Sharon Robinson Reflects on Touring With Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen worked with a lot of gifted collaborators during his five-decade career, but none shared a bond with the late artist that could match Sharon Robinson’s. She first toured with him as a backup singer in 1979 and soon became his songwriting partner of choice, sharing credit on classics like “Everybody Knows” and “Waiting for the Miracle” in addition to every single track on 2001’s Ten New Songs.
About 10 years ago, he turned to her when his dwindling finances forced him back onto the road at age 74 for a tour that ultimately stretched across five incredible years. It began in tiny Canadian theaters, but soon hit enormous arenas all over the world as the overwhelming buzz forced them to add leg after leg. We spoke to Robinson earlier this year when Rolling Stone named the tour one of the 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 years. Here is our complete conversation with her about the Grand Tour of 2008 to 2013.
Before Leonard reached out to you about the tour, were you under the impression that he’d never perform live again?
Yeah. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t expecting to be touring again. But in 2007, we were working on some material that wound up on Old Ideas. He came over to me one day and said, “Sharon, I think I’m going to have to go on tour. My bank accounts are empty. I went to the ATM and I couldn’t get any money out.” That came as a real surprise, not something he was prepared for or expecting.
How did things go from there? It must have been a lot of work to get the ball rolling on that.
He started to work with his musical director Roscoe Beck and they began putting a band together. I wasn’t initially involved because Leonard hadn’t really decided what he wanted to do about singers. And then one day, he and Roscoe called me to come in and just sing with some other singers. They were trying to feel their way and figure out what they were doing. So, I came in a few times and worked with some other people and nothing was really gelling. I had worked with the Webb Sisters on some other stuff and I recommended them. That worked out really well.
As rehearsals wound up and you prepped for opening night, did you feel you guys had created something special?
We did. In rehearsals, we were getting to some really beautiful moments with the music and it seemed to be a cast that was really working well together. But we didn’t know what was going to happen in terms of an audience. Leonard was very unsure of whether he still had an audience at this point.
Right. This is a guy that never had anything resembling a radio hit. He was really far off the cultural radar in 2008.
Obviously, it did work out well and the audiences just grew and grew. But he wasn’t a pop star by any stretch of the imagination. That was the irony of the whole thing. Eventually we were doing arenas. We did some stadiums. Leonard was attracting a very wide audience, and that was unheard of for a non-radio pop star.
I remember seeing him at the Hall of Fame earlier in 2008 and he looked very frail. I was worried a tour would be too much for him, but when he walked onstage he was just pulsating with energy. Did you feel that transformation?
I did. I was surprised once we started by the showmanship aspect of it. And I don’t mean that in a shallow way. He was sincerely committed to putting on the best possible show, and he believed in the physical part of it as well. He believed in the most committed delivery of a song that he could do. I mean, the fact that he was older and starting to look kind of frail, that became part of the story. It certainly was for me standing a few feet away from him at every show. It was amazed as well.
So many parts of the show just left me stunned. He’d wear a suit for three-and-a-half hours and appear not to even sweat. He’d drop to his knees over and over, and then skip offstage before the encores with a huge grin on his face.
[Laughs] Every time he’d skip past myself and the Webb Sisters, we would sort look at each other and chuckle because it was highly entertaining, even for us.
Did it stun you that they kept booking it into bigger and bigger places?
Yeah, it was fascinating that it kept going. I mean, at the end of every leg of the tour we thought, “OK, this has got to be it. This is it, right?” And they were like, “We’re going to Australia!” or “We’re going to Canada!” or wherever. It just kept going to a degree that surprised everyone. But then again, after a while we stopped being surprised because we felt the effect it was having on the audience. People just loved it.
There were obviously breaks, but for the greater part of five years you lived out of a suitcase. Did you ever think to yourself, “God, I just want to go home?”
Those moments definitely did happen. The lifestyle is, as you said, extremely exhausting. There are times where you’re in some amazing city and you can’t leave your hotel room because you have to save up your energy for the show since you traveled the day before. It’s a very exhausting lifestyle. There were times near the end of the tour where I’d find myself walking into a hotel room thinking, “I wish I was home.”
How did Leonard find the energy to travel like that?
Well, Leonard was really good at conserving his strength, blocking out distractions and prioritizing his energy for the things he wanted to do, such as the show or writing. He lived an almost monastic lifestyle when he wasn’t living as a monk. He kept things really simple. He kept his interactions with people to a minimum.
The team there was obviously very good at protecting him. He didn’t do interviews, meet and greets or anything that would drain his energy.
Exactly. He wouldn’t see people when we were on tour. Occasionally, we were really surprised when on some random night he would stay after a show and visit with people. But for the most part he didn’t do that. He was right off the stage and right into a car and straight to the hotel.
The shows just seemed to get longer and longer. I saw one in Detroit near the end that was nearly four hours.
Yeah. That was a little strange. None of us could quite understand why the show was that long. I mean, there was a lot of material and certainly his committed fans wanted to hear all of those songs. So, I suppose that was the reason. But I think there were times where we could have cut it a lot shorter.
My favorite element of it might have been his singing voice. Many people develop a weaker voice as they age, but the wear and tear on his just made it more distinctive and powerful, even if he lost some range.
Yeah. When we were making Ten New Songs, which was the first new album after he came back from the monastery, he would say to me, “I’ve got three notes. You’ve gotta write the melodies very minimally.” And he also started singing in a very low register around that time. So, gradually, over the years he started discovering this very textured and very present part of his voice that I don’t think he was using earlier in his career. And people loved it. They found it haunting and compelling. It sounded like he was whispering in your ear on the record. That was a great thing. I think he was very aware of that and wanted to keep using it.
“He started discovering this very textured and very present part of his voice that I don’t think he was using earlier in his career.”
The tour began because he was broke, but surely after a year or two he surely made back all his money and then some. What motivated him to keep it going so long?
He never exactly told me, at least not in so many words, but I felt he was feeling a lot of fulfillment from it. He had struggled a lot early on in his career to get the sort of attention he deserved and now he was getting it in a live format. Also, touring is very mentally and physically demanding, but I think he enjoyed that sort of challenge. It reminded him of the monastery. It was almost a type of meditation. You had to be at a certain place at a certain time and you had to really take care of yourself and keep your eye on the ball. I think he liked that part of it. A lot of times you’re running on fumes, but you’ve got to get it together for the show. Leonard would often sit on the plane or the bus silently. He would close his eyes, but he wasn’t sleeping. He’d just be mediating. You could tell he was just conserving energy.
It’s a real lesson that virtue and hard work are sometimes actually rewarded. Here was a guy with no hits selling out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. In 2006, that idea would have seemed absurd. The whole thing was almost a miracle.
Well, Leonard was a completely unique person. There’s never been anyone like him. He was the most unique person I’ve ever known, by far. It doesn’t surprise me that he was able to pull this off. I mean, having worked closely with him in the studio, just knowing how he never gave up until he found the right words or the right melody. He used that same kind of precision in putting together the show. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Do you recall much of the final show in New Zealand?
I just recall being onstage and thinking, “OK, this is the last show.” I couldn’t process it. Just like right now, I can’t process that Leonard is no longer with us. It’s just too much. It’s too big. I remember feeling silly the last show was in New Zealand. How do you say goodbye to all these people that you’ve become family with? How do you process this incredible experience or somehow preserve or document it? People tried with those DVDs. I did a photo book of the tour, but they aren’t the same.
So you knew that night in New Zealand it was the last one?
We knew, but we almost didn’t believe it since we were told numerous times before it would be the last one and then he’d book another tour. We weren’t 100 percent sure it was the last one, but we were fairly certain.
It’s a shame you never got to see a show from the audience.
That’s true. I often would try to sort of transport myself to the audience to imagine what it looked like or what it felt like. Sometimes during soundcheck where they’d be testing lights and I wasn’t required onstage during a certain number, I’d go into the audience and check it out. People referred to the show as a religious experience and all sorts of other intense compliments we would get. I think Leonard earned it.
He worked with so few co-writers during his career. What an amazing honor he kept using you.
Believe me, I understand how special that is. When I was in the midst of working on a song with him I’d sometimes feel nervous, but I’d never show it. I’d think to myself, “Well, if I’m good enough for him then I have to be good enough for myself and I have to believe that I’m up to the job.”
You were at that final press event with him just a few weeks before he passed away, right?
Yeah. I was surprised he was there. I think everyone was. I had seen him a little before that, in August [of 2016], at his house. He played [You Want It Darker] for me and was in a surprisingly good mood. He seemed to be in good spirits towards the end. It was as if he was still in a sort of teaching mode even as he’s facing the ultimate … it’s as if he was trying to make everyone else feel OK with what was happening to him.
I guess one blessing was that even though his body was failing, his mind was sharp as a tack until the end. He never had to endure that indignity.
Exactly. Yes, he was there 100 percent mentally the entire time. I remember that Bob Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize and he mentioned to me that he thought it was wonderful. He had a lot of respect and high regards for Dylan, and it was so sweet the way he brought it up.
Has there been any talk of getting the band back together for a tribute show of some sort?
There have been rumblings, yes. I don’t know when or if that’s going to take place, but it is being discussed.
That would be great. I saw David Bowie’s Reality band do a tribute show earlier this year. It was really cathartic.
Oh, yeah. The thinking is that we’re waiting to give it enough time, an appropriate, legit amount of time, and then maybe later this year or early next year something like that may happen.
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