Exclusive Q&A: Leonard Cohen on New Tour, 'Old Ideas'

'Touring is like taking the first step on a walk to China'

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leonard cohen
Leonard Cohen in Paris. (Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

This week Leonard Cohen releases Old Ideas, his first album of original material in eight years. The 77-year-old songwriter has hardly been inactive during that time, though. In 2008 he launched a world tour that just seemed to keep going and going, eventually ending in Las Vegas in December of 2010 after an astounding 247 shows. Cohen played to the largest audiences of his career during the tour. When it wrapped, he began work on Old Ideas with producer Patrick Leonard. 

Rolling Stone sat down with Cohen backstage at Joe's Pub in New York last week after he previewed the new album for the media. Among many other things, he told us that another tour is "being booked" and shared his surprising picks for his favorite covers of "Hallelujah."

Tell me what your expectations were prior to the last tour, and how they changed as the tour went on.
I never thought I'd tour again, although I did have dreams. Sometimes my dreams would entail me being up on stage and not remembering the words or the chords. It had a nightmarish quality, which did not invite me to pursue the enterprise.

How did it feel when you actually did it?
I was very grateful for the warmth of the audience, the competence of the musicians, and the coherence of the group.

I think people were surprised that you did three hours a night.
Minimum three hours.

You did about 250 shows. Did you feel drained by the end?
There's a certain fatigue I guess you could locate, but as you probably know, when the response is warm and tangible, one is invigorated rather than depleted.

You began playing new material as the tour went on. Did you write those songs on the road?
I wrote "Darkness" on the road. I wrote "Feels So Good" on the road, although we haven't recorded it. But I did play it. I wrote "My Oh My" and I rehearsed some other songs on the road – new songs that didn't make it onto the record. So I have a new record [after this one], at least two-thirds of it, anyway. 

Was it always your game plan to record a new album when the tour wrapped up?
Well, I really didn't have a game plan. I kind of surprised myself. But the inertia of the tour kept a number of us active. It isn't so easy just to stop once you've been involved in that degree of activity, so we just kept going.

During the late Nineties and early 2000s a lot of people assumed that you had just retired.
I never thought so myself. Certainly the public aspect of my life was dormant, but I never stopped working myself. I never had a sense of personal retirement. I kept blackening pages and playing my keyboard. It's just that I never thought I had to take it anywhere.

You said that this new album came to you very quickly. What do you attribute that to?
If I knew what the formula was, I'd apply it more regularly.

How long did it take you to record the whole thing?
Well, we came off the tour and we didn't do very much for a little while. Then I bumped into Pat Leonard. I was listening to my son's record, which I thought was very beautiful, and Pat had done some lovely work on that, especially some string parts that he'd written. And I thought I'd ask him to do some string parts on some other songs of mine. That didn't work out, but we started to write together, and then it went kind of swiftly.

We recorded it in my backyard. I have a little studio over my garage – Pro Tools – and Ed Sanders, who is my engineer, he has a lovely little studio. So we were in very small studios, with Pro Tools. But we ran it rough analog, which is where you get warm sound. It didn't take much more than a year to record, working off and on.

Your touring band plays on it?
They're playing on one track, but mostly it's just Pat and I. I'm playing guitar by myself on "Crazy to Love You." I'm playing all the parts on "Amen," except for Sharon Robinson playing a synth bass and live strings, and I'm playing the synth on "Different Sides" with Neil Larsen playing on top of it. So I played a lot myself, and Pat played a lot himself.

Do you want to tour again soon?
A tour is being booked.  Whether I'm going to show up . . . I haven't signed on for it yet, but it's certainly in the air.

Do you want to do it?
I have two minds. I don't like to do a small tour, so whether I'm going to sign up for for another couple of years . . . is that really where I want to be? Maybe it is.

But you think it's going to happen?
Looks like it's going to happen.

I know that you toured last time partially because of your financial situation. The tour must have taken care of that, so what would drive you to tour again?
I was able to restore my tiny fortune within a year or so, but I kept on touring. It wasn't exclusively that unique situation. Touring is like taking the first step on a walk to China. It's a serious commitment, so there are a lot of factors to be examined.

I've heard "Hallelujah" covered by so many singers over the years. Do you have a  favorite?
There's so many fine covers of it. It's all over YouTube, so people will send me their 11-year-old daughter singing it. That's always very charming. And there are great versions of it by k.d. lang. Bon Jovi has a great version of it.

I've always like John Cale's version of it.
John Cale's is terrific.

Why name the album Old Ideas? What does that mean to you?
It was the old ideas, old – you might even say unresolved – ideas that are wracking around in my brain, and the brain of the culture.