What do you do when your manfriend heads off on a lengthy world tour, his first in 15 years, and leaves you behind? Well, if you’re a respected jazz musician in your own right and your lover is none other than Leonard Cohen, the incomparable elder statesman of both literature and song, you take yourself off to a cabin in Wyoming and write a new album. At least, that’s what Anjani Thomas has done.
The 48-year old Hawaiian first encountered Leonard in 1984 when producer John Lissauer hired her to sing backing vocals on what was to become one of the most revered (and most covered) songs in history, the enduring ‘Hallelujah’. Not a bad legacy on its own, you might think, but Leonard was so impressed with Anjani’s keyboard skills that she was invited to accompany him and Jennifer Warnes as they toured behind the song’s parent album, Various Positions. And still he kept coming back for more.
Fast forward 20 years and the pair had developed a close personal and working relationship. Of Leonard’s four studio releases in that time, Anjani was not involved in only one. Ten New Songs, released in 2001, was a collaboration with Sharon Robinson, a Grammy award-winning songwriter with whom Leonard has been performing on and off since 1979. But Anjani had plans of her own. Armed with “a fresher perspective” after a few years spent “withdrawing from life” somewhere in Texas as a jewellery store sales assistant, she reinvented herself as a solo artist at the age of 39. Her self-titled jazz debut appeared in 2000 and was swiftly followed by The Sacred Names, a spiritual work, in 2001. But by 2004, Anjani and Leonard were once again writing and recording alongside one another as their personal lives became more and more intertwined.
Their professional relationship took an unexpected leap forward one day when Anjani discovered a freshly written lyric sitting on Leonard’s printer and fell in love with it. That song was ‘Blue Alert’ and would prove to be the impetus for Anjani to return to solo performance. “I don’t know what possessed me to ask him if I could have it,” she laughs. “I’d never done that before. But it’s a wonderful lyric; it immediately draws you into a very mysterious place and scenario.”
Despite having his own arrangement for the song in mind, Leonard did not demur to her request. “He indulged me,” says Anjani. “At least, he said I could have it for a day.” As it happens, the song pretty much wrote itself in no time at all. “Sometimes you just get very lucky!” she laughs.
With Leonard as her muse, more and more songs began to flow. Within a short amount of time, the pair had sorted through some (but by no means all!) of Leonard’s many boxes of journals, picking six or so to work with. Anjani would pick out a verse or even just a line that she liked and Leonard would write a song around it. “I think we discovered during the songwriting process that we had a very good understanding of how to work together,” she recalls. “We had never really done that before, in this way. This collaboration was much more intimate and involved.
“I actually had to ask him to rewrite,” she laughs. “It’s funny, I didn’t think about it much at the time and then I realised, oh my god!, you’re asking Leonard Cohen to rewrite! I only realised later the impact of that. No one had ever really done that before, but he very kindly did.”
Despite her perceived imposition on Leonard’s creations, Anjani describes the writing process as “democratic” and speaks of his generosity in reverent tones. She explains how ‘Never Got To Love You’ was in fact mostly composed from unused verses of the Cohen classic ‘Closing Time’. Leonard had originally written 30 to 40 verses so Anjani was free to take what she could from the unused material, to rearrange and manipulate a line here or there as she saw fit. “When I gave it back to him I think his eyeballs popped because he didn’t remember writing things that way,” she says, “But it did work. He very generously, magnanimously gave in to that.”
Other songs that came from such prime source material were ‘Nightingale’, which first appeared on Leonard’s 2004 album Dear Heather in a decidedly less jazzy incarnation, and ‘The Mist’, a reworking of the poem ‘As The Mist Leaves No Scar’ from Leonard’s 1961 collection ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’. Leonard himself has expressed his admiration for Anjani’s interpretation of his 45-year old poem, saying “it is as though I’d never heard that lyric before. Or, more precisely, it is where I’d always heard it, somewhere, but had never been able to locate.”
Why not revisit ‘Hallelujah’ you might ask? At this she laughs. “After hearing k.d. lang perform that song at the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006 we looked at each other and said, ‘well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection’. I don’t think I could even try it, because it’s been so magnificently done. Really, I think all the versions out there are such a testament to his songwriting talents, wherever that gift comes from.”
Actually, Anjani is no stranger to being covered herself. Before her album was even promoted in the UK, rising jazz star Madeleine Peyroux had recorded her own versions of ‘Blue Alert’ and ‘Half The Perfect World’ for her acclaimed third album. ‘Blue Alert’ even soundtracked a TV ad for Old Navy jeans in the States last year. “She did a lovely arrangement,” says Anjani approvingly. “I think I just take the line of Leonard; we’re just happy people are doing our songs and loving them. It’s always a delight to hear someone else’s interpretation…and I think the fantastic thing about Leonard’s lyrics is they’re so juicy and ripe. They’re so open to being owned by whoever is giving voice to them.”
If, as one reviewer had it, Anjani sounds like Leonard Cohen reincarnated as a woman, she herself attributes some of her performance style to jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horne. “She had a similar approach to mine,” she explains, “which was being able to sing glacially slow, and yet keep you so enthralled as to feel as if you were just going down a cliff. At least I hope to be thought of as something in the same class. Leonard sort of heard that comparison and I loved it. She is an icon and it was a great loss, I think, when she left the Earth.”
After the critical success of Blue Alert and a well-received brief tour, Anjani and Leonard continued to work on a second collaborative album. But any confidence Anjani had built up dissipated gradually as she began to question her muse. Fearing she had become directionless in her pursuit of inspiration, she began to panic. “I got three tunes done (which I love),” she wrote in a recent update, “and then I looked at the next seven tunes and realised I wasn’t quite as sure about them as I should have been.”
That realisation, and a timely chat with Jackson Browne, explains how she ended up alone in a cabin in Wyoming while Leonard set out to tour the globe. Well, maybe you have to read the whole story to fully grasp it, but bear with us here. After a week of daily hikes, Anjani found herself overwhelmingly awestruck by “the glory and perfection of Mother Nature and Mother Earth…the soul of America.
“I started writing 6+ hours a day, after these long walks. It was if the universe said, ‘ok kid, you listened, you showed up, now you get the payoff. And boom! This is the music I was supposed to record.”
She describes Blue Alert as an album born with a tremendous amount of luck, a confluence of just the right energies, so you can imagine how this second dose of serendipity has fired and healed her spirits. “It’s so wonderful to be able to bring a voice to original music,” she told us. As for whether any of the new songs will be based on more of Leonard’s old notebook scribblings, her answer is coy. “I think the world could always use another song from Leonard Cohen!” she laughs.
It’s no use looking to Leonard for an answer either. When asked about the new material at a recent show his response was unambiguous: “I’m very anxious to hear it,” he said.
Leonard Cohen plays the O2 arena in London on July 17th with Sharon Robinson and The Webb Sisters.