Singer Anjani Thomas voices her pleasure with Blue Alert's stripped-down beauties, the result of partner and producer Leonard Cohen's approach to simply letting the music be
Brewing tea in Leonard Cohen's kitchen, Anjani was still visibly thrilled about an outdoor show she and Cohen had performed in Toronto two days earlier. Cohen, her romantic and artistic partner, had agreed to take part in a free outdoor concert promoting his collection of poems, The Book of Longing. The singer, nee Anjani Thomas, was there to perform.
"There were 6,000 people there. It was the quietest it's ever been on Bay and Bloor. At one point, while I was singing "Half the Perfect World," a baby started crying. ... People were just glaring at the guy with the baby and he finally slunk into a store," Anjani said, laughing. "You could just hear the audience breathing. It was so beautiful."
There's plenty of breathing room in the wide-open aural spaces of Blue Alert, the singer's melodic and atmospheric set of stripped-down beauties. The recently released disc is a collaboration with Cohen: the lyrics are his, the music hers. She handles the vocals and piano. And for the first time in his career, Cohen produced. Producing can mean anything from obsessive hands-on embellishment to simply letting the music be. Cohen adopted the latter approach, Anjani said. "As Leonard explained, my voice takes up a large part of the bandwidth - and the more you introduce into that, the more it detracts from it. I didn't figure this out until I heard it."
The singer's performance on the album is accordingly natural and unlaboured - a strategy she embraced when she saw the other side as a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "I quickly discovered that I did not have the wherewithal to sit in a practice room for four, six, eight hours a day. This is not in my nature - and it has, unfortunately, continued to the present day.
"I'm notoriously uninspired when it comes to practising," she said. "But give me a deadline and, two days before, I'll sit down and work my butt off."
Anjani ended up playing the jazz club circuit around Manhattan, but she couldn't connect. "I had the hardest time singing jazz standards with conviction. I always felt my voice was too young, or I just didn't have enough wisdom. It's not that I couldn't technically nail it, but I didn't like the sound of my voice singing those lyrics," she said.
She met Cohen in 1984, when she sang on his album Various Positions. She soon joined his backup group as singer and keyboard player and was invited back to the recording sessions for I'm Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). "We always were friends. We'd go out to dinner and sometimes we'd sit together in meditation. I guess about the time he was recording Ten New Songs (released in 2001), we started spending more and more time together and it just grew from there."
Anjani's first, self-titled disc came out in 2000, followed by The Sacred Names, a meditation on the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names of God. "I'd been a spiritual seeker from a young age. The only thing that meant more to me than music was being enlightened. I started meditation when I was 16," she said. "I did courses, went to retreats, and five, 10, 15, 20 years went by and I was still not enlightened. I began to explore the more Judeo-Christian roots and Kabbalah. Somewhere, in that investigation of Kabbalah, I came across these names of God, and this music just came to me." Cohen encouraged her to release the songs, she said.
The couple share a Sabbath dinner every week, which is generally followed by a musical revisit of old favourites and the Leonard Cohen songbook, she said. "We pour some absinthe, we haul out the guitars, I get the synthesizer and we sing all night long," she said.
Blue Alert was born two years ago when Anjani found some of Cohen's handwritten lines: "There's perfume burning in the air/Bits of beauty everywhere." "It was so intriguing and mysterious. I just heard pieces of the music as I was reading the lyric. I just had an immediate idea for it, and he reluctantly gave it to me," she said, laughing on "reluctantly."
"He had music in mind for it." When she played it for him, she was unsure about how he would react to its jazzy feel. "In the middle of the song, he looked at me and just shook his head. He was smiling," she said. "And at the end of it, he said 'This is a hit!'"
The disc's other songs followed in relatively quick succession, she said, unfortunately coinciding with Cohen's discovery that his former business manager, Kelley Lynch, had cleaned out most of his retirement fund. (Cohen recently won a $10.2-million default judgment against Lynch.)
"It was devastating," Anjani said. "Every day, there were new, horrifying revelations, so when we could, we would get into the studio and I would do a demo. That was the creative pleasure during that whole time.
Anjani said she's still surprised at how well Blue Alert turned out. "These 10 songs were tailor-made for me," she said. "And they're written by someone who understands me better than anyone."