“One of the downsides of growing old is that you have to surrender your vices one by one,” says Leonard Cohen. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t court women. So I have a lot of free time.” Fortunately, Cohen has spent some of that time making his 13th studio album, Popular Problems–which came out on September 23rd, two days after his 80th birthday. “I keep scratching away, blackening pages,” Cohen says wryly. “Writing is my friend.”
Cohen is sitting in a dining room in the Canadian Consulate of Los Angeles; he has a fedora, a maroon necktie, and a sparkle in his eye. He lives not far from here, in the nondescript mid-Wilshire neighborhood, next to his children and grandchildren, on what he likens to a Norman Rockwell street. “This is a tough company town,” he notes. “Fortunately, I’m not in that world, so I just enjoy the climate.”
A decade ago, Cohen says, he was “sliding into a peaceful retirement” when he discovered that his then-manager had removed over $5 million from his retirement fund, cleaning it out: “So I did the only thing I know how to do, which is sing songs and wash dishes. Well, there’s no money in dishes.”
So Cohen embarked on a worldwide tour, often playing three-hour shows that left audiences stunned. In 2012, he released his first album in eight years: the excellent Old Ideas, on which he collaborated with Patrick Leonard, best known for coproducing many of Madonna’s biggest records. Cohen liked the experience so much that he decided to cowrite Popular Problems with Leonard, who also served as the album’s sole producer.
From January to July of this year, Leonard would visit Cohen at his house, where they would write songs together (which usually meant the producer adding music to Cohen’s lyrics), and then record the tunes in Cohen’s home studio. The album, spare and hypnotic, feels like a series of poetic telegrams from the edge of the world. “When we started working on this music,” the producer says, “Leonard talked about removing anything extraneous, like a guitar fill or a cymbal crash. Those aren’t the song, they’re just something someone is doing. Now when I listen to music, I hear most of it as annoying filler.”
The first single, “Almost Like the Blues,” came after the songwriting was supposedly finished. Cohen stumbled on an old skeleton lyric, and then spent 48 hours revising it, finishing it at 5 in the morning. “I’m often not pleased at the end of the thing,” Cohen says, “but this one I was pleased with.”
Cohen sent the lyrics to the poetry editor of The New Yorker (which printed them in September) and to Leonard, who responded with what the producer calls an “overblown” backing track. When Cohen rejected it, Leonard composed a bluesy keyboard piece in minutes. After two hours and a couple of vocal takes, they had a finished track.
Now, Cohen says he wants to get on the road, though he has yet to announce a tour. “I like touring. I like the ordeal,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll continue doing three-and-a-half-hour concerts, but with the musicians that I have in my band, it doesn’t get boring.”
Cohen’s new album comes at a time when he is more beloved than ever – in the past few years he has been honored by everyone from PEN New England to the Grammys, which gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Author Alan Light devoted an entire book to Cohen’s 1984 anthem “Hallelujah” – one of the most covered songs ever – and Miley Cyrus just announced on Instagram that she plans to cover the title track to 1988’s I’m Your Man. “I know my songs are not that important,” Cohen says, “but I feel they are available for reinterpretation. I never get jaded about that. When somebody like Miley Cyrus or [Michael] Bublé covers that song, I look forward to it. I’m so delighted when anybody covers a song, my critical faculties go into suspension.”
Resting his hands on a white tablecloth, the singer is modest, gracious and funny. Cohen on whether he sings around the house: “More like complaining.” On his own husky voice: “Gettin’ used to it.” On what he wants people to know about him: “The less, the better.”
Asked to consider his 80th birthday, he laughs. “I don’t think you can ignore the heap of years it represents, but it’s nothing to dwell on either. We have work to do, and we’re very privileged if we can do our work. At 80, you’re aware that it can stop at any moment. You can’t fool yourself about that. But until it stops, God willing, I’ll be able to scratch out a few more tunes.”
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Leonard Cohen Can’t Slow Down” in Rolling Stone (circa October 2014).