- Film & TV
- 24 Sep 19
As the Marriane & Leonard: Words Of Love film hits Irish screens, the acclaimed Webb Sisters reflect on their life-changing six-year journey with Leonard Cohen, touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and storming PledgeMusic’s head office.
“Leonard could communicate the human condition, in a way that releases you from the strain and distress of being alive,” Hattie Webb muses over her cup of tea. “He could shine a light on what it means to be human. People really felt seen within his music.”
Eight years before his death rocked the world, dwindling finances ended Leonard Cohen’s 15-year hiatus from life on the road. Aged 74, he embarked on a major international tour, with a star-studded band that included an immensely talented young folk duo from Sevenoaks, Kent – devoutly introduced by Cohen each night as “the sublime Webb Sisters.” What initially began as a 12-month stint for the girls, soon became a life-changing, worldwide adventure spanning six years.
The pair landed in Ireland recently for a special tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter, organised by author John MacKenna with the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University.
“We had been living in California before the tour,” Charley Webb recalls. “It was quite a bohemian life, in a big house by the beach with loads of other musicians. We were busy working with a big label there, and we were starting work on our own record. Being asked to join the tour really came out of the blue.”
Before heading out on the road in 2008, the sisters joined Cohen and the band for an intense few months of rehearsals in Hollywood.
“We’d get together six days a week,” Hattie notes. “Sometimes we’d only play one song for the whole rehearsal, again and again. We’d fall into a different sphere. You’d go through this whole process, thinking, ‘Oh, this is nice… Wow, this is tiring… Okay, this is really uncomfortable… Now I’ve forgotten who I am.’”
“It reminded me of a Kundalini yoga session, where you’re in the same pose for a really long time,” Charley laughs. “It’s painful in the middle, but you come out the end feeling opened. We did that with every song.”
From the rehearsals through to their 400 shows together, Cohen took the Webb Sisters under his wing as protégées, and a close bond formed between the artists.
“He was hilarious, and kind, too,” Hattie says. “He really did care about the people he worked with. In his mind there wasn’t an obvious hierarchy, and that was really refreshing to be around. We were all part of one manual machine.”
Cohen’s comeback tour famously included performances at IMMA, earning the Canadian maestro a Meteor Ireland Music Award for Best International Live Performance, as well as a special place in Dublin folklore.
“It was so much fun, even in the rain,” Charley beams. “My favourite moment was seeing the security guards get trounced out of the way by people. It was like the parting of the Red Sea – the crowd would move out of the way, and let people gallop up and down.”
Another trip to Dublin brought Cohen and the Webb Sisters to the O2. An encounter with Damien Rice, however, almost led to disaster.
“Everyone in the band was usually a hermit before a gig,” Charley recalls, “but Damien convinced us to go out for a spin on his boat in the morning. It was fantastic, but we arrived back on the dock, ready to head back to soundcheck – and we couldn’t get a taxi.
“I still have PTSD from it,” she laughs. “We were running up and down the road trying to flag down cars. I was having an anxiety attack, sweating and crying. No one was ever late in the band – if you were on time, you were late. We got there in the end, but the band had already been soundchecking for half-an-hour. Of course, Leonard was gracious, as always.”
Charley and Hattie’s instinctive sisterly connection comes across in their harmonies - but it also saved them on another hairy moment on tour.
“We were singing ‘Come Healing’ with Leonard,” Hattie explains. “It had never happened before, but I just had this feeling that Charley was going to sing the second verse first. So we went to the mic, and without even looking at her, we both started singing the wrong verse together. Leonard had to flip it around and sing our verse afterwards.”
“This man was doing a four-hour show, and he didn’t have a teleprompter,” Charley says, still visibly in awe. “I mean, absolutely everyone has a teleprompter on a large tour. His music is so lyrically dense, and so complicated. There are 15 verses for ‘Hallelujah’, and the verses he’d pick for us to do weren’t necessarily the verses on the record. He was a genius.”
The sisters reveal that they can also claim a little credit for Glen Hansard’s famed partnership with Cohen’s Spanish guitarist, Javier Más.
“We already loved Glen’s music,” Charley says, “and one day backstage, Javi told us, ‘An Irishman has asked me to play some music with him. I don’t know him and I don’t know the music’. Then he told us it was Glen, and we said he had to do it. We went out and bought some of Glen’s records and gave them to Javi – so I think that convinced him.”
Having gained an international reputation for their otherworldly vocal harmonies, the sisters were later enlisted to join another of the great modern songwriters, Tom Petty, on the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour. They played their final gig with Petty just days before his accidental overdose in October 2017.
“It was a wild ride, and very different from working with Leonard,” Charley recalls. “They were special, moving times in our lives. And then at the end, there was another terrible, horrifying loss.”
“During rehearsals we were aware that he was suffering with his hip, but no one could have known that those were going to be his last shows. He had so many more plans to share his music. Leonard had the sense within himself that there was an ending coming, but with Tom it really was unfinished business. That changed the grief.”
In more recent years, Hattie has found success as a solo singer-songwriter and harpist. She’s also one of hundreds of musicians owed thousands of pounds after the collapse of the crowdfunding music company PledgeMusic this year. Hattie, who had used PledgeMusic to raise the funds for her first solo album, To The Bone, stormed the company’s central office in Soho, London, to demand answers.
“It was bonkers,” she sighs. “They were publicised as having this grassroots environment, but when I went into the office it was exactly the same as being in any major label’s head office. I’d been sucked in and taken for a ride.
“Ultimately, business isn’t a straight line, but communication is key,” Hattie reasons. “When you’ve been in financial distress, and haven’t paid people for a year, having a beautiful office in Soho, that must have cost 20 grand a month, is clearly not a sensible decision.”
While Hattie has a new album in the works, the Webb Sisters haven’t forgotten their unique musical bond.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to work on some new material together soon,” Hattie says. “We’d love to do a tour of Ireland, too. This place will always be a spiritual home for us.”
• The Marriane & Leonard: Words Of Love documentary is on selective Irish release now. For more information, visit marianneandleonardwordsoflove.com.
- Film & TV
- 01 Jun 23