Four years on from his passing, Melbourne pays tribute to the late great Leonard Cohen

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Four years on from his passing, Melbourne pays tribute to the late great Leonard Cohen

Words by August Billy

Ladies Who Sing Leonard will see 16 of music’s leading female vocalists sing Leonard Cohen songs to commemorate the late great songwriter.

The Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) will present the virtual concert Ladies Who Sing Leonard on Saturday November 7. Put together by Melbourne musician Anita Lester, the 90-minute Leonard Cohen tribute show will feature an ensemble of powerful women vocalists, including Ninet Tayeb, Deborah Conway and Gabriella Cohen.

November 7 is the fourth anniversary of Cohen’s death and the event is intended as a celebration of the Canadian-Jewish songwriter’s life and career.

“There’s something celebratory about remembering someone’s life in Judaism,” says Lester. “So it was a nice way of honouring him and we’re making it a celebration as opposed to something a little bit morbid.”

Cohen was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1934, the son of a Lithuanian-born mother and second generation Canadian-Polish father. His parents practiced Orthodox Judaism and although Cohen became seriously involved with Buddhism, Scientology and various other spiritual pursuits during adulthood, he never abandoned Judaism.

“Leonard seemed to have been a Jew who was more interested in the connection to God than the actual religion itself, but also he was deeply informed by the time that he was born into,” says Lester, who herself is Jewish.

Cohen died in his sleep at the age of 82, just a couple of weeks after the release of his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker. The album’s title track came out as a single on Cohen’s 82nd birthday – September 21, 2016 – and had a profound affect on Lester. So much so, in fact, that she not only recorded a version of her own, but wrote Cohen a letter thanking him for the enormous contribution he’d made to her life.

“I’ve been aware of him since I was about ten,” says Lester. “My father passed away when I was ten and my mum, knowing that I was really passionate about poetry and a bit of a Shakespeare nerd, she had the foresight to give me my father’s records and books of poems. And so around 12 I dove in – I lived in the attic of the house and I had my dad’s record player and I kind of just peeled through [Cohen’s] records.”

Lester posted the letter and accompanying ‘You Want It Darker’ video on the 20th anniversary of her father’s death. As for whether Cohen ever saw them, well, there’s no doubt about it – Lester’s letter and performance were re-posted by the official Leonard Cohen Facebook page on September 27, 2016.

Lester’s deep appreciation of Cohen’s body of work led her to organise the inaugural Ladies Who Sing Leonard event, which took place at Memo Music Hall on February 6, 2020. Deborah Conway, Gabriella Cohen, Alma Zygier and Sophia Tuv will reprise their roles for the upcoming FOJAM iteration, where they’ll be joined by the likes of Kate Ceberano, Emma Donovan, Kylie Auldist, Katie Noonan and the aforementioned Israeli star Ninet Tayeb.

“It was really important for me that I could engage different types of artists, elders and some new and unheard performers, as well as some Indigenous performers,” says Lester. “I’m very passionate about any Indigenous storytelling. People who are Indigenous have this innate quality of storytelling in their art and he [Cohen] was very passionate about having authentic voices tell his stories.”

Cohen is perhaps best remembered for his first four albums – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs From a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and New Skin For the Old Ceremony (1974) – which brought us such canonical songs as ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2′, ‘Who By Fire’, ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Bird on the Wire’.

But his 14-album discography bears no real dip in quality. Even 1977’s panned Phil Spector collaboration, Death of a Ladies’ Man, contains many gems, while You Want It Darker is one of his defining masterpieces. Ladies Who Sing Leonard will feature selections from across Cohen’s 50-year career, although the emphasis will be on the classics.

“I’ve encouraged some of the women who are new to Leonard to do the ones that they know. So we will have some of the hits in there and then there’s definitely some more obscure ones. I’ve spoken to all the women now and I can tell that they’ve made the songs their own in some way.”

Ladies Who Sing Leonard goes down on Saturday November 7 on Zoom via a ‘pay what you can’ basis. Register your attendance here.

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