After his comeback to performing and Hallelujah's unlikely chart domination, Leonard Cohen has had a remarkable year. He talks to Jian Ghomeshi about love, death and taking risks
What have you learned from being back on stage?
Leonard Cohen: I learned that it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I've been grateful that it's going well. You can't ever guarantee that it's going to continue doing well, because there's a component that you really don't command.
What component is that?
LC: Some sort of grace, some sort of luck. It's hard to put your finger on it - you don't really want to put your finger on it. But there is that mysterious component that makes for a memorable evening. You never really know whether you're going to be able to be the person you want to be or that the audience is going to be hospitable to the person that they perceive. So there's so many unknowns and so many mysteries connected - even when you've brought the show to a certain degree of excellence.
In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: "Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act." You were 67 when you said that, you're 74 now - does that ring more or less true for you still?
LC: Well, it's well written, the beginning of the third act seems to be very well written. But the end of the third act, of course, is when the hero dies. My friend Irving Layton said about death: it's not death that he's worried about, it's the preliminaries.
Are you worried about the preliminaries?
LC: Sure, every person ought to be.
Let me come back to the beginning of the first act. This was a brand new career for you that started in your 30s. How fearful were you of starting a second career?
LC: I've been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life. When you say I had a career as a writer or a poet, that hardly begins to describe the modesty of the enterprise in Canada at that time - an edition of 200 was considered a bestseller in poems. At a certain point I realised that I'm going to have to buckle down and make a living. I'd written a couple of novels, and they'd been well received, but they'd sold about 3,000 copies. So I really had to do something, and the other thing I knew how to do was play guitar. So I was on my way down to Nashville - I thought maybe I could get a job. I love country music, maybe I'd get a job playing guitar. When I hit New York, I bumped into what later was called the folk-song renaissance. There were people like Dylan and Judy Collins and Joan Baez. And I hadn't heard their work. So that touched me very much. I'd always been writing little songs myself, too, but I never thought there was any marketplace for them.
Some people would think it's ironic to go into music to make money, given that it's not necessarily the most lucrative of professions for most artists.
LC: Yeah, I know. In hindsight it seems to be the height of folly. You had to resolve your economic crisis by becoming a folk singer. And I had not much of a voice. I didn't play that great guitar either. I don't know how these things happen in life - luck has so much to do with success and failure.
People talk about the fact that you've written songs that you've almost grown into as you get older. How did starting a career in your 30s inform what you were writing?
LC: I always had a notion that I had a tiny garden to cultivate. I never thought I was really one of the big guys. And so the work that was in front of me was just to cultivate this tiny corner of the field that I thought I knew something about, which was something to do with self-investigation without self-indulgence. Just pure confession I never felt was really interesting. But confession filtered through a tradition of skill and hard work is interesting to me. So that was my tiny corner, and I just started writing about the things that I thought I knew about or wanted to find out about. That was how it began. I wanted the songs to sound like everybody else's songs.
You say you've always been fearful of everything. When did you give yourself permission to think of yourself as, and call yourself, a legitimate singer and musician?
LC: You cycle through these feelings of anxiety and confidence. If something goes well in one's life, one feels the benefits of the success. When something doesn't go well, one feels remorse. So those activities persist in one's life right to this moment.
Have the women in your life been a source of your strength or weakness?
LC: Good question. It's not a level playing ground for either of us, for either the man or the woman. This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love. You know, where we have the sense that we can't live without love. That life has very little meaning without love. So we're invited into this arena which is a very dangerous arena, where the possibilities of humiliation and failure are ample. So there's no fixed lesson that one can learn, because the heart is always opening and closing, it's always softening and hardening. We're always experiencing joy or sadness. But there are lots of people who've closed down. And there are times in one's life when one has to close down just to regroup.
Are there times when you've lamented the power that women have had over you?
LC: I never looked at it that way. There's times when I've lamented, there's times when I've rejoiced, there's times when I've been deeply indifferent. You run through the whole gamut of experience. And most people have a woman in their heart, most men have a woman in their heart and most women have a man in their heart. There are people that don't. But most of us cherish some sort of dream of surrender. But these are dreams and sometimes they're defeated and sometimes they're manifested.
Do you think love is empowering?
LC: It's a ferocious activity, where you experience defeat and you experience acceptance and you experience exultation. And the affixed idea about it will definitely cause you a great deal of suffering. If you have the feeling that it's going to be an easy ride, you're going to be disappointed. If you have a feeling that it's going to be hell all the way, you may be surprised.
Do you regret not having a lifelong partner?
LC: Non, je ne regrette rien. I'm blessed with a certain amount of amnesia and I really don't remember what went down. I don't review my life that way.
Even in the face of a very successful record that you made in 1992, The Future, do you think dealing with depression was an important part of your creative process?
LC: Well, it was a part of every process. The central activity of my days and nights was dealing with a prevailing sense of anxiety, anguish, distress. A background of anguish that prevailed.
How important was writing to your survival?
LC: It had a number of benefits. One was economic. It was not a luxury for me to write - it was a necessity. These times are very difficult to write in because the slogans are really jamming the airwaves - it's something that goes beyond what has been called political correctness. It's a kind of tyranny of posture. Those ideas are swarming through the air like locusts. And it's difficult for the writer to determine what he really thinks about things. So in my own case I have to write the verse, and then see if it's a slogan or not and then toss it. But I can't toss it until I've worked on it and seen what it really is.
What do you consider your darkest hour?
LC: Well I wouldn't tell you about it if I knew. Even to talk about oneself in a time like this is a kind of unwholesome luxury. I don't think I've had a darkest hour compared to the dark hours that so many people are involved in right now. Large numbers of people are dodging bombs, having their nails pulled out in dungeons, facing starvation, disease. I mean large numbers of people. So I think that we've really got to be circumspect about how seriously we take our own anxieties today.
How much do you reflect upon your own mortality?
LC: You get a sense of it, you know - the body sends a number of messages to you as you get older. So I don't know if it's a matter of reflection, I don't know that implies a kind of peaceful recognition of the situation.
Is there a way to prepare for death?
LC: Like with anything else, there's a certain degree of free will. You put in your best efforts to prepare for anything. There are whole religious and spiritual methodologies that invite you to prepare for death. And you can embark upon them and embrace them and give themselves to you. But I don't think there's any guarantee this could work, because nobody knows what's going to happen in the next moment.
Are you fearful of death?
LC: Everyone has to have a certain amount of anxiety about the conditions of one's death. The actual circumstances, the pain involved, the affect on your heirs. But there's so little that you can do about it. It's best to relegate those concerns to the appropriate compartments of the mind and not let them inform all your activities. We've got to live our lives as if they're not going to end immediately. So we have to live under those - some people might call them illusions.
Let me ask you about Hallelujah, because it's been an interesting year for Hallelujah - it took on a new energy. A song that you wrote in 1984, and it appeared at No 1 and No 2 on the UK charts, and your version was also in the top 40. What did you make of that?
LC: I was happy that the song was being used, of course. There were certain ironic and amusing sidebars, because the record that it came from which was called Various Positions - [a] record Sony wouldn't put out. They didn't think it was good enough. It had songs like Dancing to the End of Love, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will. So there was a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart. But I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said "Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?" And I kind of feel the same way. I think it's a good song, but I think too many people sing it.
• This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for the Canadian broadcaster CBC. Leonard Cohen plays Mercedes Benz World in Weybridge, Surrey, tomorrow, and the Liverpool Arena on Tuesday. Leonard Cohen Live in London is out now on CD and DVD (Sony).