Victoria musicians Glenna Garramone and Oliver Swain have collaborated to create the Tower of Song project. Tower of Song has just released its debut album In City and Forest, primarily a collection of reimagined Leonard Cohen songs. Garramone, a former University of Victoria writing student, has been a force in the BC music scene for several years, winning the grand prize in the 2010 Artswells Songwriting Contest and performing at venues such as the BC Festival of the Arts and the Victoria Independent Music Awards. She took the time to write thoughtful, insightful answers to reviewer Emmett Robinson Smith’s questions about the Cohen project while on tour with Swain for the album. In City and Forest recreates a selection of Cohen’s works to sound fresh and exciting again, and also includes two originals from Swain and Garramone.
How has Leonard Cohen influenced you as both a lyricist and a musician?
I first listened to Cohen’s music as a child, from the back seat of my parents’ car. My dad is from Montreal, and both my parents are Cohen fans, so Cohen was often the music of choice on family road trips between our home in Ottawa and visiting extended family in Montreal. Cohen’s songs have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Because of this, I’m sure there are ways in which Cohen’s work influences me subconsciously.
On a more conscious level, the honesty of Cohen’s lyrics continually inspire me to be more honest in my own writing. Cohen has a way of being serious and insightful, and surprisingly light and and even irreverent at times.
The first time I saw Cohen perform his music live, I was suddenly struck with the realization that he was able to write from such a vast consciousness because he lives his life in such a way that he really exposes his heart to the spectrum of human experience. I remember hearing an interview where Cohen said something to the effect of (and I paraphrase here) “Poetry isn’t what you set out to create. It’s a byproduct of a life well lived.” Seeing Cohen perform his own work inspired me to make changes in my life so that I could risk more, and feel more, so that I could write from a similar expansive place.
In terms of his musicality, some critics contest whether Cohen is actually a “musician” or not. In my experience of working with Cohen’s songs, the songs are thoughtful, and well composed in terms of the chord progressions, the melodies, and how they interact with the words. Cohen is not a particularly “showy” musician, but his compositions are durable. The fact that so many great artists have covered his songs attests to the strength of the work, I think. Some of Cohen’s songs are simple/straightforward in terms of the chords’ progressions, but there is often an unexpected turn or shift in the development of the song, sometimes even just one chord or one ornament that makes the song more memorable and distinct. In this way, Cohen has inspired me to be more minimalist as a songwriter, and to allow the simplicity of a few chords to work their magic.
The musical arrangements in many of your covers are quite different from Cohen’s originals. What are you hoping to achieve by this reimagining of Cohen’s music?
When I first started the Tower of Song project, I thought that it was just going to be an evening of some of my favourite west coast artists getting together to bring their own voice to Cohen’s work. Oliver Swain was the first artist I thought of when I was brainstorming about musicians and songwriters who have a very distinct voice and style. I’m grateful that that first night gave Oliver and [me] the opportunity to reconnect and to sing together because our harmonies became intoxicating for both of us, and that has lead to us forming this duo around the project, arranging, recording, and touring together.
As a performer, I’d participated in a few different tribute nights to various artists, and my favourite part of a tribute is to see how a song can become new again when someone else brings their voice and their interpretation to the work. Because Cohen’s work is so dense and rich, and because he is one of my favourite songwriters, I wanted to see what would happen when I asked some of my peers to explore his work. I also found that when I covered Cohen’s work, the songs seemed to have a life of their own. When I begin learning one of his songs, I learn the song as he wrote it, and then keep playing it over and over and allow it to shape shift into something new. Essentially I let the song guide me in terms of how to best express it. Of course I bring my own biases and experience to the interpretation, but I can say that it has been a very organic process. Some of the songs on “In City and In Forest” I’ve been singing for over 15 years, so they have just evolved with me. There are a few lines in “Chelsea Hotel #2” where I alter the chord progression and melody, and repeat the lines “I need you…” and that particular melody came to me when I was living in the Arctic and was feeling quite isolated and lonely. In that way the songs are like companions that have travelled with me, and they change as I change.
Another goal of the project is to keep these songs alive and in the repertoire of modern songwriting. They’re just too valuable and insightful to stay put. Since I first started covering Cohen’s songs (about 18 years ago), every once in awhile I would have someone approach me after a performance and say “You know, I have heard that song before, but I’d never really heard it until now.” I think that for some people in my generation, when they think of Cohen’s music, they associate it with the synth-heavy and very produced studio sound of Cohen’s work from the ’80s and ’90s. So in some ways, I wanted to present the songs in a different context, so that they could be heard by people who perhaps didn’t resonate with Cohen’s original version, or with Cohen’s voice. I wanted to honour the song, and Cohen’s original vision, and also to allow the song to be fluid. That is the nature of songs in the folk tradition.
The Cohen works you selected for the album span a good chunk of his career – 1967 to 2001 — yet you perform them in such a way on the album that they sound cohesive despite the significant time gap. Was this sense of unity and timelessness one of the goals of the project?
We (Oliver and I) definitely put a lot of thought into the songs we chose for the album. We were also being strategic with the first album, because we had a finite budget (which means finite time in the studio), and so we decided to focus on the foundation of our collaboration, which is our vocal harmonies. About a year ago I had applied to the Canada Council for the Arts for a grant to make a Tower of Song recording. At that time the recording we were planning was more of a traditional studio album, with several guest artists and a full band. But we didn’t get the grant, so we decided to focus on recording the songs where we could carry the majority of the playing and singing between the two of us. We were very fortunate to have the support and financial investment from a fan, and that allowed us to work with Joby Baker and record at Baker Studios. Joby is extremely talented both as a producer and as a musician (he plays all the drums and percussion on the album), so he is also responsible for the cohesive sound of the album as a whole.
I think that the cohesive sound is also just a reflection of the work that Oliver and I did together to really explore every note and every harmony in the songs, in the two years leading up to the recording of the album. Sometimes in our rehearsals, we’ll spend over an hour just working on one line, trying to get it just so. We are both perfectionists when it comes to our music, so when we collaborate we work with the subtleties of harmonizing — blending, breathing together, timing. This thorough vocal exploration is one of my favourite aspects of the collaboration. Singing in harmony with people can be a very intimate experience. I have found that practicing harmony with people cannot just be isolated to “making music” together– you actually find your way to harmony through all the other stuff too– running a business together, touring, dealing with challenges that come up in life. I think it’s almost impossible to stay rigid when you need to harmonize with another person every night on stage. It’s a compelling archetype/model of being in the world– I get to maintain my own voice, my own note, my own vibration and perspective, and “the other” gets to maintain their own voice and note and sense of self, and rather than needing one or the other to be “right,” we find that the blend of these two selves is more powerful than the individual.
There are two original songs on the album: Oliver’s “Baby in the Bay” and your “Unicorn.” Why did you include these two originals in the context of the Cohen-themed album?
The concept for the Tower of Song project came to me through listening to these lines in Cohen’s song (The Tower of Song):
“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet.
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the tower of song.”
Here Cohen acknowledges his place in the tower of song, and the lineage of inspiration that extends through time. I resonated with the idea that all artists (in this case, songwriters) are in a dialogue with one another, even if they are not aware of each others’ presence. When you produce a work of art and put it out into the world, you may feel that you are alone in a room where no one can hear you, but in reality the work is now part of a conversation that is timeless, and there is no way to predict the impact of that work on the world, and the impact on other creators.
I think we all have our own “Tower of Song,” where the creators who have inspired us reside, and we overhear their work as we create our own. We create [partly] in response to what we overhear through the walls of the Tower. It is important to me for this project to also hold space for the original work of the artists who are involved. Both Oliver and I are songwriters and musicians with our own individual projects, so the intention is to also showcase original work by artists who name Cohen as a primary influence in their songwriting. In terms of selecting these two songs in particular to add to the recording, that decision was informed more by the fact that neither of us had recorded these songs as individuals yet, and that we had created arrangements that featured our vocal harmonies. It was also on some level an intuitive choice, just going with what seemed to fit with the overall aesthetic of the album.
How did the partnership between you and Oliver form? Will you be collaborating in the future?
I first met Oliver at a jam in a mutual friend’s living room in 2005. We basically locked eyes and locked voices and then were under a spell of sorts. Normally at a jam, you sit in a circle and take turns leading songs. That night Oliver and I kind of hijacked the normal jam circle etiquette, and insisted on playing and singing each others’ songs, while the rest of the musicians had their patience tested, since we didn’t want to stop singing and let other people have their turn. We continued to collaborate in different capacities — I hired Oliver to play bass on my studio album “Seasky-Starsong” (released in 2008), and a few years later, he invited me to sing harmonies with his band “Big Machine.” So we collaborate in several different configurations. The plan is to continue to tour as the Tower of Song duo, and we work with a rotating cast of guest artists as well. We already have songs selected for the next Tower of Song album!
Find their music here: http://towerofsongmusic.com/home