Leonard Cohen On The Interpretation Of His Songs

Leonard Cohen was notably reluctant to offer interpretations of his songs, a penchant most clearly articulated early in his career:

[My songs] are very complete and to say anything about them would be redundant1

And he could be a tad dismissive about this issue:

Sometimes I’m interviewed by newspapers, and they ask me the meaning of my songs. And if the interviewers are French, they ask the meaning of meaning.2

On several occasions, he emphasized that his songs were open to a multiplicity of interpretations:

When you’re on the road for a long period of time, you tend to sing songs in different ways. You can bring a certain kind of nobility to a depressed lyric, or you can deliver a very affirmative statement like a lamentation. I’ve found there’s a certain emptiness to my songs that allows for a lot of interpretations.3

I think, like tofu, the song takes on the flavour of the emotional gravy of what you sense. If one needs one’s own suffering to be addressed, I think you can find that component in a song.4

I like the metaphor, and I’m not sure what it means, but it seems to be right, that I feel my work is like ice cubes in a drink. It just changes the drink. Even though the songs are dense and carefully worked out, it’s very difficult to say exactly what they mean or stand for. but like the taste of cold water, it’s refreshing.5

He explained that his songs should be experienced rather than understood:

People say they don’t understand the stuff, but I never believe that. It’s like understanding an embrace, if you ask somebody after the embrace, ‘Did you understand it?’ D’you know what I’m talking about? People know what it is, in the midst of it. It’s only when that other mind begins to operate and say, ‘What have I experienced?’6

From a certain point of view, my songs are free from meaning and significance. There’s not a secret that is being concealed, there’s nothing that I am not yielding. It really doesn’t have a meaning any more than a diamond has a meaning. The meaning is that it was cut and polished and it produces light.7

Nonetheless, he did talk about several of his songs. Cohencentric is collecting  and organizing these comments at

Leonard Cohen On His Songs

Note: this is a work in progress; more songs and comments will be added over time

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  1. Cohen The Youth Hero. New Musical Express: March 14, 1970 []
  2. Leonard Cohen’s introduction to “There Is A War” at the Oct 19, 1974 Paris concert. Source: Leonard Cohen Prologues []
  3. Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983 []
  4. Leonard Cohen sings the blues. Hürriyet Daily News: January 28, 2012 []
  5. From Leonard Cohen: Pondering His Past and ‘The Future’ by Scott Crawford. IIntermission, Stanford Daily: April 8, 1993 []
  6. Cohen Down The Road By Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, May 22, 1976. Accessed at Reality Now! []
  7. Sincerely, L. Cohen by Brian Cullman. Details for Men, January, 1993 []

Leonard Cohen On The Role Poetry Played In Writing Suzanne: “that’s the method with which you can get the accuracy”

So where did the poetry come in [in writing Suzanne]?

quoteup2
That’s my trade. That’s what I know how to do. And it’s not that I choose to do it but it seems that’s the method with which you can get the accuracy. Sometimes you hit it, all too rarely, but sometimes you hit it.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Cohen Down The Road By Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, May 22, 1976. Found at Reality Now!

Note: Originally posted Jan 21, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“I worship women. Everybody will now know that inside this serene Buddha-like exterior beats an adolescent heart.” Leonard Cohen re Death Of A Ladies’ Man Album


From The Great Ones Never Leave. They Just Sit It Out Once In A While by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker: November 26, 1977.

Note: Originally posted Jan 19, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“When you’re writing out of the total embrace of the experience of the emotion of the moment, what comes out … is really authentic” Leonard Cohen

quoteup2
When an experience is embracing or total you don’t know who you are. When you jump into a pool of really cold water, when you hit that water there’s no you. [Interviewer: How often is your writing a dive into cold water?] From time to time. There is no explanation for it. It’s free from an explanation. It’s like explaining the kiss you give your wife. you can explain it from a sociological point of view, from an erotic point of view, from all kinds of points of view. but it really doesn’t have anything to do with that moment of the embrace. You can speak about it, but it’s just a kind of gossip. When you’re writing out of the total embrace of the experience of the emotion of the moment, what comes out of there is really authentic. People ask what does that song, ‘Suzanne,’ really mean? The people who lay back and are ravished by the song know exactly what it means.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From Interview / Leonard Cohen By Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld.

“[My Songs’] effect on people whose nature can respond to them is far from depressing” Leonard Cohen

quoteup2
The assumption is that the world is really very gay and jovial, and nothing terrible ever happens. I think [my] songs are true and they’re not for everybody…Their effect on people whose nature can respond to them is far from depressing.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From Leonard Cohen BBC Interview With John Archer – 1988. Originally posted October 24, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“I have never tried to shock, never had that appetite. If I have an appetite, it’s for saying things I can live with while maintaining my self-respect. It’s as simple as that.” Leonard Cohen

From Le Cercle de Minuit – Michel Field, Interviewer. Broadcast by France 2: December 1992. Originally posted April 30, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric