Photo: Ward Robinson
Daniel Lanois On Why A 1,000-Year-Old Tree Informed His New Album, 'Heavy Sun' & Working With Bob Dylan, U2
Daniel Lanois has produced everyone from U2 to Bob Dylan to Neil Young. But as his ascendant new album 'Heavy Sun' demonstrates, his artistry begins with his musicianship.
Some people think of a producer as someone who stays behind the board and doesn't join the band, but that's not what the seven-time GRAMMY winner Daniel Lanois is about—and it never has been.
On a bunch of records—even the ones the non-music fan in your life probably owns—Lanois has not only produced but sang, played and consulted. He added spindrifts of pedal steel to Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, belted along with U2 on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and played guitar all over Bob Dylan's devastating Time Out of Mind. And on Neil Young's craggy, cavernous 2010 album Le Noise—an album cheekily named after Lanois—he even vetted Young's lyrics and made suggestions for improvement.
That said, even his work with those musical titans doesn't encompass his self-expression as a music-maker. Since the late 1980s, Lanois has also released his own records, including one with his Black Dub project and another with the electronic artist Venetian Snares. His latest, Heavy Sun, which arrived March 19, is a nod to the organ players Lanois grew up listening to, like Jimmy Smith. The tunes therein, including "Tree of Tule," "Tumbling Stone" and "Angels Watching," hinge on naturalistic, archetypal images.
"I think there's just something very human about it," Lanois says about the feeling of small-room organ music. "It has neighborhood; it has congregation."
This is why he sang Heavy Sun in tandem right at the console with his collaborations: "When we harmonize together, we're not thinking about standing out. We're thinking about blending," he explains. "So we all have to blend as singers, but I think the congregation has [that] blend in it. You leave your troubles on the street and you come to the place of worship."
Turn up the joyful Heavy Sun, and you might feel your troubles lift. GRAMMY.com gave Lanois a ring about the process that informed the new album, why a millennium-old tree inspired a song, and the stories behind the classics he made with U2, Dylan and Eno.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gospel and organ music are big influences on you. Which artists from those spheres are foundational for you?
On the road, I visited a few nightclubs. This was back in the day, in the '80s, in the south. There was a promoter that was dragging us to a few stops, and we ended up in a couple of late-night spots. I don't even know who was at the organ, but they were local heroes. I remember being in these greasy little spots and hearing a kind of nighttime organ playing. I went, "Oh my goodness." It felt really fabulous and it was welcoming and dangerous at the same time.
I grew up listening to Booker T. and Jimmy Smith. And then, more recently, I bumped into Cory Henry. Do I have that right? I believe so, yeah. He's a contemporary organist. I was introduced to him by Brian Eno. [We] were at a festival in New York and Cory was playing. I was really touched by his playing. And, of course, our great Johnny Shepherd [who] is in the band. He's a master church organist.
I just love organ records. I think they're a pure form and the bass is always in tune. [chuckles]
Heavy Sun gives me that sense of uplift I feel from Bob Marley or The Impressions. Or, as per those organ records, Jimmy Smith. How would you describe that ineffable something that lifts these gospel-inspired records?
Well, that's a lovely compliment to have any kind of association with the masters you mentioned. We've got a line in one of the songs, "Under the Heavy Sun," that says, "An imaginary nightclub that you go to, somewhere in outer space/ Where you get to leave your ego hanging at the door."
There's just something very welcoming about the sound of organ music and a sense of joy that rises up from that. Maybe it's because we're accustomed to associating the Hammond organ as a sound that comes from the smaller churches—the Baptist churches, the ones that couldn't afford the gilded ceilings and pipe organs.
There's something a little bit "street" and "neighborhood" about that sound. Even the little pump organs in the smaller chapels where I grew up, some of them didn't even have electricity—that's how far back it goes.
A massive burl in the Tree of Tule.
I noticed some archetypal images in the lyrics—stones, trees and angels. Were you reaching for something encompassing and timeless?
Well, angels never go out of fashion! Even an atheist likes an angel. Maybe it's the tap on the shoulder or that inner voice that allows you to make a good decision at a certain bend in the road.
But, you know, we've got a thousand-year-old Tree of Tule, so that's a good one. Tule is a little village I visited when I was driving through Mexico sometime back. I drove from Mexico City to Oaxaca and came upon Tule, and they had a thousand-year-old tree. It was in parquet and people were praying under the tree. They were not praying to the tree. The tree was a place of congregation.
So, there's something timeless about something that's lived for a thousand years, that came up out of the ground in the absence of technology. I guess those kinds of tonalities on the record remind us that [while] we are living in fast, high-tech times, some of the things we like and respond to have always been there.
What's your favorite tune of the bunch, if you have one?
I like "Way Down." We listened to "Way Down" last night and I realized it's a little jewel of sorts because it talks about an imaginary place that we might get to, geographically or otherwise.
There's a term [from] when I worked with the Neville Brothers. Art Neville used this term: "Oh, that's an old-folks-and-babies song." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "That song will touch everybody, somehow." So, we've had lovely comments on that song from grandmothers, from little kids, from hip-hop people. They say, "I like that song!" So, that one's one of my favorites. I think it's got a universal spirit.
I also like "Dance On." It seems at first like, "OK, you feel like you want to dance, dance on." But then as it unfolds, Johnny really goes for it. I like that he breaks on through to the other side. And this is what we look for when we make records: we get to a place we don't even know exists.
We call them "lift-offs." And if we're lucky enough to hit that magic point where lift-off happens, then we thank our lucky stars and we try to include it on the record. I believe "Dance On" has that in Johnny's delivery.
So you were sitting around listening to the record last night?
Last night at the studio, we put on a couple of tracks because I hadn't heard the record since I mixed it. I had a couple of friends over and we were reveling in the glory of finished work [chuckles]. We found the soul-ometer went on a couple of times. I felt pretty proud as a papa.
I believe that's what people respond to ultimately in music outside of the stylistic specifics. We want music to touch us, raise the spirit and take us someplace. I think we brought it to that place a few times on this record, I hope.
And the likes of you, people like yourself taking an interest in our work, who might help spread the gospel and get it on the airwaves. If somebody feels a little bit of joy and maybe they want to start living a better life, being a better person from hearing a few notes, then: Job well done.
I wrote down a question about peoples' response to the record, and if they felt that warmth and camaraderie during this period of isolation. From what you're describing, they absolutely did!
I've been getting comments that way. People are thankful that this was made. This record was largely made before the pandemic, and everyone's feeling isolated now. I think it's been quite a reset button for everybody. So if there's something in this music that resonates with people that way, then I'm very pleased that it is.
But we wanted to say a little something about a kind of freedom that we'd like to get to, as people. "Tumbling Stone" has that in it. I said, "Johnny, how are you feeling, man?" because Johnny's from Shreveport, Louisiana, and he came to Los Angeles to make this record with us. It was hard for him to leave home because he's a choir leader, a church organist and a church singer. So he had to leave his church.
And I said, "Johnny, but you still have the church in you! We're operating in a church with no walls. We get to be traveling ministers of sorts and if we can touch a few hearts along the way, isn't that a great way of spreading the gospel?" So we wrote about it: "I left my home on a pilgrimage/ A church with no walls," and all this.
I thought we addressed our own experiences and put them in songs. I think the listeners respond to songs from a truthful place from the writers.
You cited "freedom" as an operative word. What stands in the way of freedom for people? When you think of that concept, what comes to mind?
I see a lot of confinement. Oftentimes, self-confinement. In the neighborhoods I grew up in, a young man is a man when he gets a student loan and applies for a mortgage, and then is shackled by that for a very long time. So there might be a more bohemian point of view, to sidestep these shackles and chains.
It could be that a world could be entered that is not so driven by the usual pressures of loans and mortgages. Maybe there's something to be learned from the traveler, or the person who does not embrace those kinds of expectations—[who chooses] not to be living on credit cards.
Maybe the pandemic is chasing us in that way of enjoying the growth of your own food, and appreciating where they come from, and how to be wiser with your spending and think about the impact we have on our neighborhoods and our planet.
To take it back to Heavy Sun a bit, what can you tell me about how you built these tracks from the ground up, on a technical level?
[Some] of them were built with a beatbox beginning. For example, "Way Down" has a little rhythm box that we played the song to. It was very layered. I started with my acoustic guitar—my little Guild acoustic guitar with a magnetic pickup on it—and the beatbox allows us to use echoes. So, I had a nice little triplet echo on my Guild acoustic and I laid down a couple of those.
Then, we put on the organ. The organ plays the bass line, to get back to what we said earlier, how the bass is always in tune when it comes from the organ. So we have the luxury of a very nice bottom end on that. And then we decided we would split the verses, so Rocco DeLuca—my good friend and a great singer—joins me, and we sing the first verse in tandem.
And then, the whole group comes in on the chorus, and then Johnny on the next verse. Something I always liked on records by The Band in the '70s—Robbie Robertson and The Band—was splitting vocals. So we revisited that idea to give it that feeling of a group of four singers.
Other things were more freewheeling. [For] "Dance On," I had an invitation [to play] from a dancer friend of mine, Carolina Cerisola, a great Argentinian dancer. She was at a little dance club, and she said, "I don't have a song and I don't have a band." It was a solo number she was invited to do.
So I said, "Well, let's go down. We'll pay you a visit and we have a song called "Dance On," funny enough." And so in live performance, we recorded that version for her night and that's the version I got on the record. We hear them by hook or by crook. Ultimately, whatever provides the most magical feeling is what we go for.
All the singing was done right at the recording console because I do all my own punches and running back [and forth]. I invited singers to join me at the console and we sang to the speakers—no headphones and no vocals in the speakers. You can think of it as kitchen singing.
A lot of producers I know bang the drum of analog—analog this, analog that. So, I'm interested in how you blended analog and digital textures.
Obviously, we move with technology. I use a digital recorder. But to use a photographic analogy, we don't throw away our old lenses. We might have a digital back, but we still find a way to still use our old Carl Zeiss lenses, let's say. If a ribbon microphone sounds better on the voice, then let it be. That doesn't mean to say if we have a brand-new, shiny, sizzly mic [that we won't use it].
We appreciate that certain pieces have stayed with us. My echo machines are the same ones I've been using for a long time, for example. But we're not afraid of technology. I have this process called dubbing. I extract from an available ingredient in the multitrack, sample it and then spit it back in once I've processed it.
You may hear some orchestral tones in the distance on some of these tracks, and we didn't have an orchestra in, obviously. Some of that sound comes from my stereo technique and my dubbing technique.
Lucinda Williams and Daniel Lanois perform at The GRAMMY Foundation's "Music In Focus" in 2009.
When you consider the totality of your self-expression, where do your solo records sit as opposed to your production work?
It's all bleeding together more than ever. In regard to my solo work and production work, let me clarify that for any record I produce, I'm a musician in the room with the artist, usually. I'm a musician first, so I've always felt that kind of exchange with people I work with, including Bob Dylan and U2. They always welcome me as a member of the orchestra.
My contribution to production is largely my musicianship. There's plenty of people that do great work with technology and probably some better than me. But in regard to my aesthetic and my taste and what drives me, it all comes from a musical place. Every record I work on I learn from, and I take those lessons and bring them to my own work.
But when I'm working by myself on my solo recordings, I'm surrounded by people who I trust and are good mates. So they become producers, really. I can take that hat off for a minute and listen to good advice from my buddies.
You brought up Dylan and U2, and it might be elucidating for readers to hear a couple of stories about your production work. Can you narrow that down to three records you consider the most memorable?
I love all of my children, but I have fond memories of some of my work with U2. The Joshua Tree was done at a very potent time of devotion. We were very interested in experimentation with sounds and mixing technology with hand-playing.
The Joshua Tree had that in "With or Without You," which became a very popular song. We started with a little beatbox, for example. We put the drums on after. But more importantly, we were really focused, in a lovely setting in a beautiful farmhouse outside of Dublin. We had nowhere to go. We just rolled up our sleeves and concentrated on our work.
Then, winding the clock ahead to Germany and making Achtung Baby with U2. Monumental time. The wall [in Berlin] had just come out. It was winter; it was rock 'n' roll, but it was bleak. And the bleakness of it kept us in the warm studio. And, again, the limitations were very much a part of what we were doing.
Daniel Lanois in 1993.
Let's move over to Time Out of Mind. That record was started in Oxnard, California, in a little Mexican theater. Ultimately, we went to Miami, to Criteria, to finish the next chapter of the record. Bob wanted to assemble a large band this time, unlike the record I made with him called Oh Mercy, which was a very private record—just me and Bob in two chairs, mostly. This assembly of people made it such that we were afforded broader landscapes.
Jim Dickinson provided us with these very sophisticated musicians who provided us with the most amazing scapes—landscapes and skyscapes. It took us to a [magical] place a lot of times. We had the advantage of really greasy electric guitar work, but sophisticated details from Jim Dickinson. When you have 11 people in the room, you get a lot of results fast.
As a secret weapon, I had prepared these drum loops in New York from my friend Tony Mangurian. We had played along with some of the old blues records Bob wanted me to listen to—Charley Patton, Little Walter, Little Willie John. We did some backyard jams and I chose maybe a dozen loops of our best playing. I didn't include the original records; we just played along with them.
I vari-sped them at different speeds in anticipation of providing them to the two drummers in Miami—Brian Blade and Jim Keltner. The reason I'm saying all of this is that we were making a blues-based record and I wanted to have an insurance policy in case we fell into average blues, which I didn't want to do for Bob. I wanted to make sure we flew over the cuckoo's nest of barroom blues to take it to the future, at least emotionally.
So I used these loops four, maybe five times on the record. I fed them to the drummers in their headphones; Bob wasn't hearing them. When people came back into the control room to listen to the playbacks, they fed these loops in with what they played. The loops were magical to begin with, so it added this layer of magic to something that might have been more commonplace. I spoke with [some of the players] at one point and said, "Please leave expectations at the door. I don't want to hear any familiar guitar playing on this record.
I'm [also] fond of the record I was asked to work on with Brian Eno, Apollo. We made that in Canada back in the day. We worked on a lot of ambient records together. That's another record that really transports a listener. It's the record that caused me to take my pedal steel guitar out of the closet.
There's a track on there called "Deep Blue Day." If you ever saw the film called Trainspotting, "Deep Blue Day" shows up during the toilet bowl scene. But it's a record that takes you somewhere, and isn't that the job of art? That it would lift you out of your skin and take you someplace? It might just change a little something about your life for a minute.
U2 at 2006 GRAMMYs
U2 at 2006 GRAMMYs
GRAMMY Rewind: Watch U2 Win Album Of The Year At The 2006 GRAMMY Awards
Watch U2 accept the high honor of Album Of The Year for 'How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb' at the 48th GRAMMY Awards in 2006
For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, please join us in celebrating U2 bassist Adam Clayton's 60th birthday today, March 13, with this look back at one of the legendary rock band's GRAMMY highlights. At the 48th GRAMMY Awards in 2006, the Irish rock legends took home five golden gramophones, including for the high honors of Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year.
Below, watch U2 accept the Album Of The Year GRAMMY for their 11th studio album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, with a charming speech where Bono shouts out fellow Album Of The Year nominees Kanye West (Late Registration), Mariah Carey (The Emancipation of Mimi) and Gwen Stefani (Love. Angel. Music. Baby.).
As Bono, Clayton, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. approach the stage to accept the award, fellow Album Of The Year nominees Paul McCartney (Chaos and Creation In The Backyard) and West, dressed in a fierce lavender tux, congratulate the band.
"This is our second Album Of The Year, but we've lost two, Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind, so now it feels that Kanye, you're next. [He's] a great artist that's been on the road with us [on the Vertigo Tour], [he's] extraordinary," Bono said on stage, rocking his signature tinted rimless shades with a cowboy hat and leather jacket. After also sharing complements for Carey and Stefani, he adds: "This is really a big, big night for our band."
"If ever there should have been a record called 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own,' it should've been this one," Clayton added. "We had a lot of producers; Danny Lanois, Brian Eno, Flood, Nellee Hooper, Jacknife Lee, Carl Glanville, Chris Tomas and our friend Steve Lillywhite."
The GRAMMY-winning album was released on Nov. 22, 2004, including classic hits "Vertigo," "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "City Of Blinding Lights." The five GRAMMYs it helped the band win include Best Rock Album and Song Of The Year and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own."
Photo: John Parra/WireImage.com
The Week In Music: She Wolf Hunted?
Spanish authorities investigate Shakira
Spotted: Shakira and her truth-telling hips frolicking in Barcelona's Pla de Palau fountain and riding around dangerously cool on a motorcycle without proper head protection. The GRAMMY- and Latin GRAMMY-winning artist was reportedly on location shooting the video for her upcoming duet "Loca," featuring Dizzee Rascal. But Spanish officials were not happy when they caught a glimpse of the YouTube footage, complaining that the bikini-clad Shakira "did not even ask permission to film." Authorities say they plan to inspect the footage to "detect infringements that have been committed during the recording." Now that's loca.
There's no place like Twitter for Lady Gaga, especially now that she has surpassed Britney Spears as the most-followed celeb on the site with a whopping 5.8 million followers. The new Twitter queen commemorated the honor by recording a homemade video during her Monster Ball tour stop in Tacoma, Wash., which finds her acting out a The Wizard Of Oz-like scene. In related news, in between tweets the queen managed to work in a big Kiss this past Friday in Holmdel, N.J.
Rolling Stone magazine has chosen the top 100 Beatles songs of all-time. Given that the Beatles reportedly recorded and released 213 songs, looks like any given song had about a 50 percent chance of making the list. Still, RS had to order them, which no doubt took eight days of the working week. We'll break the suspense and give you the top 10:
1. "A Day In The Life"
2. "I Want To Hold Your Hand"
3. "Strawberry Fields Forever"
5. "In My Life"
7. "Hey Jude"
8. "Let It Be"
9. "Come Together"
10. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
"Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers," wrote Elvis Costello in an introduction to the Rolling Stone list. We think Ringo had high standards too, since he recorded almost exclusively Beatles songs in the '60s.
In related top 100 news, VH1 will resume its list-making ways on Sept. 6 when the network counts down the 100 greatest artists of all-time. The list was compiled by "hundreds of musicians and music experts," some of whom will appear on the show, including Sheryl Crow, Ray Davies, Rob Halford, Whitney Houston, and Regina Spektor. USA Today has provided a sneak peek at the top 20, as well as an alphabetical list of the top five: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. Who will emerge as No. 1?
Still in the top 20 this week, "Billionaire" by Bruno Mars and Travie McCoy has been one of the summer's biggest hits, probably because it says so much about our economically recessed times. But does it also say something about our media times? Nearly 40 years ago, Dr. Hook sang longingly about being on the cover of Rolling Stone. In "Billionaire," Mars (who visited The Recording Academy on Aug. 10) sings longingly about being on the cover of Forbes, billionaire Steve Forbes' conservative biz mag. The times they are a-changing indeed.
Looks like renaissance man Neil Young refuses to be an old man looking at his life. He's embracing all the Internet has to offer. Young, who was recently honored as the 2010 MusiCares Person of the Year, has announced that following the Sept. 28 release of his new album Le Noise on CD, vinyl and iTunes, the project will be made available on Blu-ray and as an interactive iPhone and iPad app this November. Comedian Jimmy Fallon has already beat Young to the Sing Like Neil app.
What started out as a swell evening at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif., turned to tragedy as the Swell Season's Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with the hundreds of fans in attendance, witnessed a man jump to his death from a roof covering the outdoor stage in what was an apparent suicide. The man, identified as 32 year-old Michael Pickles, landed just feet away from Hansard. The duo, who recently announced plans for a hiatus following the incident, have offered to pay for grief counseling for fans who witnessed the Aug. 19 tragedy, providing four sessions at the Kara Grief Support center in Palo Alto, Calif. While the duo has plans to finish out the rest of their tour it will surely be a long time before that event is forgotten. "We continue to have them at the forefront of our minds and hearts," said the Swell Season.
U2's Bono was treated to a royal lunch with Russian President and self-proclaimed Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin fan, Dmitry Medvedev, at his Black Sea-adjacent residence to commend him for creating music that "unites generations." "You are doing important things, because taking care of people is not only a job for politicians," said Medvedev. The singer, who recently recovered from back surgery in May, joined U2 for its first-ever concert in Russia on Aug. 25. Was that Medvedev we spotted waving a cigarette lighter during "With Or Without You?"
Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie," featuring Rihanna, holds the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a sixth week, while Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" is No. 1 on the iTunes singles chart.
Any news we've missed? Comment below.
GRAMMY Winners To Perform At Haiti Benefit
GRAMMY Winners To Perform At Haiti Benefit
GRAMMY-winning artists Christina Aguilera, Bono, Alicia Keys, and Sting are among the artists who will perform at the "Hope For Haiti Now" benefit taking place Jan. 22 in New York. Hosted by GRAMMY winner Wyclef Jean, the show will be televised across more than a dozen broadcast and cable networks and will benefit Oxfam America, Red Cross, and UNICEF, among others, in support of the victims of the recent Haiti earthquake. (1/19)
Celine Dion Is Decade's Top-Earning Artist
Celine Dion has been named the No. 1 artist on the Los Angeles Times' Ultimate Top 10 list, a ranking of artists' combined album sales and concert revenue from the past decade. Dion totaled $748 million in revenue, followed by Kenny Chesney with $742 million, Dave Matthews Band with $737.4 million, the Beatles with $627.3 million, and U2 with $609.7 million. Rounding out the list were Toby Keith, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Tim McGraw, and Britney Spears. (1/19)
BRIT Awards Nominees Announced
The BRIT Awards 2010 nominees were announced with Lily Allen, Florence & The Machine, Lady Gaga, and Pixie Lott leading the field with three nominations each. Others artists receiving nods include Dizzee Rascal, Jay-Z, JLS, La Roux, and Paolo Nutini. The BRIT Awards will take place Feb. 16 at Earls Court Arena in London. (1/19)
Japanese Physical Market Declines
Audio production totaled 214.3 million units in Japan in 2009, a 13 percent decline from the previous year, for a value of $2.75 billion, representing a 16 percent year-over-year decline, according to Recording Industry Association of Japan. While audio production declined, music video production totaled 59.2 million units, up 6 percent over 2008, for a value of $739 million, a 2 percent increase. (1/19)
Leonard Cohen's Holy Standard
With more than 360 recordings, Leonard Cohen's spiritual "Hallelujah" has evolved into a universal modern-day hymn
It is rare that a song can so deeply permeate the popular zeitgeist that it is played at moments of deep communal grief and universal gratitude. A few standards, such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "A Change Is Gonna Come" or "Let It Be," come to mind, but Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," with its signature mix of a beguilingly simple melody and artfully ambiguous lyrics, has somewhat incongruously risen to standard status.
"Hallelujah" began its improbable journey in 1984 when Cohen — a legend among the musical literati for such songs as "Suzanne," "Bird On A Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," but still a relatively obscure poet turned folk musician — was about to turn 50. He pored over the words to the song for many years, filling two notebooks, writing more than 80 verses and recording two versions with almost completely different lyrics. When "Hallelujah" was finished, his record company, Columbia, turned down the album it was to be featured on, Various Positions. The album was subsequently released in 1985 on the indie label PVC Records.
In the nearly three decades since, the song has become a modern-day hymn, played everywhere from ground zero, the Vatican and the Super Bowl to earthquake and hurricane relief benefits and memorial montages at awards shows. The song, which is also broadcast at 2 a.m. every Saturday night by the Israeli Defense Force's radio channel, has even inspired the book The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley And The Unlikely Ascent Of Hallelujah, authored by Alan Light, former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin.
"I couldn't think of any other song that had this long and extended path to becoming a standard, as opposed to coming out and being a big hit and everyone knowing that it's a very special song," says Light. "'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was a huge hit when it came out and everybody got that. This one took 15 to 20 years to get to that place. It's not like there was one big moment, not at the creation, or one cover that did it."
Like other Cohen compositions, the thematic dichotomies of hope and doubt and sacred and profane — or the holy and the broken as alluded to in Light's book title — run through "Hallelujah."
"The fact is," Light says, "that despite all the misunderstandings over the lyrics, or maybe because of them, 'Hallelujah,' like Springsteen's 'Born In The U.S.A.' before it, has been co-opted by the larger public, which bears evidence of an even greater subtlety in the seeming dichotomy of the song. We continue to faithfully sing the words, even though we don't know what they mean."
In 1991 John Cale of the Velvet Underground recorded his interpretation for a Cohen tribute album, which was subsequently used on the soundtrack for Basquiat. Cale's version attracted an aspiring young artist named Jeff Buckley, who heard it and recorded a transformative version for his 1994 album, Grace. Bob Dylan was also one of the few people to recognize the song's qualities early on, and sang it live in concert frequently. In 2001 Rufus Wainwright's cover of the song was featured on the soundtrack for the animated film Shrek.
"Hallelujah" has since appeared in TV shows such as "The O.C.," "The West Wing," "ER," and "Scrubs," and graced the repertoire of more than 80 artists as diverse as Bon Jovi, Imogen Heap, Bono, Justin Timberlake, and Willie Nelson. In December 2008, a rendering by "The X Factor" winner Alexandra Burke and Buckley's version were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the British singles charts, marking the first time in more than 50 years that the same song held the top two spots. Cohen's original recording broke into the Top 40 the same week. Canadian GRAMMY winner k.d. lang sang it at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver in 2010, giving the song a global stage.
"Everybody wanted to talk about it," said Light regarding his book research. "Whether it was Bono or Bon Jovi, they didn't need to be persuaded or convinced that there was something important going on here. Clearly every single person had thought about it [and] were aware of the legacy and being part of the chain of the performance."
Now, more than 360 recordings and thousands of performances later, "Hallelujah" is so ubiquitous that even Cohen himself politely requested a moratorium in 2009. However, as further testament to the song's ambiguous power, we have perhaps only to witness Adam Sandler's off-color parody at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert.
"Then with the Newtown [High School] shootings one week later," Light reflects, "the song was right back where people needed it to be. It was at the memorial; it was at the SNL opening. This is still the song that can perform that task."
Cohen, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Recording Academy in 2010, has said of the song's meaning: "It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value."
Light adds, "I think that at the heart of it there is this sense, as Leonard says, that it really is getting over the obstacle and challenges that life presents to you, even when you're at your weakest and you've been torn to pieces, that you look to the skies and wonder at being alive and appreciate what that is and be thankful. I think in a lot of these uses, that's what is really there."
(John Sutton-Smith is a music journalist and TV producer who helped establish the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Living Histories oral history program, currently comprising almost 200 interviews.)