The collaboration between Leonard Cohen – possibly the greatest poet of the generation and Sharon Robinson began 35 years ago. Cohen was looking for a backing singer and Robinson was seeking a life as a songwriter, but happy to audition.
Robinson shares 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.” 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. A single song can take a year or more to emerge. 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.
Sharon 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 some cases, the answer is relatively clear. For “Alexandra Leaving” the last 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.
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.”
“She knows how to write the music that makes Leonard look bigger.” It is no wonder that 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 blog is a distillation of an article by Philippe Sands. I hope this post helps some of the poets on Tallenge, and others, visibility into the collaboration process. In my next blog, I hope to go further along this creative continuum.
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