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Leonard Cohen on songwriting

September 25, 2010 Filed under Blog, Featured, Writing 

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the similarities between being a musical performer and being a scientist. I was listening to Leonard Cohen on my way to work the other day, and I was reminded of an interview where he discussed his songwriting process in more depth than you normally hear from an artist.

I’ve selected a few quotes that remind us all that good songwriting, like good scientific writing, is not easy. So, if you are struggling with your writing, don’t lose heart. Put on I’m Your Man or The Future to get inspired, and then visit your “Tower of Science,” and find the urgency in your scientific writing.

Write what speaks to your deepest interest.

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I am working most of the time.

I find that easy versions of the song arrive first. Although they might be able to stand as songs, they can’t stand as songs that I can sing. So to find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency. To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering….

So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interest. Otherwise I just nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with the payload.

For instance, a song like “Closing Time” began as a song in 3/4 time with a really strong, nostalgic, melancholy country feel. Entirely different words…. And I recorded the song and I sang it. And I choked over it. Even though another singer could have done it perfectly well. It’s a perfectly reasonable song. And a good one, I might say. A respectable song. But I choked over it.

There wasn’t anything that really addressed my attention. The finishing of it was agreeable because it’s always an agreeable feeling. But when I tried to sing it I realized it came from my boredom and not from my attention. It came from my desire to finish the song and not from the urgency to locate a construction that would engross me.

So I went to work again. Then I filled another notebook from beginning to end with the lyric, or the attempts at the lyric, which eventually made it onto the album. So most of [my songs] have a dismal history, like the one I’ve just accounted.

(Image from The Daily Mail)

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  1. […] Cohen, one of the greatest songwriters of the last century, talks about the importance of stripping through all the clutter in his mind and getting to the essen…. “To engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own […]

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