Paul Zollo: It’s one of the great things about your work, your rich use of details. So many songs we hear are empty, and have no details at all.
Leonard Cohen: I love to hear the details. I was just working on a line this morning for a song called ‘I Was Never Any Good at Loving You.’ And the line was — I don’t think I’ve nailed it yet — ‘I was running from the law, I thought you knew, forgiveness was the way it felt with you’ or ‘forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ Then I got a metaphysical line, about the old law and the new law, the Old Testament and the New Testament: ‘I was running from the law, the old and the new, forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ No, I thought, it’s too intellectual. Then I thought I got it: ‘I was running from the cops and the robbers too, forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ You got cops and robbers, it dignifies the line by making it available, making it commonplace.
Paul Zollo: Each of those three versions work well. And so many of your lines, though I understand how hard you work on them and revise them, have the feeling of being inevitable. They don’t feel forced; they just feel like the perfect line.
Leonard Cohen: I appreciate that. Somebody said that art is the concealment of art.
Re Leonard’s comment. “Somebody said that art is the concealment of art,”
The quotation …. exists in many forms, and dates at least as far back as Roman times. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE – 100 CE) said, “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Another quotation — unattributed, but probably contemporary — says, ars est celare artem (“True art is to conceal art.”) Centuries later, Oscar Wilde said, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”1
The “I was running from …” lines discussed by Leonard: None of the variations made it into the final lyrics of the song. See lyrics at Never Any Good
More about using detail in songwriting can be found at Leonard Cohen on “the details that delight us” in songwriting.
The featured excerpt is from Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press June 19, 2003).