Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Working With The Gift Of A Golden Voice & Other Instruments

Untitled-1
Note: This post is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” This entry was originally posted June 11, 2014  at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

Working With The Golden Voice & Other Instruments

As Leonard Cohen famously sings,

I was born with the gift of a golden voice

And, as he testified at the Juno Awards,

Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year

Being born with the gift of a golden voice has not only had an impact on the presentation of Leonard Cohen’s songs but has also affected the construction of those songs.

I think if I had one of those good voices, I would have done it completely differently. I probably would have sung the songs I really like rather than be a writer.1

The arrangements are built around my voice to give some sort of structure and tonal variation because my voice gets a bit monotonous. In fact the whole thing is designed to prevent a disaster.2

Sometimes I think my voice is very bad. I can almost make myself cry with it very early in the morning. I definitely don’t have much of a voice, but it’s suitable for the songs I do. I think that everybody has a voice. And the people we consider significant singers are the people who decided to go with their own voice and did not decide to sound like what they thought a singer should be. That notion is very current in popular music now. Leadbelly was one of the first. I think that people whom we call singers – people that we love – are singing right out of the center of their own voices, and we use that same term in literary criticism. Like, ‘He found his own voice.’ That’s what a singer is in some ways: He’s found his own voice.3

 

But I don’t think that [the quality of a voice] has anything to do with delivering a song. A song, a message, a laundry list, a salutation – there’s a way to deliver the thing so that it touches the person you’re speaking to. Now there are lots of good singers who couldn’t do my stuff – couldn’t penetrate it, would have no interest in it. I can do my songs better than most people. Very rarely someone like Jennifer Warnes comes along, who has all the emotional equipment and can bring musical qualities to the song that I can’t even approach. This superb sound that issues from her throat. Now maybe that can get in the way of a song too.4

I don’t consider myself a great singer. I just play the guitar and interpret my lyrics. I do what I do because I have a need to do it, to express what I know, and to show people what I do.5

My voice just happens to be monotonous, I’m somewhat whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully too. It’s a completely biological accident that my songs sound melancholy when I sing them.6

Cohen’s music has been influenced by other performance factors as well, including the use of accompanying  musicians:

[Interviewer:] Do you remember when you used to release albums without many accompanying musicians? [Leonard Cohen:]: In very early times, I tried that. But in the meantime, my music became much more complex. Furthermore, I would bore myself to death to be in the studio or on stage alone. Sharon Robinson, who has worked with me since 1979 as a backup singer and who produced the new album, has succeeded in cushioning the imperfections of my voice. When we sing together, my voice contains no loneliness.7

And, his choice of instruments used to design his songs has also been important. In the mid-1980s, a Casio keyboard replaced Cohen’s guitar as his preferred means of working out melodies and rhythms.8 As John Lissauer, producer of Various Positions, explains:

[Leonard Cohen] had this little crap Casio synthesizer which he’d bought on 47th street and Broadway at one of those camera shops for tourists where you push your finger down on a key and it’ll play a dinky rhythm track… (Cohen) had run out of ideas as a guitar player. There were certain things he could do with his guitar playing but this dopey Casio did things that he couldn’t do on his guitar and it made it possible for him to approach songwriting in a different way.”  I brought in my Synclavier, a very early prototype, a phenomenally big thing, four rolling cases and computers and floppy discs, that cost around $35,000. Leonard’s Casio would have been $99, if that much, but I couldn’t get Leonard to drop his Casio…9

Cohen himself notes the impact of the shift to keyboard-based songwriting in his 1992 interview wih Paul Zollo:

[Interviewer:] Does the instrument affect the song you are writing? [Leonard Cohen:] They have certainly affected my songs. I only have one chop. All guitar players have chops. Especially professional ones. But I have only one chop. It’s a chop that very few guitarists can emulate, hence I have a certain kind of backhanded respect from guitar players because they know that I have a chop that they can’t master. And that chop was the basis of a lot of my good songs. But on the keyboard, because you can set up patterns and rhythms, I can mock up songs in a way that I couldn’t do with my guitar. There were these rhythms that I heard but I couldn’t really duplicate with my own instrument. So it’s changed the writing quite a bit.10

And in the I’m Your Man album (1998), the shift in perspective became more apparent, as Sylvie Simmons describes:

Leonard had upgraded from his $99 Casio to a Technics keyboard, but it was still a primitive synthesizer with no individual outputs, making it a challenge to record. The engineers, technicians, keyboard players and track performers listed in the credits far outnumber the conventional musicians. There were drum machines, synthesized strings, and push-button cha-cha rhythms, as well as some of the most singular keyboard playing to have ever made it onto a major-label album such as the proudly plinked one-finger solo on “Tower of Songs”.11

Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Musical Influences

Credit Due Department:Photo by Ted McDonnell

____________________

  1. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. []
  2. Have You Heard The One About Lenny In The Sandwich Bar? by Andrew Tyler. Disc: September 2, 1972. []
  3. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. []
  4. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. []
  5. 1974 Interview with Leonard Cohen by Jordi Sierra I Fabra. Published in Leonard Cohen by Alberto Manzano (1978). []
  6. Behind The Enigma By Tony Wilson. New Musical Express: March 25, 1972 []
  7. The Happy Message of the Aged, Interview by Sven F. Goergens. (Translated by Marie Mazur, using translation software, with the aid of Adi Heindl): Focus: September 15, 2001. Photo from same article. []
  8. Update: A well-written, more extensive consideration of Cohen’s change from guitar to keyboard can be found at Let’s Talk: Leonard Cohen and 1960’s artists transitioning to the 1980’s by cap7707 (Reddit: Aug 2015). []
  9. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons []
  10. Leonard Cohen – Los Angeles 1992 from Songwriters On Songwriting By Paul Zollo []
  11. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons []

One thought on “Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – Working With The Gift Of A Golden Voice & Other Instruments

  1. Lourdes Bielsa

    Hi Allan,
    I saved this post on FB and, being not ‘at one’ with electronic communications, I can’t find my way to post a comment on FB!!!
    So, here it is, Leonard Cohen has so much genius and true vocation in him that he doesn’t need advanced technology to deliver his spirit in the music world!!! He IS music and songs!!!
    I admire him so much!!!
    Thank you for your own contribution of analysis of this great man!!!
    Lourdes