Entertainment Music

Tuesday 28 March 2017

And on backing vocals, ladies and gentlemen. . .

Last week, we looked at the storied past of Lissadell House, the rural idyll that will play host to next weekend's concerts by Leonard Cohen in Sligo. This week, we managed to chew the cud with two of Cohen's multi-talented backing singers, who have played more than 200 shows with him over the past three years, including his Dublin shows at Kilmainham in 2008 and the O2 Arena last year.

If the 75-year-old Cohen is the wise elder statesman, then his chorus of Sharon Robinson (his longtime friend and collaborator) and Charley and Hattie Webb (aka the Webb Sisters) add sex appeal and glamour to the equation, as well as their own unique musical gifts (Hattie, for instance, plays a 22-string Celtic harp during 'If It Be Your Will').

Sharon, originally from San Francisco but raised in Los Angeles, first sang with Leonard Cohen in 1979 when he was touring the album Field Commander Cohen.

She would go on to co-write the classic Cohen compositions 'Everybody Knows' (from I'm Your Man) and 'Waiting For The Miracle' (from The Future) and later co-write and produce his magnificent 'comeback' album Ten New Songs in 2001 (she also appears alongside Cohen on the album cover).

A number of these tracks ('In My Secret Life', 'Alexandra Leaving', 'A Thousand Kisses Deep') provide some of the highlights of the current live set. There's an elegance about the way Sharon sings and carries herself that really comes to the fore when she takes lead vocals on 'Boogie Street', her stirring, soulful alto transporting the audience to some slinky, smokey jazz club of the mind.

So how did Sharon meet Leonard?

"I had been doing a lot of recording sessions as a backing singer in Los Angeles. At the time I was working with Ann-Margret in her Vegas show at Ceasar's Palace. She had the biggest show on the strip at that time," Sharon recalls.

"My name was given to Jennifer Warnes (Cohen's chief backing singer at that time) because she was given the job of finding the singer who would go out and work with her on that tour. Fortunately for me, it all worked out."

In the 1990s, Cohen took a long hiatus from the music business when he famously holed up in the Zen Buddhist monastery in Mount Baldy, California, for five years. Was Sharon still in contact with him during his time living with the monks?

"We stayed in touch as we always have," she says. "At some point he decided to leave there and come back to Boogie Street, as it were. We got together and much to my great surprise he asked me to start working on what turned out to be Ten New Songs."

What was the writing process like for Sharon on that album?

"It would usually start with the words -- he'd give me a verse or a few verses, or sometimes a whole completed lyric, and then I would take it away and come up with ideas for melodies.

"I would work on my acoustic piano, initially. Once the idea was decided on, I would go into my studio and start putting together tracks. For that record, we ended up not really bringing in musicians much. Bob Metzger played guitar on 'In My Secret Life' but mostly it was my own work in the studio using sampling.

"He was enjoying the contrast between the organic sounds of the voices and the electronic background."

As well as working with Cohen, Sharon has written songs for the likes of Aaron Neville, Patti Labelle and Diana Ross. With such a pedigree, it comes as something of a surprise to find that Sharon only released her debut solo album, Everybody Knows, in 2008. It features several Cohen numbers, on which she has put her own bluesy stamp.

After doing Ten New Songs, it was clear to me that I could put something together on my own," Sharon explains. "Having wanted to do an album for my entire career, and with a lot of encouragement from Leonard and a lot of validation that came out of his record, I decided to figure out what my own voice would be as an artist.

"But I'm looking forward to singing again with Leonard in Ireland -- it seems to me that Irish audiences have a special connection to Leonard and his body of work."

Singing alongside Sharon on stage in Lissadell will be Charley and Hattie Webb.

The sisters hail from Kent in England -- but are currently living in Los Angeles. Their latest four-song EP, The Other Side, is available on iTunes and their forthcoming album is titled Savages. So how did they get caught in Leonard's web?

"Hattie and I were in Los Angeles making our own album with Peter Asher (legendary producer who worked with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt). Sharon gave us a call -- we were already friends and had worked together the previous year writing songs together -- and said Leonard's looking for people to sing with him, so why don't you come along. We went along and Sharon and Hattie and I sang together. Sharon's got this fantastic, rich, soulful voice and a big range.

"And Hattie has quite a husky voice and she can be bluesy when she wants to be. My voice, which is a bit higher, seems to fit theirs somehow. We get on great, as people and as voices."

Had Charley always been a big Cohen fan?

"I got to know some of his best songs a couple of decades after they became famous," she says. "The recordings that most of us get to know are from that time when his voice was significantly higher. Occasionally he decides to sing something in that range and it still sounds phenomenal. But he does seem to have got that depth -- maybe it's from the smoking and the pontificating!" she laughs.

What does it feel like on stage?

"I feel that weightiness when the concert's under way. I feel that it's Leonard's presence, and his connection to each person in the audience. He has this magic of somehow being able to sing a song that applies to each person, and you feel like he's written it for you. And he's so honourable and gentlemanly on stage -- whether you're on stage with the band or sitting in the audience, It's an honour to be around him. There's a sense of greatness."

In the O2, Charley and Hattie got a big cheer when they surprised us all with a synchronised backwards head stand mid-song. How did that come about? "We all have a great time in rehearsals," says Charley. "It came to pass during the song 'The Future' -- there was all kinds of different dancing going on between different band members. Then one day, when Leonard sang the line 'And the white girls dancing', we started doing some gymnastics. When he laughs hard, he laughs with no sound. That happened for a moment, and then he insisted that we do it in the next concert! And that request goes on and on!"

Leonard Cohen plays Lissadell House, Co Sligo, next Saturday and Sunday. For more info, visit: www.sharonrobinsonmusic.com and www.thewebbsisters.com

nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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