Were you a fan of Leonard before you met him?
Oh, absolutely! My older sister started bringing his albums home and I could not stop listening to them. I had just started playing the guitar and I learned every single song. I fell in love with the lyrics and sang all of Leonard's songs and drove my family crazy.
How did you end up getting the singing gig with him?
Well, I actually met Leonard in 1973, a full year before I toured and recorded with him. I had auditioned for a show based on Leonard's poems and songs called Sisters of Mercy, and because I knew all his songs, I aced the audition and got a role in the show. It was first presented at the Court House Theatre in Niagara On The Lake in Ontario, then moved to an off-Broadway theatre in NYC. When it came time to record New Skin for the Old Ceremony my name came up through a few different people and I got the call.
Do you recall your first meeting with him? What was it like?
As I said, I met him in 1973. I had a mad crush, but I was part of a cast of actors and we all just loved hanging out with him. He was very present during the run of the show in Canada and he was just so lovely and available and endearing.
You went on tour with Leonard in 74 and 75. What were some of the best shows you recall?
In Los Angeles, outside the Troubadour, one of Leonard's fans kept yelling up at the dressing room window, "Leonard, I need to talk to you about death!" Leonard looked down and said, "Friend, can this wait? I have to do a show." And when we were in Germany and the intro to The Partisan started, it just seemed that the whole audience was overtaken by this need to try to atone for their country's very ugly past. They cheered on. They were ALL good shows. Leonard can be quite the showman.
What was Leonard like on tour? Any interesting stories to tell?
He was quite gregarious. One time, when our tour bus broke down on a highway in England in the middle of nowhere, he went outside and stood on his head to get people's attention (this was, of course, before cell phones). Another time, we were really hungry after the show and nothing was open. He broke into the hotel's kitchen and cooked a huge meal for us!
Playing live with Leonard must almost be religious. What is the vibe like on the stage with him?
It certainly can be a religious experience. On stage it was playful when it was appropriate but serious when it had to be. We were all in it together, you know? A real collaborative experience.
When going through songs, how much freedom did he give you on vocals? What was the process like getting a song together and arranged to be performed?
We stayed pretty true to what was on the older recordings, because why mess with perfection? And John Lissauer, the musical director at the time, pretty much knew what he wanted to hear in terms of vocals, but there were times that Erin Dickens (the other singer on tour with me) and I worked some stuff out on our own.
What are your memories of recording the New Skin... album?
Here's a story I've never told about that: August 9, 1974. Nixon had just resigned from the presidency, and I was mugged on the subway on my way to the first recording session. I thought, Wow, Nixon and I are both having a bad day. However, the second I got into the studio, and started singing, I felt great.
Which songs did you enjoy from that album?
Who By Fire, absolutely my favourite, because I had to completely copy Leonard's phrasing. I worked very hard on that. But Take This Longing has to be one of my favourite tracks, because the lyrics are so stunning, and there were two other singers singing harmony besides myself and Erin; Gail Kantor and the legendary Janis Ian and the blend was so beautiful among the four of us.
You've gone on record pointing out Leonard's humour and how he's not this depressing figure. Why do you think people get the wrong idea, because I always pick up on his humour...
Well certainly many of his songs have melancholy and/or an ironic quality (happy songs can be so boring), so I can understand that people must think they mirror his personality. I think Leonard's personality is pretty balanced, like it is in most of us, he just writes so much about the darker side...
What are some of your best memories of working with Leonard?
I will always sound like a fan with a crush when I talk about him. They were all great, seriously. Rehearsing at a studio in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. Being at the Bottom Line in NYC. Leonard jokingly telling people I was underage! Seeing Europe with him. Hanging with the band. I cherish all of it.
What did you learn from working with him?
When you show up, be there 100%. He never gave less than that, in any show. I've learned how to tell the story, how to be completely present in a song and to honour the lyrics.
This interview is a sample from the book THE MUSIC OF LEONARD COHEN by Chris Wade (published in 2016), available on Amazon...