Howard Bilerman, the producer and recording engineer who runs Montreal’s hotel2tango studio and a Grammy nominated musician who performed with, among others, Arcade Fire, played a role in creating You Want It Darker, the Leonard Cohen album scheduled for release this fall. His account of the experience – from meeting Leonard to working with producer, Adam Cohen, recording a unique set of backup singers for the album, is interesting, entertaining, and enlightening:
Howard, Vic Chesnutt, & Leonard Cohen
The story starts some 10 years ago. I had just finished recording an album with the now departed Vic Chesnutt. It was the first time we had worked together, and we bonded over our love of Leonard Cohen songs. It made Vic’s day when I pointed out where Leonard lived and his favorite spot for breakfast.
A native of Georgia, Vic fell in love with Montreal, largely because it was Leonard’s home. Vic’s album was was released mid-July 2007 to incredibly positive reviews. One, written by Sean Michaels (now a Giller Prize winning author) concluded, “This record, done at the hotel2tango, is Vic’s best record in some many years … Now someone get Leonard Cohen there!” (a reference to an interview I had done some years before about artists I had dreamt of working with).
Within 12 hours of that review going online, an email arrived with the subject line “from Leonard Cohen” which read simply “Can I visit your studio? Leonard.”
I trust, dear reader, you will excuse me for thinking this was a prank from one Vic Chesnutt. But, you know, stranger things have happened. So, I quizzed this “Leonard Cohen,” asking him the last names of two mutual acquaintances, something only the real Leonard Cohen would know. At 4:56 am the next morning I received an email, and in bold letters read the correct answers to my skill testing questions. There was no doubt about it — this was Leonard Cohen. Plans were made for Leonard to stop by the studio the next day at 4:30 pm.
At 4:30 pm, the studio doorbell rang. Opening the door revealed a handsome, dapper Leonard Cohen dressed in his trademark suit and cap. The first words out of his mouth were “if you’re busy I can come back.”
Leonard visited twice that week, and what’s perplexing is — to this day, I am unsure why.
The Recording Proposal
After his first visit I floated the idea of him recording with us, “an experiment” I called it. He didn’t address this until his third time at our studio, some months later, when he said, “About your proposal…this experiment…one day!” At this point, I wasn’t holding my breath. it was so lovely to meet him and get to know him a bit, and to shoot the shit about all sorts of things…to discover how hilariously entertaining he was – that was the true reward of this weirdly out of the blue encounter.
We stayed in touch after he moved back to LA and through his glorious comeback to the stage. I count the first concert I saw of his 2008 Tour, his performance at Place Des Arts in Montreal, as one of the greatest shows I have ever attended.
At the New York Beacon Theatre concert, the second show I saw of his tour, I met one of my idols, literally sitting in the seat next to me, the legendary producer Bob Johnston, who graciously agreed to come to Montreal to participate in a lecture/workshop series I created.
The lecture was bookended by two dinners I had with Leonard and Bob. The one before the presentation was the first time these musical icons had been together in over 30 years; the dinner after the presentation was to be the last time they saw each other. Being at that table, hearing their stories, laughing along with them … it was a huge treat.
As we left the restaurant after the second dinner, a woman spotted Leonard and approached him, her hand clutching at her heart. “Oh my god…it’s such an honour to meet you … I have been waiting my whole life.” Leonard was characteristically gracious, as he was with everyone he met. When the woman was out of earshot, I pointed to him and said “Don’t let it go to your head.” With the timing of a seasoned comic, he replied, without missing a beat, “Oh it’s a little too late for that.”
The Webb Sisters & Adam Cohen Record With Howard Bilerman
A year or so passed, and i got to meet the Webb Sisters and record some bluegrass covers with them. They are so talented, and their voices remind me of how the Louvin Brothers used to sing together.
Last summer, I started work on Adam’s new record, pairing him up with Patrick Watson, Molly Sweeney, and the guys from Timber Timbre. I can report…so far, so good. Adam is very engaged in the process of recording. He’s very detail oriented, incredibly articulate, and very smart. I literally found myself listening to music differently after one particular discussion we had about the necessity of music to grab the listener’s attention from the get-go. Adam has clearly been mentored by the best, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him.
And so, this past winter Adam texts “Hey, is the studio free next week to work on a song of my dad’s?” And again, dear readers, I hope you will forgive me for another misunderstanding, thinking that what he meant was “I would like to record a cover of one of my dad’s songs.” The actual interpretation, it turns out was, “I am producing a record for my dad, and there’s a song that needs some overdubs. Would you and your studio be free to record them?”
In The Studio
Those overdubs were performed by Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir (both Leonard’s great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, and his grandfather, Lyon Cohen, served as President of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim), singing on the title track “You Want It Darker.” A few weeks later, the same group sang on “Seemed A Better Way.”
Watching Adam don his producer’s hat confirmed two things for me: first, he really does have an incredibly astute set of ears, and second, this record was going to be very special. The songs felt more like prayers than music or poetry, They literally give you goosebumps. The idea to replace Leonard’s traditional backup singers of choice (beautiful female voices), with a 15 person men’s choir was an inspired move. They gave the songs a sober gravitas, which matched their lyrical content.
Recording a choir is tricky. The goal is to make it sound like a unified group rather than individual voices. This requires careful microphone placement after which each choir member is physically moved closer to or farther from the mics until the proper balance is achieved. We spent the first hour of the session balancing levels. Then, choirmaster Roï Azoulay started “tuning” the choir, instructing the group to sing a note and guiding specific members who were flat or sharp into tune. It was incredible to watch. He was tuning the choir the same way one would tune strings on a guitar. His ability to determine pitch was astounding. Once the choir was tuned and warmed up, we started work on the song, tracking each section part by part. When the part met Adam’s approval, and we knew we had coverage, we would “double” the choir. Everyone would sing the same parts over their existing tracks, creating a 30 person choir from a 15 person choir. An interesting technical note — When doubling a choir, the members must move to a new spot in the room, usually a mirror image of where they were originally standing, to ensure that the original and second takes produce a stereo effect. We continued to work for four hours. The choir was focused and showed great stamina. Around 11:30 pm, Cantor Zelermyer performed some ad libs at the end of the song, each more inspiring than the one before. His vibrato is incredible, and his tenor can make grown men weep. You don’t have to be remotely religious to have experienced it as something holy.
Once we had everything down and edited, Adam and I invited the choir into the control room to listen to the finished song. The room was packed, but you could hear a pin drop. I turned it up nice and loud. Leonard started to sing. Hearing that voice come out of the studio monitors and then reflecting back some nine years to that same voice in that same control room saying “One day!” I couldn’t help but smile.