The Process: An Interview about Dear Heather
Most of the songs on Dear Heather were recorded in Leonard’s home studio. Could you describe the working process? For instance, when recording the background vocals, were the arrangements and lead vocals already done or did the process move back and forth between the leads and backings?
The music tracks were complete but there was some flexibility between the recording lead and bgs (background vocals); and one may have influenced the other.
Leonard has always given me complete creative freedom on vocals. And although I’ve heard a rough track before the session, it doesn’t mean I know what I’ll do when I step up to the mic. This was especially true on Morning Glory. On several occasions we sat for an hour or two listening to the track and he’d say, “This is going be so great! We’ll just chant, ‘morning glory’ and maybe sing a few lines about how beautiful the morning glories are.”
Meanwhile, he hadn’t written or recorded his speaking part yet, so all I knew about the song was that a 7 foot high wall of morning glory vines in his backyard inspired it. He never knew this, but the more he played the tune the more bewildered I became. It was so slinky and quirky that I had no clue what to do on it. I avoided that session for months until it was one of the last things on the record to complete. By then I thought I’d just give it a shot and it wouldn’t be useable, but at least I did some other good work on the record.
So we rolled the tape and a minute of his monologue went by and nothing came to mind. Another two minutes passed and I was starting to sweat because I just didn’t hear anything to sing. Leonard was sitting in a chair four feet away from me with his eyes closed and he didn’t seem perturbed; but I felt like I was really blowing it. As his monologue ended I thought, ‘Oh, whatever’ and I started singing, Oh, the morning glory.
When it was over I gave him a look like, how horrible was that? He nodded and said it was just what he had in mind. So I tripled that line, added the harmonies, threw in some ‘glorias’ and by then it really was rather beautiful.
Are Leonard’s arrangements his completely? Did he ever say, “I’d like you to sing like this” or did you hear an early version of the song and then give it your interpretation?
The music to Undertow, To A Teacher, Dear Heather, Villanelle For Our Time, and Because Of is all Leonard’s doing. What gives his arrangements such a cool vibe is that the drums and bass play in time but he doesn’t quantize the keyboard pads or solos–they’re mostly in the pocket but a lot of it is laid back or spilling over the beats. This gives it a very relaxed feel, just the way a live band would interact.
On Dear Heather, Leonard opted for more spacious arrangements. For example, the instrumentation for On That Day is just piano, bass and jew’s harp. It’s a stark treatment that brings your attention straight to the lyric and memories of that time.
I fell in love with Undertow the first time I heard it. There was no vocal on it, just a melody with the saxophone sound. I don’t know how Leonard came up with the pizzicato string part, but it was so gorgeous I thought at first I’d double it with my voice–another case of getting to the studio and forgoing preplanned ideas.
The song was in Leonard’s key, so I never thought I’d be doing the lead on it. The session started as usual, with me singing a harmony. When we played it back Leonard loved it so much that he made it the lead vocal, and his track was used as an effect to remind you of the murmuring sea.
Are the lyrics more important to your interpretation than the melody?
When singing Leonard’s lyrics, my aim is to not over-emote or underreport. Sometimes it’s tricky because a vocalist’s natural inclination is to milk a great song for all its worth. Leonard has taught me to rein it in, sing less and let the story tell itself. It’s the greatest bit of advice anyone has given me about my voice.
As far as bgs go, they are a sweetener, not a focal point. My task is to support the lyric and/or the lead vocal as tastefully as I can. Now Leonard loves hearing a female chorus behind his low, deep voice. It’s a mighty big effect but it works well for him.
How did the process of co-writing with Leonard evolve?
A year ago Leonard gave me a lyric to play around with. He really loved the arrangement but said now he’d have to pen a whole new lyric that lived up to the music. The rewrite took about six months, which is a nanosecond in Cohen writing time. Both lyrics were strong, but On That Day was more relevant to the times.
Nightingale is dedicated to Carl Anderson. Did Leonard ever have the pleasure of meeting him?
There was a bittersweet serendipity to arranging Nightingale. The lyric really struck my heart, because Carl was such an incredible vocalist. Luckily, I heard the melody as I read the lyric and I just had to write it down for the band.
Leonard had the idea for an acapella intro and a guitar part that was really sweet. He sat with the original track for a few months, experimenting with different vocal ideas before he hit upon the octave bass and tenor parts. I was so happy to hear him in the tenor register again, which he regained after quitting smoking a few years ago.
Reportedly when making Ten New Songs with Sharon Robinson, Leonard kept saying, “No, it’s too beautiful” and rejecting things on that basis. Was there a similar refrain on the two tracks you produced: “it’s too complicated,” “it’s too musical” or perhaps, “keep it straight, simple, light”?
I think if a song sounds good as a piano/vocal demo, it can withstand an arrangement. So that’s pretty much what I handed Leonard, sometimes with a bass line or a bit of kick drum and hi-hat. But I never gave him a fully produced track because I wanted to leave space for his ideas.
Naturally at first he wanted to hear something more: more groove, more sweetening, maybe a solo. And I was perfectly willing to add those elements, but in the end he chose to keep both songs in a spare, acoustic setting.
When you create an arrangement, do you use sheet music? Who writes down the music? Is it recorded live and later transcribed for other musicians, or do you or Leonard bring in the material to the studio?
I’d say I write eighty percent of the music in my head–often as I’m walking around town. Then I sit at the piano and write out charts for the musicians. I’ve worked with Stan Sargent (bass) and Johnny Friday (drums) on a number of projects. They listen to my keyboard/vocal tracks and we’ll try a few ideas if it isn’t clear in my mind. After the recording of basic tracks I add whatever sweetening the song needs.
We have heard that the songs for Dear Heather were selected from some 20 new tracks. Was there an overall theme you were trying to achieve? Will we ever hear the rest of the songs?
A few songs weren’t finished in time for this project but they will probably be on the next record. Sometimes critics have complained it sounds like the music is tacked on to a lyric without much thought or care. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Every track is given due time and consideration; if it doesn’t make the grade it isn’t released.
It’s no secret that for Leonard, writing is a long and arduous endeavor. Do they really think he would give up on a hard won lyric when it came time to arrange it?
I don’t believe Leonard had an overall theme in mind for this project, but his work tends to reflect his state of mind. With Dear Heather, if he could make his point in one or two or three verses instead of eight, he dove right in and out. Done. Next.
Dear Heather captures the light and spontaneity and freshness that have disappeared from the commercial, corporate driven business of music. I tip my hat to Leonard for achieving that.