Jenny Sings Lenny
[article about Jennifer Warnes]
By Alan Jackson
Few singers of uncertain commercial standing would put their own career
on hold in order to act as cheerleader for an artist as resolutely unfashionable
as Leonard Cohen. When Jennifer Warnes put the idea of an album covering
Cohen's work to executives at all of America's major labels, door after door
was shut in her face.
"Nobody, but nobody, wanted to touch it," she recalls. "During the late
'70s music here took a very light-hearted turn and there was much less patience
for Leonard's work than during more contemplative times. When I'd sing his
songs in concert, audiences would react in the same way they might if you
started discussing funerals over dinner. America doesn't want to get heavy,
doesn't want to get complex. 'Let's keep things light' has been the prevailing
Fortunately for Cohen, Warnes' torchbearing has bordered on the obsessional.
A stunningly original solo artist, she sang with the gravel-voiced troubadour
on tours as long ago as 1973 and harmonised on the Cohen albums Recent
Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984). This close exposure
to the charisma of an artist she first discovered by reading The Spice-Box
of Earth in the '60s fuelled an unshakable desire to record his work
and bring it to a wider audience.
The rapport between the two singers made her the ideal candidate to do
so. Her own pop credentials helped too--after a first album produced by John
Cale in the early '70s, Warnes enjoyed several US hits from subsequent sets
and, when her career hit a turbulent patch in the Pat Benatar era of women
singers, she entered the world of film scores, earning three Oscar nominations
(and one actual gold statuette) and a Grammy for her work on Ragtime,
Norma Rae and An Officer and a Gentleman.
"Although Leonard's songs have always been available in Europe, they've
been hidden out of sight of most Americans in recent years. I've always found
his material to have a certain transformational effect on me, and it's something
I wanted other people to feel too. I hoped that if an American pop voice,
which is what I am, recorded the songs, more people might find them accessible.
It was a way of bringing his magic to a wider audience."
The result is the album Famous Blue Raincoat, produced by Warnes
with Roscoe Beck, and of necessity put out as the first release on a new
American independent label, Cypress. It is the singer's first album in seven
years yet is currently climbing the US charts with speed -- a deserved (if
surprising) reward for her perseverance.
The nine songs therein mix familiar Cohen material with new and less
well-known songs. Lyrically they cover emotional territory rarely explored
by mainstream artists -- sexual and emotional obsession, frustration, jealousy,
"I've been made to realise just how much resistance Americans have to
the full expression of sorrow in their music," says Warnes. "Writers are
encouraged to deal with sex and happiness, but nothing more complex
While Famous Blue Raincoat renews interest in Warnes' own earlier
recordings, it is also achieving what she most wanted and what American record
companies thought was impossible -- US stores are now bowing to a new demand
for the Leonard Cohen back catalogue.
Famous Blue Raincoatby Jennifer Warnes (Cypress) is available on
import in Virgin, Tower and other record stores. (A UK release is currently
Jenny Sings Lenny
[article about Leonard Cohen]
By Biba Kopf
A Leonard Cohen song is the dark disaster that brings on the light. A
slow and irresistible force, the rich laval flow of his voice burns onto
the listener's own experiences, illuminating them with the recognition that
he or she is not alone.
With Cohen, song and voice seem inseparable. Not only are writer and subject
matter intimately entwined -- the musicality of his language rhymes perfectly
with the undervalued musicality of his vocal's blackened volcanic power.
These songs of his cut deep, and the intricacies of their composition, mapping
rivulets of love, hurt and hate, present a challenge only taken up by more
adventurous singers. Cohen has been covered by saints and sinners. He has
been soiled by Coil ("Who By Fire"), hauled over by Nick Cave ("Avalanche")
and sanctified by Judy Collins and Buffy Saint-Marie. But Jenny sings Lenny
is the first fullscale LP interpretation of Cohen. Its surprise partly lies
in the fact nobody's done it before.
"Well about a century ago Frank Sinatra talked about doing something like
that," drawls Leonard Cohen, speaking out of LA. "But it never happened.
And between Frank Sinatra and Jennifer Warnes there hasn't been a murmur."
Ambitious to be sure, Warnes' collection is perhaps too LA-ed to be a
totally successful translation of Cohen. But, with her more extensive range,
she can take these songs to places where the Cohen monotone is denied entry.
And the fact of a woman singing songs ridden with male romanticism affords
an intriguing shift in perspective. Cohen's work addresses women in the highest
of terms. Even the most fallen is accorded the reverence of a Madonna. While
this partly accounts for his large female following, other women dismiss
his beat venerations as a variant of woman-as-object, a more literate come-on.
Warnes' versions usefully render gender secondary to the songs' expressions
"You know it's hard to keep up with your position in the stock market,"
sighs Cohen. "I've been attacked by Maoists, supported by Maoists, attacked
by Freudians, supported by Freudians, attacked by feminists, supported by
feminists. I think it's because what they call poetry, that has harmonics
and the necessity of paradox and ambiguity, that's it's pretty hard to get
a take on what I'm actually singing.
"Because it comes from a deep place where these paradoxes and ambiguities
are resolved and I think that's why these songs are effective when they are.
Of course, I sometimes blow it, but when they do work it's because they track
a lot of resonances, even if it's hard to associate them with a hard and
fast social and political position."
Is the poet absolved from responsibility towards clarity?
"No, I think he's consecrated and dedicated to that position. But there's
clarity that is perceived by the heart and clarity that is perceived by the
mind. You know, clarity's not a fixed idea. Sometimes something that is clear
to the heart demands quite a complex expression. You just let the words or
tune speak to you and it's very clear. You give yourself to the kiss or embrace
and while it's going on there's not any need to know what is going on. You
just dissolve into it..."
Ha! The poet's get-out clause?
"Yeah, well, you know, I've heard that stuff. Maybe some of it is true.
But if there's an obscurity in my work, it's something no one can penetrate,
not even me... You just try to be faithful to that interior landscape that
has its own rules, its own mechanisms, and it's important to be faithful
to them. If someone says, 'I love the song, what the fuck does it mean?'
the question is not as important as the declaration."
And the popularity of Warnes' LP is more important than any minor quibbles
about its LAmbience. It re-introduces to American radio the idea that listeners
can cope with expressions more complex than moon and June schemes. Perhaps
it's also preparing the way for a greater acceptance of this enduring
Montreal-born poet, singer and songwriter, whose heavy-lidded
Beat-God-on-100-Gauloises-a-day charms have worked across decades and
generations. Currently recording a new LP -- his first since Various
Positions three years ago -- its late Spring release will test Cohen's
present marketability. He promises a Lorca cover and a stronger dance
"I always thought I was doing them dancy and rhythmical but it turns out
It depends how you dance.
"Right. Ha ha. You hear a different drum... Probably by the time I get
my record out everything will switch back to the dismal tunes of the singer
songwriter. And I won't coincide with the market place once more."