- 07 Nov 17
One year on from his death, we look back on Leonard Cohen's life and the Hot Press interviews with those who knew him best.
Having crossed the Atlantic in their teens, a succession of happy accidents resulted in Hattie & Charley joining Leonard's band.
“He said, ‘My two cents worth: More harmonies, more harmonies, more harmonies! They lift from extremely satisfying to sublime. The album will be cherished by the lovers of beauty, but I want it to seduce millions. That part was clearly mapped out by The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Forgive my impertinence, love, Leonard’.”
Hattie Webb is reading me the reply Leonard Cohen sent her just three weeks ago after she’d We Transferred some of the songs from her upcoming solo album over to LA for her “friend and teacher” to hear.
“Even his emails are poems!” she smiles to the nodding agreement of her elder sibling, Charley.
Natives of Sevenoaks in Kent where yours truly also happened to grow up, The Webb Sisters were chosen to join Leonard Cohen’s live band in 2008, when he embarked on his first tour in well over a decade. Clocking up 247 shows in two years, they were privy to seeing the legendary Montreal-er at work, rest and play.
“His politeness and grace with people is other worldly now,” Charley takes-over. “I think we miss that in today’s society, although you wouldn’t want to turn the clock back wholesale to when he was growing up, because so many people in the 1930s/’40s/’50s were subjugated. Leonard encapsulates the best of both eras. He defended humanity. If there was somebody who appeared to be suffering an injustice he would delicately readjust the balance with a gentlemanly firm hand, and people would listen. That’s why we had, at times, groups of 60 people on the road who felt it was the best working environment of their careers.
“Leonard felt that everybody’s cog in the machine was as valuable as his. So, with that grace, he’d go about the day making everybody feel important, but in the most gentle, discreet way. I adored his humour and unexpected jokes and his love of chocolate and chicken soup, and how when you went to his modest, but extremely beautiful apartment, he’d carefully prepare a smoothie or a few vitamins or a hot drink and make sure you were warm and looked after.”
It speaks volumes about the Webb Sisters’ own grace that they’re able to speak so eloquently and lovingly about Leonard less than a week after his death. Asked how they swapped life in a humdrum London commuter town for the glitz ‘n’ glamour of LA, Hattie explains, “Our first time in the States was as teenagers when we went to Nashville to record with this producer, Johnny Pierce, who’d been recommended to us by a friend. We had some extraordinary adventures road tripping round the southern states with Johnny before we got a deal with Universal in LA.
“We wanted to collaborate with different people, so they put us in touch with Sharon Robinson and we wrote three songs together for a children’s record that ended up not coming out. On the plus side, we got to sing harmony on the songs with her and felt a very natural connection. A year later, she messaged us saying, ‘Leonard’s looking for people to join the band. I recommended you, can you pop down to the rehearsal room?’
“The first time we went Leonard wasn’t there, so we played three songs on our own and did two with the band,” Charley recalls. “We went back two days later and sang to Leonard who sat on the sofa with his eyes closed as we played. Then he got us to do ‘Dance Me To The End’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Closing Time’. Sharon, who’d lost her voice, said, ‘You sing this part’, and ‘You sing that part’ and it went really well. I think he was a little resistant at first to having three musicians who were also going to sing in a ten-piece band, but we won him over. Or Sharon did; Leonard really respected her opinion.”
“The week before going to that rehearsal I was walking along Venice Beach with my boyfriend, heard a busker singing ‘Hallelujah’ and had a massive conversation about Leonard and Jeff Buckley,” Hattie adds. “A few days later we took the wrong bus and got off at Wilcox and Sunset, which is an area I’d never been to before. Where did the rehearsal end up taking place? In a building on that exact same crossroads! Two really weird coincidences.”
“Also,” chips in Charley, “just beforehand we received a ‘thank you’ from Judy Collins, because six months previously we’d recorded ‘Fortunes Of Soldiers’ for the Born To The Breed tribute album. She sent us some cards, one of which was the cover of the Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy record she’d done, so it was an unusual combination of accidents flagging up what was soon to come.”
THE GREATER SEX
There were nerves aplenty when the tour that later swung by Kilmainham kicked off on May 11, 2008 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
“It was quite nerve-wracking,” Hattie confirms. “When Leonard went out there his hands were shaking.”
“We were all standing in a line to go on stage in this tiny theatre in Canada, which was rammed to the rafters with clearly diehard Leonard fans,” Charley elaborates “Sharon, Hattie and me walked on with him and, yeah, his hands behind his back were shaking. He talked briefly about it being, ‘A few year’s friends’ and the place just exploded. I was completely taken aback because I’d never experienced that sort of physical reaction before. I had to compose myself to sing ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’. Walking on stage and having thousands of people immediately convulse with emotion – that feeling didn’t go away, I just learned to manage it.”
Suzanne Vega makes the point that no matter how many crazy turns the world takes, Leonard Cohen songs remain relevant in a way that he perhaps mightn’t have envisaged starting out in the 1960s.
“Even if it wasn’t new material, it would have a freshness,” Charley nods again. “There were many songs he would rework and then re-evaluate. He wrote 50 verses for ‘Hallelujah’ and then distilled them to what they are now. Leonard was always scratching away in a notebook with that impeccable handwriting of his. If you asked him what he was working on, he’d give only a little detail away. It seemed to be a private process, and I respected that. Sometimes he’d reveal that the new song he’d brought to rehearsal was derived from an old idea. Often, they’d change shape as we worked on them. You could still hear the essence, but it was a totally different presentation of the song. It was very exhilarating to be part of that evolutionary process.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to about Leonard has remarked on the fact that he was very comfortable in the company of women.
“You can hear that in his songs,” Hattie resumes. “There’s a space every couple of moments where he feels there was a female perspective to be offered. In real life he looks for the female perspective. I also saw him at ease with men, so I don’t feel it was particularly a feminine connection.”
“We were talking about politics and business and how there’s an imbalance within positions of power, and Leonard said something along the lines of, ‘Women are the greater sex’,” Charley notes. “I don’t know if he was just flattering me, but he did seem to think that.”
The Webb Sisters remember their two rainy nights in Lissadell House, in Sligo, with the same affection as Sharon Robinson, and Leonard himself whose Cheshire Cat smile when he came back on for the encore is indelibly stamped on my mind.
“Having that connection to Yeats and the audience, of course, meant the world to him,” Hattie says. “Afterwards, there was a gathering in the house, which was gorgeous. It was also the day the agent, Rob Hallett, elbowed me in the head and told me off for walking into his arm! I was lucky that I didn’t have to go on with a black eye.”
“I think we ought to stress that it was entirely accidental!” Charley chuckles.
Like the rest of us, the Webbs got to listen to You Want It Darker for the first time on the morning of its October 21 release.
“Yeah, I heard it as a fan and was very interested in Len’s voice being presented in a slightly different fashion,” Charley concludes. “A lot of people are talking about it being ‘a last will and testament’, but there was always spiritual commentary in his songs. Perhaps on longer listening, I’ll reflect on it in a different way. We’re feeling very sad, but at the same time happy that we got to know and spend time with such a wonderful man.”