Leonard Cohen has good reason to be happy - he's making beautiful music on a new CD and with his young collaborator
Leonard Cohen enters a small conference room in the offices of Sony Records on a recent weekday wearing a surprisingly sunny smile. The 71-year-old singer laughs often, spills his cup of Starbucks, absently strums a guitar and rhapsodizes about his favorite Manhattan deli, appropriately named Smilers.
"You've brought out the elf in me," he tells a reporter sitting near him. "I don't know why."
Who knew Cohen had an inner elf? With a reputation for existential gravitas, Cohen - a published poet and novelist as well as a songwriter - can sometimes make Bob Dylan sound like Britney Spears by comparison. His long struggle with depression is public knowledge, and his songs grapple with weighty questions of God and love and loss. Seeing this icon of 1960s romanticism chatter away happily is a bit like watching Elie Wiesel break into a tap dance.
Come on, get happy
But Cohen has reason to be happy: He's just produced Blue Alert (Columbia), one of the best albums of his 40-year career. It's written by him but credited to a little-known singer named Anjani, a onetime backup vocalist for Cohen who eventually became his girlfriend. (She's about 25 years his junior, which might explain his springy step.) Anjani, whose last name is Thomas, turns Cohen's dense lyrics into slow-burning jazz standards in the manner of Billie Holiday or Nina Simone. With no drums or bass, Blue Alert is built almost entirely on Anjani's crystalline piano playing and intimate voice.
"I think both of us were working at the top of our form," Cohen says with his partner sitting next to him. "Collaboration is too formal a term to describe the activity, which was an expression of some kind of deep mutuality - some kind of marriage of purpose."
Blue Alert started out not as an album but as a hobby. Most Cohen fans know that the singer spent many years cloistered in a Southern California Buddhist monastery, but fewer may be aware that he recently sued a former manager for allegedly siphoning millions from his retirement savings. (He reportedly has about $100,000 left.) Stuck in Los Angeles while minding his court case, Cohen says, he and Anjani began idly rummaging through his old manuscripts and journals.
"A number of them were lying open, and she would look through them," Cohen says. "After a while, I was happy to see her ransacking the archives, because she would seize on a line, or two or three, that she would indicate really interested her. So I would try to flesh it out."
The results were songs based on old poems - "The Mist," for instance, which Cohen wrote as a teenager - and new tracks tailored specifically for Anjani, including "Thanks for the Dance" and "Crazy to Love You."
For the mostly solitary Cohen, this marked an unusual way of working. The waltz that closes the album, "Thanks for the Dance," went through several rewrites, he says. "I could feel that they were too intellectual or too dense. There would be something missing in her interpretation if the writing was bad."
And Cohen had to step out of his skin on lines such as "There's a rose in my hair/My shoulders are bare."
"I could write that," he admits, "but I couldn't sing that."
Anjani wrote and arranged the music but credits Cohen's guiding hand and ear. The ballad "Crazy to Love You" began as a minor-key country tune, she says, but Cohen wanted a slightly happier melody to go with the rueful lyrics. "I listened to them both, and I compared them," Anjani says, "and he was so right."
The two met in the early 1980s, after the Hawaii-born Anjani had left Berklee College of Music in Boston to do session work for Cohen's longtime producer John Lissauer. Anjani admits she knew little about Cohen at the time, though he was already a cult figure thanks to such classic folk-pop tunes as "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." She wound up singing on his landmark track "Hallelujah" and joined the tour for his 1988 comeback album, I'm Your Man.
Not until 1999 did the two fall in love. Cohen won't go into details - "Maybe best not to examine it too closely; it may disintegrate," he says - but Anjani is more forthcoming. "We've both suffered from depression for a good part of our lives," she says. "And we ended up just hanging out together. It just must have been some empathy, some simpatico synergy that was going on."
Both say they have realistic ambitions for Blue Alert, which may be destined to join the long list of Cohen masterpieces that sell in less-than-spectacular numbers. "It's a very adult record," Anjani says. "It's something that will find its way by word of mouth, and it'll resonate with people."
Cohen takes an even more sanguine view: "At this stage of my life, I kind of feel like I'm a ghost inhabiting a life," he says, offering yet another squinty-eyed smile. "It's a very, very agreeable feeling. I recommend it."