If I have my way, the songs on my next album will all be western. That’s the music I grew up with. It’s western-middle Eastern, really. A maid in our house turned me on to western music. Stella, she used to yodel.
Poet Writer Singer Lover Cohen by Paul Grescoe (Canadian Magazine: February 10, 1968). Photo from York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, Photographer: John Sharp, ASC01709.
People have this idea I was a poet who decided to be a songwriter when, actually, it was the other way around. I came to poetry through music. Music was my first job when I was 16 – playing rhythm guitar in a country band. In university, I remember going to the Harvard record library, and I listened to all the folk music records they had over the course of a month. It was because I was so impressed by the beauty of these words written by these anonymous singers that I became interested in poetry, or what was called poetry then. I know Russian music, because my mother sang Russian songs around the house. I know country. and I know Greek music, because I lived there for several years. So I feel comfortable with all those styles. I’d be reluctant to write in an idiom that wasn’t native to me: I wouldn’t want to sing the blues because I’m not black and it’s not my music. I sympathize with black songwriters who have watched while white singers take often identical arrangements of songs and be successful with them.
From I Have To Think About Every Word I Write… by Liam Lacey. Globe and Mail: April 27, 1985.
Lorca, how did he help you find your own voice?
Well, I don’t know how he helped me find my own voice. Since he seemed exotic and far away, he allowed me to steal or borrow a lot of his voice. It’s like anything that you fall in love with is going to give you a certain kind of blindness. I think you are blinded to your own imperfections and limitations. It allows you to kind of lurch forward on the path that you want to choose for yourself. I don’t think that’s the real benefit of falling in love with a writer when you’re young. With Lorca, when I stumbled on him, it was something that was terribly familiar, it seemed to be the way that things really were. The evocation of a landscape that you’re really felt at home in, maybe more at home than anything you’ve been able to come up with yourself.
From CBC Radio Interview with Leonard Cohen with Cindy Buissaillon: August 26, 1995. Originally posted May 24, 2011 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
I bought my first guitar when I was about fifteen… In my little world there weren’t too many guitar players. Most of the guitar players were socialists who were singing protest songs or folk songs or songs by Woody Guthrie. Most of the people I bumped into in the early days of guitar were leftist thinking people who were interested in the people’s music… I was learning the songs of Woody Guthrie and old songs written by anonymous geniuses, Scottish border ballads, songs of the Appalachian mountains, Canadian folk songs.
Excerpted from Gerrit Terstiege’s interview with Leonard Cohen (July 2001). Photo of Leonard Cohen & Gerrit Terstiege by Henrik Drescher.
Gerrit Terstiege: I wondered if you made music before joining the Buckskin Boys. Let’s talk a little about music in your youth.
Leonard Cohen: I had piano lessons. Like everybody else in my world, I was forced to take piano lessons. That wasn’t very successful, but I did learn how to read music in a half-assed way. In the school band I played clarinet. Then, I got a harmonica, and I bought a guitar at a second hand store in Montreal.
Gerrit Terstiege: How old were you roughly?
Leonard Cohen: I think I bought my first guitar when I was about fifteen.
Gerrit Terstiege: And people didn’t play guitar at that time?
Leonard Cohen: In my little world there weren’t too many guitar players. Most of the guitar players were socialists who were singing protest songs or folk songs or songs by Woody Guthrie. Most of the people I bumped into in the early days of guitar were leftist thinking people who were interested in the people’s music.
Gerrit Terstiege: Did you write your own music or were you mostly singing Woody Guthrie songs?
Leonard Cohen: Sure I was learning the songs of Woody Guthrie and old songs written by anonymous geniuses, Scottish border ballads, songs on the Appalachian mountains, Canadian folk songs.
Excerpted from Gerrit Terstiege’s interview with Leonard Cohen (July 2001). Buckskin Boys photo published in Songs of Leonard Cohen, Herewith: Music, Words and Photographs, Amsco Music Publishing, New York, 1969.
I have never belonged to rock’n’roll, but I enjoyed its hospitality. I grew up with folk music and blues. I always hoped that one day I would be able to accomplish the feat of the simplicity of great songs like Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. I was very moved at that. This is the great modern writing. I started to play guitar to it.
From Leonard Cohen et la mesure du temps [via Google Translate] by Jean-François Nadeau. Le Devoir: June 21, 2008.
More about Leonard Cohen on Fats Domino
- “Blueberry Hill” By Fats Domino Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox
- “I never made a big distinction between that which we call a poem & that which we call a song” Leonard Cohen
- Leonard Cohen on “that curious thing that we call ‘experience’ that you hear in the voice of Fats Domino, that you hear in the voice of Aretha Franklin”
Originally posted December 3, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric