Three years after his death in November of 2016, there’s a new Leonard Cohen album. It’s called Thanks for the Dance, and it was completed and produced by his son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen. NPR’s Don Gonyea speaks to Cohen about putting together this album, which he says he started with his father — with his father’s full intention that his son would finish it after his death. Listen in the audio player above and read on for a transcript of their conversation.
I read that you started working on this album right after your father’s passing in 2016. So you were putting this album together while you were also going through grief. What was that like?
I wish I’d had the courage to do it more quickly, but the truth of the matter is that it took me about seven months after his passing to gather the courage to go into my little converted garage and to be awash with his voice and try to reestablish a conversation musically with him. When he passed, we had just finished working on an album together, which I produced — an album called You Want It Darker.
This, I felt, was something I was tasked with completing. I mean, I was quite literally tasked with completing it, but it took me about seven months to sit with him again.
It’s the same voice we all know that you have known so well, but it had to be so different, hearing it, suddenly, in that space.
I’m not certain if this happens with everybody, but I’m consulting my father and his work less and less as a father, and more and more as a man, as a lifetime of decisions. I’m ever-struck by the beauty of his work and what he’s left behind and his legacy. It did have a sentimental dimension, because I was indeed staying in the company of my father, but there was a sense of duty. He’d asked me to complete these works, which we’d begun together, and that’s what I was doing.
How do you go about sorting through what he had left for you to work with, what you would work with him on before his death? How much material was there? How do you begin?
My father wasn’t prolific. He’s sort of the opposite of Dylan, who had this from the hip [songwriting process]. My father was much more methodical, he had a chisel … there were big, big pieces at which he’d been at work for years. There really was only what he’d left vocals on and what we’d discussed. It was a very small batch of work and I knew exactly what I was tackling.
Many of these songs had no music — they were lyrics and you had recorded vocal tracks, even without formally composed music?
Anybody who came in his midst was privileged to hear him [give] impromptu readings of poetry he was working on. He was an incredible raconteur because of his ability to quote, whether it’s from Shakespeare, Blake — to his own work.
I begged him, often “Just record this lyric. Let me sketch something and based on your reaction, we’ll adapt.” I was very, very lucky to get him to have these readings. Sometimes they were readings with no metronomic signatures, it was just a reading of poetry. Unfortunately, on a few occasions, that’s all I was left with — just bare musical sketches. But they were also so laden with instruction.
I had the benefit of knowing my father very well and speaking with him about music my entire life. I had the advantage that people — who were much more qualified than me, in terms of record makers — didn’t have, and that was to know his tastes, what he did like, what he didn’t. So I was able to flesh out and accompany these readings in a way that I think would have pleased him, or resembled him.
People will often say “Oh, Leonard Cohen: those songs, those albums, are so depressing, so dark. But there is a real sense of humor that I think comes through in his work. It was dry, to be sure, but you can hear it on this record, and one song that springs to mind is “Happens to the Heart.” That first line “I was always working steady / But I never called it art.” His fans hear that and their reaction is “Well, don’t kid yourself, Mr. Cohen.”
He did have a beautiful sense of modesty. He was really devoted to his work. He wasn’t interested in accolades, he was interested in blackening pages. He did have an old-world devotion and dedication to his craft that is increasingly uncommon. You must be familiar with his work because the humor and lightness, for which he’s not known, is actually a signature of his work for his connoisseurs.
That song, “Happens To The Heart”: That really is the question, isn’t it, that he was wrestling with for so many years?
To have known the man is to see how many times he was fearlessly devoted to revisiting something, chiseling at it, revising it, down to the last moment, obsessively writing verse after verse after verse. I think on this one, like with his most famous songs — “Hallelujah” in particular — there must have been 12, 13 verses. It was something he was obsessed with trying to complete.
In my opinion, there’s something about the thesis of this man’s work, which is about brokenness. One of the main points of interest was this idea of “the broken hallelujah,” or “the crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I think I’m not transgressing by saying one of the positions of what “Happens to the Heart” is bleak, that it breaks. But it’s how one sees one’s own heart breaking: if you see it as everyone’s heart breaking, it re-contextualizing it.
Hearing this album, for me, is like hearing from an old friend. I suspect you’re hearing that from a lot of people.
People have had lovely, supportive, enthusiastic, kind things to say about this album, for which, I’m grateful and find myself nourished. The thing that is, beyond anything, the most comforting is when their jaw falls open and they say “It’s like he’s still here with us.” There is this indelible feeling of his presence, like he’s still among us.
For anyone who’s seen a show of his, or seen a video of his show, when he takes his hat off and he looks out into the audience, he has this humility. It’s not an act. He would often end his shows by saying “Thank you for keeping my songs alive.” The fact that we’re doing that, that this album is not like your typical posthumous album where they’re digging up the dregs, and B-sides and outtakes, that this is vital material from a master and that we’re keeping his songs alive — that’s the most gratifying thing.
Thanks For The Dance is out now via Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings.