally inhabiting this body and using my voice to the best of its capabilities."

Blue Alert is a decidedly quiet and sparse recording, mostly just Thomas's voice and keyboards, with occasional, discrete flourishes of percussion, reeds and strings.

The collaboration, she said, "arose in an organic way." One day in 2004 she spotted the lyrics to what would become Blue Alert at Cohen's home in Los Angeles (They live just a few blocks from each other: "He's the guy who makes my breakfast; I sew the buttons on his shirt"), and "I just thought I'd do a treatment of it and see if he'd do it." Cohen liked what she did, but thought she should sing it. Thomas proceeded to rummage through other Cohen fragments and worked up melodies for three more lyrics -- "The Mist," "Nightingale" and "Half the Perfect World." At that point, they decided the collaboration should begin in earnest, the focus being the preparation of a full-length album. "Yes, she pressed me into hard labour," Cohen said with a chuckle.

"Now I won't say the album wrote itself," Cohen added. "But the freedom Anjani gave me to write for her and not for myself was great. The songs came almost fully formed. And the fact I knew I wasn't singing it did have an impact on the relative speed of the process. I was able to work with a kind of freedom I don't have characteristically."

Cohen acknowledged that Blue Alert is a byproduct of sorts of his increasing intimacy with Thomas. "It grew out of our relationship, out of the predicament I found myself in," he said -- a reference to the much-publicized "financial crisis" in which he found himself in late 2004 when he was awash in litigation and near insolvency and forced to spend long stretches of time in Los Angeles, meeting with lawyers. "When something works out, you feel good. Because most things don't. This had a particular grace to it.

"We are neighbours in the deepest sense."

A Tribute to Leonard Cohen begins at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Indigo, Bay and Bloor, with a performance of Cohen's song "Heart with No Companion" by Ron Sexsmith and the Barenaked Ladies.

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