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Fri February 17, 2012
Music Interviews

Conor Oberst, Ron Sexsmith Pay Tribute To Leonard Cohen

Originally published on Sun February 19, 2012 4:50 pm

Who'd have thought a 77-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter would be hovering near the top of the pop charts? Leonard Cohen was a poet and fiction writer who, in the 1960s, wrote songs like "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne" and "Bird on a Wire." His unmistakable voice lulls you into a hypnotic spell on his new album, so we asked two fellow singers and Cohen fans to talk about what they hear on Old Ideas: Conor Oberst, best known for his band Bright Eyes, and Ron Sexsmith.

"I picked 'Crazy to Love You,' " Oberst says of one of his favorite songs from the album. "To me, it was one of the more immediate songs that struck me on the album. It's so sparse. It's just guitar and vocal. It reminded me of some of his older material. It's a very simple but powerful melody. The thing about this song and all his music is the way it expresses the human condition and the duality of our perversions and our flesh, and also our higher self — the thing that's interested in reasoning and philosophy and language and how those things coexist inside of all of us. That's a major theme through all his music."

The Voice

Then there's that voice, which feels like it's coming from inside your head.

"It's getting lower and lower over the years. It's a really powerful instrument," Oberst says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "I mean, it's strange with his music. I don't necessarily listen to it from the standpoint of the production value or even the performance, necessarily. It's his ideas that make him so amazing, and that's what I'm attracted to."

Speaking of instruments, Cohen's guitar in "Crazy to Love You" is just a little bit out of tune, but Oberst says he's glad that wasn't fixed, "especially in this day and age where, you know, twist a knob and all that goes away. It's nice that they left the human side."

Oberst says he also likes the closing track on Old Ideas, "Different Sides."

"It's a very cool song," Oberst says. "His delivery is so, you know, kind of pitch perfect. You just picture him in his little fedora in the smoky alley or whatever and, obviously, the lyrics are phenomenal. But the chorus is also pretty fantastic. It's, 'You want to change the way I make love / I want to leave it alone.' "

It's hard for Oberst to pick just a few favorites from Old Ideas, but he adds, "There are probably a few people that are as good as him, but there's nobody better for my sensibilities."

A Fellow Canadian Pays Tribute

Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter from St. Catharines, Ontario. When he first heard Cohen around the age of 15 of 16, Sexsmith says, he didn't understand it — "how you could have a career and not be a great singer or whatever."

"But when I was 19 or 20, I went back to it. Something compelled me to check him out again, and then it was like a bolt of lightning," Sexsmith says. "I just fell in love with everything that he's done. [He's] definitely one of the biggest influences on me — up with all of my other favorites, for sure."

"The first thing that comes to mind is just how amazing it is that [the album] exists at all, you know?" Sexsmith says. "I mean, there was that period where he didn't make any records for a long time, and as a fan of Leonard Cohen, you're always thinking every record could be his last or something these days. So just the fact that there's a new Leonard album out is just remarkable for me."

Old Ideas is stripped down, but Cohen has had his brush with synthesizers and lush production.

"I've always been really good at sort of making a bee line through the production straight to the songs, but, you know, this album is a nice marriage of — you know, because he's playing guitar a bit more," Sexsmith says. "I always feel that he sings better when he plays the guitar.

"If you've been a fan as long as I have, there's a trust that's been built up over time. It becomes this thing where you're getting a phone call from someone you haven't heard [from] in a long time. You're getting his perspective and what he's been up to. It's just this intimate thing that you can't get from anybody else."

'The Present's Not So Pleasant'

It's natural for Cohen to think a lot about mortality near the end of his life, but Sexsmith says Cohen has never sung about "frivolous things."

"The very first time I saw Leonard in concert was in 1985, and I think he must have been in his early 50s. I remember thinking, 'Wow, that's just so old. How can he carry on?' Sexsmith says, laughing. "I mean, I'm going to be 50 in a couple years now, you know? The thing with Leonard, he's not singing about frivolous things. He never has, you know? It's just great to have someone like him in this world that is very focused on the juvenile sort of things — to have someone that's writing from that place. What's that line in 'The Darkness'? 'I have no future / The present's not so pleasant.' You're not going to get that from Justin Bieber.

"He's always very conversational, too," Sexsmith says. "Obviously, he's a poet, but you never get the condescending thing or the high-brow feeling. It's very simple language. The words he uses — they penetrate because they're very simple, and you never have to scratch your head and wonder what he's singing about."

"You know, when you're listening to a Leonard record, it's like all the great songwriters. You're in the Leonard zone, you know? You're going to hear the female singers, you're going to hear the old-world instruments and all that kind of stuff. It's all those things that you hope for when you get a new Leonard record."

People either love or hate Leonard Cohen's voice. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

"Some people can't get past the singing," Sexsmith says. "I've always loved his voice, and some people will never comprehend it, because it is such an intimate thing."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block.

And lately, I've been under a hypnotic spell cast by this voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMEN")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Tell me again when I've been to the river and I've taken the edge off my thirst.

BLOCK: The unmistakable voice of Leonard Cohen. This is from his new album, "Old Ideas." And who'd have thought a 77-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter would be hovering near the top of the charts? Leonard Cohen was a poet and fiction writer first. In the '60s, he wrote signature songs including "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Bird on the Wire."

We asked two fellow singers and Leonard Cohen fans to talk about what they hear in the new album, starting with Conor Oberst, best known for his band Bright Eyes. He chose as his favorite a song with just Leonard Cohen's voice and his guitar.

CONOR OBERST: I picked "Crazy to Love You." To me, it was one of the more immediate songs that struck me on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY TO LOVE YOU")

COHEN: (Singing) Had to go crazy to love you. Had to go down to the pits. Had to do time in the tower, begging like crazy to quit.

OBERST: The thing about it, well, this song and all his music is the way it expresses the human condition and the duality of our perversions and our flesh, and also our sort of higher self and the thing that's interested in reasoning and philosophy and language, and how those two things coexist inside of all of us. And that's a major theme through all his music.

BLOCK: And what about that voice? I mean, it feels like he's really inside your head. It's like he's so close to that microphone.

OBERST: Yeah, it's getting lower and lower over the years. It's strange. With his music, I don't necessarily listen to it from the standpoint of the production value or even the performance necessarily. It's his ideas that make him so amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY TO LOVE YOU")

COHEN: (Singing) I'm tired of choosing desire. I've been saved by a blessed fatigue. The gates of commitment unwired. Nobody is trying to leave. Sometimes I'd head for the highway. I'm old and the mirrors don't lie. But crazy has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye.

BLOCK: Are there other songs on the CD that you've been paying attention to, Conor, listening to a lot?

OBERST: There's a lot of fantastic songs. I also like the last song a lot, "Different Sides."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT SIDES")

COHEN: (Singing) We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew.

OBERST: It's a very cool song, like his delivery is so, you know, kind of pitch-perfect. You just picture him in his, like, little fedora, in the smoky alley or whatever. And, obviously, the lyrics are phenomenal. But the chorus is also pretty fantastic. The chorus, it's: You want to change the way I make love. I want to leave it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT SIDES")

COHEN: (Singing) Both of us say there are laws to obey. Yeah, but frankly, I don't like your tone. You want to change the way I make love, but I want to leave it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: What do you think he's getting at there?

OBERST: I don't know. But it sounds nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT SIDES")

OBERST: (Singing) The pull of the moon, the thrust of the sun. Thus, the ocean is crossed.

There's probably a few people that are as good as him, but there's nobody better, you know, for my sensibilities.

BLOCK: That's Conor Oberst. Now to singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, like Leonard Cohen, a Canadian. He considers Cohen one of the biggest influences on his own songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

COHEN: (Singing) Sleep, baby, sleep.

RON SEXSMITH: The first thing that comes to mind is just how amazing it is that it exists at all, you know? I mean, there was that period where he didn't make any records for a long time. And as a fan of Leonard Cohen, it's just you're always thinking every record could be his last or something these days. And so, just the fact that there's a new Leonard album out is just remarkable for me.

BLOCK: And that he's going back. It's so stripped down. I mean, there was a period where he was doing a lot of synthesizers and sort of walls of sound. And this one is so bare, naked.

SEXSMITH: Yeah, I've always been really good at sort of making a bee line, like, through the production straight to the songs. But, yeah, you know, this album is kind of a nice sort of marriage of, you know - 'cause he's playing guitar a bit more. I always feel that he sings better when he plays the guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) If your heart is torn...

COHEN: (Singing) ...I don't wonder why (wonder why) if the night is gone (if the night is long). Is my lover there? (Lullaby) Is my lover there?

SEXSMITH: If you've been a fan as long as I have, you know, there's a trust that's been built up over time. And it becomes this thing where it's like you're getting a phone call from a friend you haven't heard of in a long time, you know? And you're getting his perspective and what he's been up to. Or, you know, it's just this sort of intimate thing that you can't get from anybody else.

BLOCK: Yeah, that's such a great metaphor to think of. I mean, that you're getting this phone call from an old friend. And I'm thinking about sort of the place he is at his life as reflected in these songs. I mean, you learn, I think, a lot about a man toward the end of his life - he's 77 - who's thinking a lot about mortality and at the same time thinking about romance and sex and all - it's all sort of wrapped into one.

SEXSMITH: The thing with Leonard, he doesn't - you know, obviously, he's not singing about frivolous things. He never has, you know? It's just great to have someone like him, you know, in this world that is very focused on the juvenile sort of things, to have someone that's writing from that place, you know, of - what's that line in "The Darkness," you know, I have no future, the present is not so pleasant and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: You're not going to get that from Justin Bieber, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DARKNESS")

COHEN: (Singing) I've got no future. I know my days are few. My little present's not that pleasant. Just a lot of things to do. I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got there too.

SEXSMITH: He's always very conversational too. You know, obviously, he's a poet, but it's - you never get the sort of condescending thing or a high-brow feeling. It's very simple language. The words that he uses, they penetrate because they're very simple, and you never have to scratch your head and wonder what he's singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DARKNESS")

COHEN: (Singing) I don't smoke no cigarette. I don't drink no alcohol. I ain't had much loving yet. But that's always been your call. Hey, I don't miss it, baby. I got no taste for anything at all.

BLOCK: Do you think, with Leonard Cohen, that people either sort of get him or they don't? There's really maybe no middle ground. People either love that voice or they just don't get it. They say this guy isn't even singing. He's just sort of chanting.

SEXSMITH: Yeah, I mean, I think 'cause some people can't get past the singing. I've always loved his voice. And some people will never comprehend it because it is such an intimate thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING HOME")

COHEN: (Singing) I love to speak with Leonard. He's a sportsman and a shepherd. He's a lazy bastard living in a suit.

BLOCK: That's Leonard Cohen from his new album "Old Ideas." We heard from singers Ron Sexsmith and, before him, Conor Oberst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING HOME")

COHEN: (Singing) He just doesn't have the freedom to refuse.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.