Trad/roots: Hallelujah - the songs of Leonard Cohen are coming to Belfast

Ahead of the Bird on the Wire show in Belfast later this month, Robert McMillen talks to Pauline Scanlon about performing the songs of Leonard Cohen and her next album

Pauline Scanlon has been listening to and performing Leonard Cohen's songs for many years
Robert McMillen

HE might not have been the biggest-selling vocalist of all time but so many people across the globe have a place in their hearts for the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Some, such as Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy, Hallelujah or Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye, have remained there for decades, lyrical reminders of past lives or loves, of moments in time that can be summoned up by even just a refrain.

In the case of Kerry singer Pauline Scanlon, Leonard Cohen has always been around.

"I've been listening to him all my life because my mother was a huge fan so his songs were always on in the house as I was growing up, so in that regard, I didn't really discover him on my own - it was more of a slow burner for me," she tells me as we chat about her upcoming Irish tour of Bird On the Wire: The songs of Leonard Cohen.

The idea for the show came about in quite an unusual way.

"I've been singing the songs over and back for years and I recorded one on my last album, but there's a woman called Eileen O'Donoghue - she and her husband Patrick own the INEC Entertainment Centre in the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney - and Eileen and I would always be discussing Leonard Cohen, talking about the songs we loved and this kind of thing," Pauline explains.

"It happened that it was coming up to Eileen and Patrick's 25th wedding anniversary and one day Patrick rang me and said, 'I'd like to surprise Eileen. Could you put a band together to play Leonard Cohen songs for her?'"

Pauline, of course, jumped at the chance, given the number of top-class musicians living nearby in Headford and the rest of Co Galway. Easy peasy.

"We have a lot of close friends who just happen to be play keys, bass, drums and that kind of thing, so I didn't have to look too far," she says.

"And I just thought that the mix of the amazing vocals of The Whileaways (Noriana Kennedy, Noelie Mc Donnell and Nicola Joyce) and the male vocals would just work really beautifully.

"So I gave them a shout out and they were all up for it but the show has very much evolved so that now so it's more of a collaborative singing project between me and them. And nobody really has any ownership of us or anything but it just grew legs and wings."

As Pauline says, "We did it once and then people just kept asking us to do it again."

But what has kept Leonard Cohen alive and relevant and in people's hearts for so long? It's true the Canadian poet, novelist and singer wrote and sang of the things that affect us most - religion, politics, isolation, depression, loss, and romantic relationships - and those things, or the lack of them, are a deep part of our psyche, never going away.

"I think that Cohen's songs are like old companions, they travel with people," suggests Pauline.

"It's not a flash in the pan-type music, it demands quite a lot of the listener in the sense that there are layers and layers of meaning and mystery in the lyrics and in the poetry are often it's quite... challenging is the wrong word, I guess, but it does demand quite a lot of attention.

"It's not really background music. I look out at the audience every night and I see they know all the words and they're difficult songs.

"The fans and the people who really love the show are really quite discerning. I think that there's an awful lot of memories wrapped up in the songs because people have been listening to it for so long that it's associated with times gone by and people and places, and I think it's very evocative for people."

However, Pauline and her collaborators have not gone down the road of cloning Cohen's songs (thankfully) and as she points out, the show features three female lead singers as opposed to Lenny's solo bass - or was he a baritone who drank and smoked too much?

"Some of the backing vocals - I even hesitate to call them backing vocals because they're so integral to the songs - some of the harmony vocals and some of the second vocals have really been written into the song. So it's very hard to extrapolate those parts," says Pauline.

"People have a very deep emotional attachment to the harmonic structures of the songs but we definitely put our own stamp on things without making them unrecognisable for people."

"We've been doing it for about two years now and I've never rehearsed more for anything in my life," laughs Pauline.

That, of course, is saying something as the former Dingle White Female is also part of the Atlantic Arc Orchestra, the supergroup consisting of Dónal Lunny, Pádraig Rynne, Jarlath Henderson and others and they have recently had "a very good week" recording some tracks that Dónal O'Connor is now mixing.

"Yeah, we just recorded some gorgeous stuff, some beautiful songs and some gorgeous tunes and we are kind of sitting with that. We'll go back after Christmas to kind of finesse things," Pauline explains, while also saying there is no release date planned so far.

Given the workload above - on top of being the mother of two children with husband Eamon Murray of Beoga fame - I sheepishly asked if she had anything else on.

"Hold my coat," she could have said, but instead told me about her upcoming solo album which could end up being one of the iconic albums of the decade. No pressure, Pauline.

"I've just finished recording a solo album, actually, it's just been mastered and we're working on the cover at the moment. I hope to be releasing that around March next year," she explained.

The album has evolved from Pauline's work with Fair Plé, the group of female traditional artists who are working to achieve gender balance in all aspects of Irish traditional and folk music.

"I was kind of thinking how to creatively respond to that and I suppose, being a lifelong feminist, I really wanted to make an album of traditional songs that reflected my own views, and the experiences and views perhaps of my contemporaries and of modern era women," she says.

"So I took the life of my late mother and by extension some of her contemporaries or people of her age and broke it down to kind of 10 core beliefs – it's even hard to articulate it – let's say 10 core stages, and attributed a traditional song to each of those stages. So that's called The Unquiet, and will be out in March."

:: Bird on the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is coming to the Limelight on Saturday October 16.

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