Sharon Robinson Reflects on Touring With Leonard Cohen ~ RollingStone

The co-writer of “Everybody Knows” and “Waiting for the Miracles” looks back on the celebrated Grand Tour of 2008 to 2013

Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen last tour

Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen’s longtime songwriting partner and backup singer, looks back on their years on the road together.  Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press/Redux

 

Leonard Cohen worked with a lot of gifted collaborators during his five-decade career, but none shared a bond with the late artist that could match Sharon Robinson’s. She first toured with him as a backup singer in 1979 and soon became his songwriting partner of choice, sharing credit on classics like “Everybody Knows” and “Waiting for the Miracle” in addition to every single track on 2001’s Ten New Songs.

About 10 years ago, he turned to her when his dwindling finances forced him back onto the road at age 74 for a tour that ultimately stretched across five incredible years. It began in tiny Canadian theaters, but soon hit enormous arenas all over the world as the overwhelming buzz forced them to add leg after leg. We spoke to Robinson earlier this year when Rolling Stone named the tour one of the 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 years. Here is our complete conversation with her about the Grand Tour of 2008 to 2013.

Before Leonard reached out to you about the tour, were you under the impression that he’d never perform live again?
Yeah. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t expecting to be touring again. But in 2007, we were working on some material that wound up on Old Ideas. He came over to me one day and said, “Sharon, I think I’m going to have to go on tour. My bank accounts are empty. I went to the ATM and I couldn’t get any money out.” That came as a real surprise, not something he was prepared for or expecting.

How did things go from there? It must have been a lot of work to get the ball rolling on that.
He started to work with his musical director Roscoe Beck and they began putting a band together. I wasn’t initially involved because Leonard hadn’t really decided what he wanted to do about singers. And then one day, he and Roscoe called me to come in and just sing with some other singers. They were trying to feel their way and figure out what they were doing. So, I came in a few times and worked with some other people and nothing was really gelling. I had worked with the Webb Sisters on some other stuff and I recommended them. That worked out really well.

As rehearsals wound up and you prepped for opening night, did you feel you guys had created something special?
We did. In rehearsals, we were getting to some really beautiful moments with the music and it seemed to be a cast that was really working well together. But we didn’t know what was going to happen in terms of an audience. Leonard was very unsure of whether he still had an audience at this point.

Right. This is a guy that never had anything resembling a radio hit. He was really far off the cultural radar in 2008.
Obviously, it did work out well and the audiences just grew and grew. But he wasn’t a pop star by any stretch of the imagination. That was the irony of the whole thing. Eventually we were doing arenas. We did some stadiums. Leonard was attracting a very wide audience, and that was unheard of for a non-radio pop star.

I remember seeing him at the Hall of Fame earlier in 2008 and he looked very frail. I was worried a tour would be too much for him, but when he walked onstage he was just pulsating with energy. Did you feel that transformation?
I did. I was surprised once we started by the showmanship aspect of it. And I don’t mean that in a shallow way. He was sincerely committed to putting on the best possible show, and he believed in the physical part of it as well. He believed in the most committed delivery of a song that he could do. I mean, the fact that he was older and starting to look kind of frail, that became part of the story. It certainly was for me standing a few feet away from him at every show. It was amazed as well.

So many parts of the show just left me stunned. He’d wear a suit for three-and-a-half hours and appear not to even sweat. He’d drop to his knees over and over, and then skip offstage before the encores with a huge grin on his face.
[Laughs] Every time he’d skip past myself and the Webb Sisters, we would sort look at each other and chuckle because it was highly entertaining, even for us.

Did it stun you that they kept booking it into bigger and bigger places?
Yeah, it was fascinating that it kept going. I mean, at the end of every leg of the tour we thought, “OK, this has got to be it. This is it, right?” And they were like, “We’re going to Australia!” or “We’re going to Canada!” or wherever. It just kept going to a degree that surprised everyone. But then again, after a while we stopped being surprised because we felt the effect it was having on the audience. People just loved it.

There were obviously breaks, but for the greater part of five years you lived out of a suitcase. Did you ever think to yourself, “God, I just want to go home?”
Those moments definitely did happen. The lifestyle is, as you said, extremely exhausting. There are times where you’re in some amazing city and you can’t leave your hotel room because you have to save up your energy for the show since you traveled the day before. It’s a very exhausting lifestyle. There were times near the end of the tour where I’d find myself walking into a hotel room thinking, “I wish I was home.”

How did Leonard find the energy to travel like that?
Well, Leonard was really good at conserving his strength, blocking out distractions and prioritizing his energy for the things he wanted to do, such as the show or writing. He lived an almost monastic lifestyle when he wasn’t living as a monk. He kept things really simple. He kept his interactions with people to a minimum.

The team there was obviously very good at protecting him. He didn’t do interviews, meet and greets or anything that would drain his energy.
Exactly. He wouldn’t see people when we were on tour. Occasionally, we were really surprised when on some random night he would stay after a show and visit with people. But for the most part he didn’t do that. He was right off the stage and right into a car and straight to the hotel.

 

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