My Favorite Album: Hayden Thorpe on Leonard Cohen’s "The Best of Leonard Cohen" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 28th, 2020  

My Favorite Album: Hayden Thorpe on Leonard Cohen’s “The Best of Leonard Cohen”

“Leonard Cohen songs can be so minimal they’re almost concept songs. All the orchestration and grandeur within the soundscape is actually a construction of your m

Jul 08, 2020 Issue #66 - My Favorite Album - Angel Olsen and Sleater-Kinney
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The reason I chose this record was because when I was in New York I saw his exhibition at the Jewish Museum. Which is just a genius installation. Within that was a series of around 300 self-portraits. I don’t think he started making self-portraits until the last 20 years of his life. One of them is him with a skinhead and a slight beard, and he’s got this full on face where the text next to it reads, “Still surprised that he did not dominate his generation.” I came across an interview with him where he was slagging off John Lennon’s Imagine. He called it slogan music. Advert music. I don’t think it was lost on him that he never quite got that gravity. But for those of us that did get him, it works in a more submerged way. In a more subterranean way, he does have that gravity. Certainly with those people he touches. He’s an immense figure in your life. For me he’s a pillar. Someone I can refer to. 

In my late teens it was like a hormonal pacifier. It somehow negotiated the chaos that comes with that age. I felt like I was listening to old world music, especially at that age. They’re incredible bedroom recordings from the 1960s where you can really get a sense of the room. It made me realize at that age that music was the making of the mind as well as the ears. It was the way I was forming songs in my head. In my mind, with memory and emotion, and the mood within myself that was reforming ideas of these songs. Leonard Cohen songs can be so minimal they’re almost concept songs. All the orchestration and grandeur within the soundscape is actually a construction of your mind. These anthems have a quite crumby singing voice and moderate guitar playing at times but that was the thing I loved. That’s how the relationship began, that I felt I was negotiating with him. 

I first discovered Cohen’s “Hallelujah” through Jeff Buckley. Obviously that’s become a skyscraper song for generations now. I was so enchanted by Buckley’s version of this seminal song of the ages, and then tracing it back to the blueprint of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and just being absolutely baffled at what had happened in the space between the two versions. In that space, understanding the mechanisms of a song. Therein lies the blueprint of a song. This very ornate and grand vision, that’s what really lured me in. The fascination of how that worked. Then as a beginner you go to The Best of…, you go to the singles. I think it really suits him. Frankly, he needs a best of for beginners. Especially when you get a sense that a lot of these songs are stream of consciousness. Within any stream of 

In that gulf between Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and the original there was a task for me. How do you become a singer that can sing like Jeff Buckley and become a songwriter that can write like Leonard Cohen? How do you be both of those things? Because I do believe in life you have a finite amount of energy and what you commit your resource to, what you commit your life force to does reflect on how I commit myself to the songs I’m writing. Also, how do I commit myself to singing them in a way that does those songs justice? That became my task. 

What I gather from Cohen’s writing and the description he used for those processes is it was total agony for him. It was a very convoluted and troublesome thing for him to get a song into shape. I think the layers of him within that effort must have been painstaking. Every mark is so deliberate. Every word and intimation is so deliberate. That’s what holds up now. 

(Hayden Thorpe is the former vocalist for British art-rockers Wild Beasts, who broke up in 2018. His debut solo album, Diviner, was released last year on Domino. Portions of Hayden Thorpe’s conversation have been abridged and edited for structure and flow.)

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

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