The Secret Life of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen.

The song ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen is now thought of as a glittering jewel of genius. But the story of its rise to recognition reveals that it was the thinnest thread of circumstance that brought the song to the attention of the public imagination at all.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the song in his wonderful new(ish) podcast Revisionist History. You can listen to the episode here:

Gladwell traces the history of the song (starting around halfway through the episode). Hallelujah was first released by Cohen in 1984. Cohen performed the song, but would constantly alter verses, sing verses that didn’t get recorded, eliminate biblical references (then bring them back), and generally move the pieces around like an Escher jigsaw. Very few people beyond fans paid attention to the song.

However, a singer-songwriter, John Cale, heard Cohen perform a version at a club in New York, and recorded his own version, taking Cohen’s sombre, dramatic, gospelised version and turning into a melodious piano-vocal that extracted the emotional core of the song and put it into a stark, haunting light. It was released on a small French label. Still, very few people paid any attention.

One of the few people who happened to have the record was a woman who was friends with a young man, a young and little-known singer-songwriter, by the name of Jeff Buckley. While house-sitting, he happened to put the record on. He happened to like the song, and happened to perform his own cover of John Cale’s cover in a tiny club in the East Village.

This happened to be heard by an executive at Columbia Records, and the version was released on Buckley’s debut album Grace. Grace also missed its target and fell disappointingly short of the public’s attention—until Buckley disappeared into the Mississippi River in 1997, and the rest in history.

What is astounding about this chain of events is how fragile and circumstantial the links of the chain really are. This was the farthest from an inevitable outcome. The song could very easily have remained in obscurity, a gem buried in the sand.

The journey of genius is complex; creativity is an impossible web of personality, circumstance and damn hard work (it’s well known that Cohen wrote between 50-70 verses in the process of crafting Hallelujah); and the recognition of genius is never guaranteed.

We just got lucky this time.



Student Profile – Sister Ursuline

SISTER URSULINE is a Sydney-based cello-wielding songwriter with a soft spot for pigeons, bloomers, and hidden historical stories of woe-begone women and confounding men. The first song she brought to me became the name-sake of her alter Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 9.54.15 pmego, Sister Ursuline. Sister Ursuline was a real person—a well-meaning former nun who somehow mistakenly ended up interned in a mental institution.

Sister Ursuline’s fascination with little-known historical characters turned into a full-blown obsession, and sparked a series of cello-webbed songs exploring their narratives and sometimes strange motivations.

I love thatSister Ursuline is unafraid to write from the perspective of people on the edge—on the edge of proper society, and sometimes dangling off the edge of their own minds.

You can hear Sister Ursuline’s song, In The East River, below. In The East River plunges a wet hand into the world of a woman who served a double crime: spreading contagion, made worse by the condition of being a woman and a servant. History knows her as Typhoid Mary.

You can find out more about Sister Ursuline’s music at her Facebook page.

Songs I Love: ‘One Way Ticket’ by Busbee

My friend showed me Busbee’s album last night, and I listened to it on repeat while driving from San Diego back to LA. There are a lot of songs from this beautiful album that are both poetry and extraordinary songwriting craft. I couldn’t help myself but keep coming back to this one though.

As far as songwriting elements go, the 2 things that really stand out to me are the simplicity and beauty of the chorus/hook. He’s picked something that is an image, something evocative and personal, and used a phrase that implies so much more story than is being openly shared. To say, “he’s got a one-way ticket this time” begs so many other questions: what did he have last time? How many times has he gone away and come back? What’s different this time? What’s gonna happen?

I LOVE phrases that imply stories, and spark the imagination. My partner’s forthcoming illustrated novel is called ‘Back Already?’, which I love for the same reasons.

I also love the way the story develops. The first verse is about the character – a boy/guy who needs to find some freedom and get away from the ‘shackles’ of his mum. A classic independence story. So he’s got a one-way ticket this time.

Then the next verse is about the girl he’s presumably leaving behind. It adds a new and emotional dimension to the whole song. It’s about HIM to start with, and then it’s about THEM.

Beautiful song. Busbee is an artist, and also a really active songwriter, with cuts by Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, and Timbaland, to name a few. It’s refreshing and inspiring to me to hear the kind of craft that goes into uber-commercial writing being applied to a personal songwriting, and reinforces the idea that some songwriting techniques work across genres. It’s all connected.