Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen
PUBLISHED: 08:52 14 June 2011
Guitarist and singer Keith James talks about the lyrical brilliance of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and how he aims to re-interpret the Canadian maestro's work on his latest visit to Norwich.
Keith James’s artistic reinterpretations have spanned the melodies of the New York folk revival and the poetry of the Spanish surrealist movement — and, what’s more, they have proved popular with audiences.
His stripping back of the songs of Leonard Cohen to, in his words, “present the songs in their most naked form”, is the latest incarnation of this.
“I’ve always been a sworn fan of his and something struck me. As he went through his career, the production became, to me, more and more at odds with the words,” said James.
“If you listen to his early work, there was a tiny bit of production, but as he went on, his albums became more synthetic. And yet the intrinsic value of the songs was utterly brilliant, as it had always been.”
The performer, who visits Cinema City next week, believes it’s this lyrical brilliance that makes Cohen’s work worthy of the attention it still receives.
He said: “This tour, from the point of view of interest and attendance, is certainly going better than anything I’ve ever done...it’s his lyrics — they’re absolutely fantastic.
“During the course of concerts, songs that started life as poems are the ones that make people just sit and have goose-bumps. Songs like Famous Blue Raincoat, Chelsea Hotel and Suzanne, which are all fairly early songs and as bare as they could ever be.”
James is drawn to the simple nature of these songs because of their authenticity.
“They come from an era when there was a tremendous amount of thought process going into song-writing. People were writing with no aid whatsoever aside from the instrument they had, the era they lived in and little else.
“In the 1960s, Canadian and American artists’ work demonstrated their reverence for life, freedom and their new take on everything to do with government and the Cold War and Vietnam. There was a huge amount of freedom of lyric and a great amount of wholesome music.”
For James, the attraction of the 60s folk revolution is due to the artists’ dedication to their work.
He said: “When a person can immerse themselves almost to the point of desolation in their writing, with a disregard for self, I think that brings out absolutely fantastic writing and also a tremendous amount of humility.
“That’s something we don’t have these days. You know, everybody’s got four of everything. So how can we write about any part of life being missing, or deprived, or fragile? Most people don’t reach that state of mind very often.”
The guitarist and singer turned to music after becoming disillusioned with the commercial world.
He said: “Music’s always been a big part of my life. I’ve never really had a proper job. I could possibly trace it all back to my school band and the first time we played a gig.
“When I left school I didn’t go straight into music, I went into design and marketing in the fashion industry for about three years. I became fairly disillusioned with that and then started performing on the wine-bar circuit and had some fairly immediate success.”
After recording and performing his own songs, James stumbled across the work of Spanish modernist poet Fede-rico Garcia Lorca, which in turn led him to reinterpret Cohen’s
work. “I heard a poem by Pablo Neruda being recited on Radio 4 and I went to the Albion Bookshop in Broadstairs to buy a book of his poetry,” he said. “They didn’t have anything, although they did have work by Lorca. I bought that book instead as the poets shared an affection for one another’s work.
“Not very long after that, I went to Andalucía on holiday and I did as much research as I could about Lorca. I went to all the museums, his birthplace and where he was executed.”
Through his research came the idea of a musical reinterpretation of Lorca’s poetry.
He said: “I fell in love with his poetry and I then realised the intrinsic link between Lorca and Cohen. I can now hear in a great deal of Cohen’s work the influence of Lorca. Take This Waltz is the Lorca poem Little Viennese Waltz set to music. Cohen translated it himself.”
Cohen’s practice of setting Lorca’s poetry to music will feature in the current tour and inform James’s future plans.
He said: “I’m planning a tour called Duende, a curious word which doesn’t really translate into English, featuring the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Lorca and the Brazilian poet Chico Buarque and setting it to music. The origins of the word Duende are in flamenco and it will be mainly based on classical and flamenco guitar.”
The success of the current tour has ensured that James’s year will revolve around the songs of Leonard Cohen.
n Keith James performs The Songs of Leonard Cohen at Cinema City on June 14, 8.45pm, £14, 0871 9025724, www.picturehouses.co.uk