Leonard Cohen is our leading poet of love, wisdom, and sorrow – and according to the lyrics of Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea," the guiding spirit in Kurt Cobain's afterworld. We sat down with the singer-songwriter on the occasion of his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, in a formal dining room at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles (he primarily lives in L.A. and mostly recorded the album in his home studio, but he hails from Montreal). He discussed producer Patrick Leonard ("It was an unusually fraternal collaboration"), his fedora ("I've got about 20 of these") and the aging process ("My high jump is definitely degraded"). Cohen turns 80 on Sunday, and Popular Problems will be released two days after that.
When you finish something like this record, are you proud of it?
It's the done-ness of it that I really like. It nourishes me. Some guys don't know how to open a door.
What are the pros and cons of working at home?
I don't know if there are any cons. It's very nice to go into your backyard and climb up into your studio. We had some good mics there, and both Pat and I had our keyboards, so we were able to flesh out these songs.
Patrick said that part of the process of working together was stripping out any excesses or fripperies.
Yes, both in the music and in the lyric. We were both, I think, quite compassionately savage about our vision. Pat, because he has such an abundance of musical ideas, he'll sometimes overproduce. But he's quite aware of that. So sometimes we'll just say we don't need a chorus here, we don't need horns here, you know, we need to break it down here. And same with the lyric: If something's obscure or just on the wrong side of accessible, then Pat will mention that and I'll happily redirect.
How do you know when a song's working?
You can pretty well tell. We play it for select people, like my daughter – there's a few people who aren't afraid to tell you that it isn't working. We had another song on the album, which was called "Happens to the Heart," which will be on the next album. It's a very good lyric, a very good tune, but we didn't nail it. So we didn't put each other on about it – not for more than a week or two. "You know, this song really doesn't make it." "Thank God you said that, Pat, because I can't stand it."
Has your approach to making music changed over the decades?
I never had an approach. I was always like a bear in a honey tree, just trying to get something without getting stung to death.
Is financial necessity good or bad for art?
I think it levels the ground. I never had huge amounts of money when I was young. I had huge amounts of fame, and I always had the sense of labor and recompense. I always said I don't want to work for pay, but I want to get paid for my song. Financial necessity of course arose in a very acute manner a few years ago. [His then-manager stole over $5 million from his retirement account.] I thought I had a little bread, enough to get by. I found I didn't – for which I'm very grateful because it spurred a lot of activity.
I was curious about a lyric on "Nevermind," "There's truth that lives and there's truth that dies."
"There's truth that lives and truth that dies. I don't know which, so never mind. There is no need that this survive, there's truth that lives and truth that dies." It's one of those phrases that resonates in some corner of the heart. And I don't think it serves us well to explain it or to analyze it or to interpret it. It sounded right to me. There are certain truths that are in a dormant stage that you can't always locate or be nourished by. But they're there.
When you're writing a song, are you aware that you're tapping into something that you may not have a conscious handle on?
Well, I think that sometimes when you're in ninth gear, or when you're really skiing down the slope – you're right on top of the snow, you don't want to go any deeper. As someone said, you learn to stop bravely at the surface. If you hear something that really resonates, you just fold your hands in gratitude and try to incorporate it into the song. Sometimes those obscurities are just bullshit and they have to be excised; they have to be ruthlessly removed even if they sound good. Because they produce a disconnect in the song that every listener feels unconsciously. If you feel somebody's trying to put you on, you really feel it.
Do you write much poetry that isn't suitable for lyrics?
Oh, yeah. And sometimes I think, "What the hell am I doing? It doesn't mean anything, it's deeply irrelevant. Not just to everybody else but to myself." But what else are you going to do? Everything else has gone away. Most of the things that I've liked to do, for one reason or another, it's often inappropriate to do them.
At age 80, are there things you can't do that you used to be able to?
There's a lot of things that you can do that you couldn't do when you were younger. You depend on a certain resilience that is not yours to command, but which is present. And if you can sense this resilience or sense this capacity to continue, it means a lot more at this age than it did when I was 30, when I took it for granted.
What are you good at that has nothing to do with music?
I can make a couple of good sandwiches: tuna salad and chopped egg salad. And Greek bean soup. I was a cook for my old Zen master for many years. So there were two or three dishes that he liked, you know. Teriyaki salmon, a few things. I wouldn't call myself a good cook by any means. My son is a very good cook. My curries are not bad.
Do you write songs faster or slower than you used to?
There's always a group of songs that I'm working at. Some of them are 10 years old, and some of them are just a few weeks old. I'm always trying to adjust these songs to some position where I can bring them to completion. There's a few songs that I would like to finish before I die. One in particular, it's a lovely melody that I can't find any words for. I've been trying for a good 15 years. I've tried many, many versions. And God willing, maybe something will happen.
After you're gone, what would you want people to remember about you?
I never give that much thought. Some people care about their work lasting forever – I have little interest in it. You probably know that great story about Bob Hope. His wife came to him and said, "There's two plots available at Forest Lawn. One looks at some beautiful cypress trees, one looks over the valley. Which do you think you'd prefer?" He said, "Surprise me." That's the way I feel about posterity and how I'm remembered. Surprise me.