August 9, 2013 2:43 pm

Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson: a special relationship

Ever since Cohen hired Robinson as a backing singer 34 years ago, their work has been entwined. Philippe Sands talks to her about collaboration, inspiration and how the songwriting happens
Photo of Sharon Robinson and Leonard Cohen taken backstage at The O2 Arena for FT Weekend Magazine©Jillian Edelstein

Sharon Robinson and Leonard Cohen

On a warm evening in Paris, 15,000 people are packed into the Bercy concert hall for the opening night of Leonard Cohen’s latest tour. The band, the songs, the mood and exultation are wildly familiar. Late into the show, Cohen introduces the most special member of his band, to a rapturous reception.

He slowly speaks the opening words of a poem-song he wrote three decades ago, inspired by a poem by Constantine Cavafy, published in 1911, that records Mark Antony’s last night on earth. “Do not say the moment was imagined,” Cohen says – both of that ancient evening and of this Parisian night – “drink it in, exquisite music.” He removes his hat, extends a hand, bows gently. “Sharon Robinson, ‘Alexandra Leaving’.”

It is a moment of homage, one I’ve witnessed on several occasions since Cohen resumed touring in 2008. My weakness for Cohen dates back much further, nearly 40 years, since my mother introduced Songs of Love and Hate into the household of a failing marriage. He’s been a constant companion ever since, although I only saw a first live performance five years ago, at Manchester’s Opera House.

A few weeks later, I sat with a friend who’d flown in from New Delhi in the front row at the 02 Arena – a concert we agreed was the best we’d ever attended. It wasn’t just Cohen: the musicians, the vocalists, the ensemble were central to the intimacy of escape, and no passion has burnt more enduringly than that sparked by Sharon Robinson in the course of that evening.

Now in Paris she steps forward, elegant, calm, intense, striking. The face is familiar, sculpted and strong. The melody opens, violin, bass, keyboards, then a voice, deep and calm, sharing words of imminent loss. “Suddenly the night has grown colder, the god of love preparing to depart …” She sings in a single spotlight; Cohen hovers close by, head bowed.

Long prepared

Robinson, left, in Vegas days with Ann-Margret’s troupe©Greg Gold and Sharon Robinson

Robinson, left, in Vegas days with Ann-Margret’s troupe

The collaboration between Cohen and Robinson began 35 years ago, when Cohen was looking for a backing singer on the “Field Commander Cohen” tour in 1979. Robinson, then performing as a singer and dancer with Ann-Margret’s show in Las Vegas, was seeking a life as a songwriter, but happy to audition. She liked some of Cohen’s songs, but knew little of the man. The connection was instant. “I knew immediately I would get the gig,” she tells me over lunch in the Place des Vosges. “Right away there was a connection, a sort of mutual understanding.”

She joined Cohen’s band as a classically trained pianist (having studied at the California Institute of the Arts) with a serious interest in R&B and soul, the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. “He likes bringing that flavour into some of his music,” she says with a laugh. But why he chose her is a matter for speculation: “I wish he was sitting here, I would love to hear what he would say!” (“Irresistible beauty, irresistible gift,” Cohen tells me.) She already had a strong presence on stage, “a certain amount of confidence”, as she puts it. In person she is the opposite of self-promoting, as generous to others as she is reticent about herself.

The 1979 European tour was a great success, and a live album (Field Commander Cohen, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon and the Brighton Dome and released in 2001) has the two in duet (“Why Don’t You Try”). The following year they co-wrote a first song; he offered the lyrics and she supplied the melody. “It just happened,” she said later, “like falling off a ladder.”

Robinson in Tel Aviv in 1979, on the “Field Commander Cohen” tour©Bruce Brown

Robinson in Tel Aviv in 1979, on the “Field Commander Cohen” tour

Then came “Everybody Knows”, which earned her a co-writing credit on the album I’m Your Man, released in 1988. “I have a lyric,” Cohen had told her, and they were off, on a new and more “soulful” direction for Cohen (“If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to” are the opening lines of the album’s title track).

By then Robinson had won a Grammy as a contributor to the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop, where her song “New Attitude” was sung by Patti LaBelle. That work also introduced her to Greg Gold, who became her husband and occasional manager, as he produced the video for the song. They live in Los Angeles and have a son, Michael, who is 25 and plays keyboard and sings with Poolside, an indie band out of LA.

Exquisite music

'Ten New Songs' album cover

'Ten New Songs': Robinson composed, arranged, performed and produced the music to Cohen’s lyrics for his first album after nine years’ silence

A decade later, in October 2001, when Cohen released Ten New Songs, his first album for several years, Robinson had a co-writing credit on every track. This was the album that included “Alexandra Leaving”. She also had credits for producing, musical arrangement, programming and performing. Her face appeared on the cover, turning her into a recognisable figure (a steady stream of well-wishers stopped to talk as we lingered on the Place des Vosges).

By then the relationship was deep. “Sharon’s an old, old friend”, Cohen explains on film, “our families are close, I’m the godfather of her son.” Having worked on a number of songs, including one for Diana Ross (“Summertime” – which borrows its title from the Gershwin jazz standard), three or four songs became the core of an album. “Two people with one mind,” Cohen says of their collaboration, a beguiling compliment.

Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson on the last day of production for “Ten New Songs”, in her studio in Hollywood©Greg Gold and Sharon Robinson

Cohen and Robinson on the last day of production for “Ten New Songs”, in her studio in Hollywood

The album was a critical and commercial success and opened up new audiences. Reviews suggested Robinson’s impact on “more soulful” songs like “In My Secret Life” and “Alexandra Leaving”. One critic thought Cohen’s darker vocal now shone with “a peculiar optimism” – and Cohen himself has hinted that the album coincided with a change, the dissolution of a lifetime’s “relentless depression”. Robinson explained a desire to write melodies that amplified and clarified Cohen’s words. She believes they ended up with an album that was “simple” and “soothing to the listener”. Cohen agreed: “You can wash your dishes to it, you can do your courting to it.”

It was “a serene, close and creative time,” Sharon says. They shuttled between their LA backyards, working outside of a studio. The album has the feel of listening to a couple of friends who’ve opened a window on their lives. Robinson thinks the intimacy derives from the “low-tech” nature of the collaboration.

Strange procession

Sharon Robinson©Jillian Edelstein

I spend much of the day before the Paris show in Robinson’s company. In the late morning, we visit Shakespeare & Co, the famous Left Bank bookshop. Sharon sits in an old red chair in the Sylvia Beach Library, on the first floor. She’s all in black, her deep black hair offset by large brass earrings, strikingly beautiful, soft-spoken, calm, always gracious. There is a hint of vulnerability, too, which is unexpected given the stage presence that I and others have been struck by. She has a big smile and a warm face. It’s a delight to spend time with her. As we explore the lyrics of “Alexandra Leaving”, I ask whether she might sing the song. “Right here, in the bookshop?” Yes.

“Suddenly the night has grown colder …” As she works each word in the flow of the lyric, her face intensifies. The act of singing is deeply physical, the hands clench, rise, implore. The melody and words take her to another place, and even without a band the distinctive voice lifts the lyrics and transforms the space. Inquiring faces soon appear at the entrance to the room.

Downstairs, in the shop’s poetry corner, I come across a copy of C P Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, whose commentary on “The God Abandons Antony” explains that the title is taken from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. The poem describes the last night on earth of Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover, as his troops desert him. As Mendelsohn notes, “All Alexandria knew that Antony’s cause was totally lost.” Subsequently defeated, and believing Cleopatra to be dead, Antony takes his own life. Plutarch’s account emphasises the importance of the act of hearing, a “vehicle for apprehending the true significance of what is taking place”. It offers a glimpse of the night in Alexandria, quiet and dejected, in anticipation of a coming tumult. Suddenly there was heard “the combined sounds of all sorts of instruments”, a sign that the Gods were abandoning Antony.

None of this is new to Robinson, who knows the origins of the song. From Plutarch, through Cavafy and on to Cohen, a timeless strand has been woven.

Formlessly entwined

Robinson explains the mechanics of collaborating with Cohen, how a poem becomes a song. There’s a pattern. “I go to his house, we sit in the kitchen and chat, and have something to drink or eat.” Food is important. Her mother, Mildred, who recently passed away, adored Cohen and would often bake him a large fruit cake. “I was reluctant to burden him with three pounds of irresistible dessert”, she tells me, but “he loved them”. So she did.

The Death of Anthony and Cleopatra, 1630-35 (oil on canvas) by Turchi, Alessandro (1579-1649); 255x267 cm; Louvre, Paris, France©Bridgeman Art Library

Antony and Cleopatra: Cavafy’s poem ‘The God Forsakes Antony’ gave Cohen and Robinson one of their most poignant songs, ‘Alexandra Leaving’

Work begins with a verse or two that Cohen presents her with, on paper. Robinson reads it, they talk about melodic possibilities. Rarely, if ever, do they talk about the meaning of the words. “We both feel that the song should be self-explanatory,” Robinson says, before correcting herself. “I can’t speak for him of course”. This desire not to cross a line, to respect Cohen as an artist, is an endearing constant during our conversation. It feels protective.

A single song can take a year or more to emerge. It took “an age” to plumb the depths of “Alexandra Leaving”, and at one point it seemed it might be left aside. Robinson takes a poem home and studies it. “I try not to ask Leonard, ‘What does this mean? What’s this about?’ We don’t really go there.” Does she try to work out meanings for him, or for her? “Probably both, and hopefully those are the same, or somewhat the same.” It’s the multitude of meanings, we agree, that gives the songs their broad resonance.

C P Cavafy: Greek poet of the early 20th century

C P Cavafy: The great Greek poet of the early 20th century spent a lifetime in obscurity, quietly celebrating his beloved city of Alexandria

The connections between the song and the original poem are close. A beloved city (Alexandria, in Egypt) becomes a beloved woman (Alexandra), offering what Cohen has described as “a certain take on loss”. Words move from Cavafy’s poem to Cohen’s song, and they are central to the melody Robinson constructs, looking for what she calls “the flow of the lyric”. She seeks a chorus/verse structure in the words, sitting at her piano, imagining the lyric’s “mood”. A song might be contemplative, or “more aggressive”, depending on its emotional core. “The first few verses tell the story of a kind of procession, the leaving of Alexandra on the shoulders of the god of love.” The processional march becomes a theme, present and then gone. An image forms, like a picture with music afloat in the background.

I have many questions, but she firmly resists over-intellectualisation. Too much of that and you lose the connection to “emotion and soulfulness”. “When you start with a poem, you have to figure out how to turn it into a song.” Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it has to be reworked. If she can’t find it on her own, she’ll call Cohen and ask what he sees as the chorus.

In this case, the answer was clear – the last line: “Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving, then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.” The line is repeated, at the end of every third verse, so the poem was “already beautifully structured for a melody”. Invited to elaborate, she says it’s hard to explain: “there are numerous ways to skin a cat when it comes to writing a song”. Yet the structure is closely related to the number of syllables in a line, which in turn dictates the set-up of the melody. In this sense, she works backwards, from a culminating idea towards the front of the song.

A bit like an advocate in court trying to persuade a judge, I suggest. Sharon smiles, generously. Yes, as a songwriter she wants the songs to be heard and understood, to take the listener on a trip. “I suppose you could call that persuasion. You want them with you from the beginning to the end.” That requires an emotional thread, one that starts with the words. The process inverts the usual rule for mainstream pop music, which is to start with the music.

We return to the kitchen scene. She offers ideas for the melody, maybe more than one. Then she records one. “At the time, Leonard had a little boom box in his kitchen, we’d listen to it there, on a cassette.” As he listens, she can tell straight away his reaction. “He’ll just listen quietly. I can tell if he likes it, but there’ll be issues, and changes. Other times he’ll start dancing around, or something like that. There are a range of reactions. In the end, I just wait, for 10 minutes.”

The collaboration is based on a particular affinity, the word she chooses to describe a certain kind of connection between two people. “It seems to come from nowhere, neither party has anything invested in it, but it’s very real.” She pauses. “No verbal commitments, but a lasting quality, an intimacy that has a subliminal quality.”

There is, too, a sense of shared vulnerability that infuses the songs. “You probably have to go to that place to write music together, take off your armour, be willing to throw out an idea and risk that the other might think it’s idiotic.” The music they produce and sing is exposing of intimacy – a reason it resonates. “Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person is a kind of intimacy that doesn’t go away.”

Firm commitments

Cohen, Robinson and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008©Corbis

Cohen, Robinson and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008

During a conversation that meanders around Paris, the balance in their relationship occasionally comes into view. “He’s the artist,” she says. ”I don’t want to lose sight that it’s his album we are working on.” She won’t toot her own horn. “Ultimately, I defer to him on everything,” she says. “It’s his voice that we are looking to give a platform to, not mine.”

Still, she says, there is “a kind of equality, in different areas”. Sometimes “I feel I have to be assertive about something with Leonard.” She will defer on the lyrics, but believes that she brings “musical elements that are of equal weight or importance”. That said, he knows how to write a good melody.

Perhaps the relationship offers more give and take than she recognises. Her melodic offerings are not the end of the process. “Things get re­arranged, lyrics get edited and changed, melody lines are shifted, based on the way Leonard feels about singing the song.” What matters is the overall effect, and that turns on the interplay of words and music. So a word or more might get changed, to accommodate her melodic choice? Yes, she offers, a rare concession to self from an understated collaborator.

If she won’t give herself credit, others will. Ed Sanders, producer of Cohen’s latest album Old Ideas , mentions her special place in the band, beyond the voice and the great musical talent: “Leonard really treasures consistency across a career.” Mitch Watkins, on guitar, was with Robinson when they toured with Cohen in 1979: “She’s just special.”

Javier Mas, the Spanish virtuoso ­guitarist and laud player, joined the band more recently. When I ask him about Sharon’s role he offers a single word: “Elegancia.” He repeats it. The band respects her because of the human qualities, the intense discretion. “She is humble”, he says, “she speaks not so much, so when she speaks… we listen.”

Mas focuses on her voice, which complements the pure English tones of the Webb sisters, Charley and Hattie, who joined Cohen’s band five years ago. “The Webb sisters have beautiful voices,” he agrees. “Sharon’s voice? It is like wine, like a mature wine that has aged in oak for many years.”

Yet it’s not just the voice he admires. Her music draws the listener in close. “She knows how to write the music that makes Leonard look bigger.” He describes her melody on “A Thousand Kisses Deep” as nothing short of a masterpiece. “It works because of the chord changes, they are made very simple.”

The honour of an evening

Before the concert in Bercy I am offered a rare privilege, to attend the pre-show sound check. Almost alone in the vast auditorium, I get another private rendition of “Alexandra Leaving”, this one with the full band, and the sight of Cohen wandering around the set. Afterwards, Robinson finds me, and Cohen joins us. I mention the visit to Shakespeare & Co, and finding the Cavafy volume. “That’s a good book,” he says knowingly. “I know it, I like it.”

Seeing them together, the mutual affection is plain. She is notably protective of him. He’s happy to talk, of Plutarch and of Robinson, of his days as a young law student in Montreal. “What a loss for the law!” I suggest. He laughs wistfully. “I’ve collaborated with others,” he says of Robinson, “but not so closely or for so long.”

'Everybody Knows' album cover

'Everybody Knows': Robinson’s debut solo album, released in 2008, has a portrait by Cohen on the cover

She recognises that her career has largely been wrapped around his. In 2008 she released a solo debut album – Everybody Knows – and is working on another. She can imagine another life, less connected to Cohen, but it’s not what she would choose. He offered exposure to a different audience, with “the generous introduction that he gives”, and she hasn’t regretted a moment. To Cohen, she’s far more than a backing singer. The collaboration has prospered, he tells me, because it has offered “the rare privilege of a deep friendship with a musician, singer and composer of the highest rank”.

Working closely with Cohen has also allowed her work to be taken up by others. We listen to Rufus Wainwright’s rendition of “Everybody Knows”, which she says she has not heard. “That’s Rufus’s version?” she asks, surprised. The melody and chord changes are recognisable, “basically mine, with a few changes here and there”. She likes the interpretation. “It’s different, sure, and surprising,” and the voice is pure and natural, with a comfortable flow. “Fantastic,” she says.

What of the future? She’s open to new ideas. She and Cohen have never performed together without a band. “I don’t really know why. Maybe that’s in our future – I would love to do something like that.”

At some point she mentions that once, during a voice lesson, her teacher told her that her voice was made for opera. Together we listen to Bach, “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion, which intrigues her. “I would love to take a stab at it, to play around with it,” adding that she wouldn’t presume to be able to. Later she asks again about the piece, I send her the score, and a recording. She’ll give it a go – an evening of Cohen and Bach beckons …

Three days after the Paris concert, they are in London. Robinson reaches the last lines of “Alexandra Leaving”, Cohen moves closer, head bowed. A gracious arm is extended, holding the hat: “My collaborator, the incomparable Sharon Robinson.”

The hat returns to its home, Cohen moves to the centre of the stage, the band strikes up, he moves to the next song. “If you want a partner, take my hand,” he intones, “I’m your man.” He’s not alone.

-------------------------------------------

Sharon Robinson and Leonard Cohen perform this month and next in Bournemouth, Brighton, Manchester, Cardiff, Leeds, Birmingham, Dublin, London and Rotterdam. She appears solo at the Café du Nord, San Francisco, on October 17 and at Hotel Café, Los Angeles, on October 19.

Philippe Sands is a barrister and teaches law at University College London.

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