Leonard Cohen has yet to conquer the struggle of songwriting, and he doesn't expect to anytime soon. "If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often," he said last night, receiving laughs at a private preview of his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles. "Being a songwriter is like being a nun: You're married to a mystery. It's not a particularly generous mystery, but other people have that experience with matrimony anyway."
Elegantly dressed in a black suit, with a fedora resting on his knee, Cohen sat with Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli to discuss the new nine-song collection, out September 23rd, days after his 80th birthday. The song he struggled with the longest, he said, was "Born in Chains," an understated gospel meditation that he's worked on for decades.
"That's been kicking around for 40 years," he said with a smile. "I've rewritten the lyric many times to accommodate the changes in my theological position, which is very insecure."
He also pointed to the closing verse of another track, "A Street," which he wrote in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but only now decided it was ready for release: "The party's over/but I've landed on my feet/I'll be standing on this corner/where there used to be a street."
"A lot of young writers ask me for advice – mistakenly, because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated," he explained. "The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression."
By contrast, the songs "You Got Me Singing" and "Did I Ever Love You" were written "very quickly," he said. His collaborator on the album was producer and songwriter Patrick Leonard, known for his work with Madonna and Elton John.
"Some of them came together with shockingly alarming speed," said Cohen, who recorded many of the songs at his home studio. "Usually, I take a long, long time – partly because of an addiction to perfection, partly just sheer laziness."
As for the album itself, songs like the smoky "Almost Like the Blues" (already released to fans who pre-ordered the album) travel through heartache and human failings with an equally light touch. Cohen's vocals subtly stretch from a growl to a whisper, making the most mournful moments somehow hopeful. On "Did I Ever Love You," he begins in the voice of a tortured romantic before the track slips toward country beat and a rousing female chorus. "Nevermind," meanwhile, includes a sample of a woman singing an Arabic greeting of peace.
Cohen and Leonard say they have "half of another record finished," and the former will soon decide whether he wants to tour. Either way, he knows how he would spend some of his time on the road: continuing his attempt to finally finish "Born in Chains."
"I'll have another shot or two at it when I go on the road – if I go on the road," he said. "The road is beckoning. I know if I run that song down in concert two-or-three-hundred times, I'm going to get it."