If it were an easy thing to write a song, every Tom, Dick and Harry Nilsson would be doing it. Leonard Cohen, for example, famously struggled to complete Hallelujah. It took him three years and 70 verses to get it done, and when he finally turned it in, the record company didn't like it. David played a secret chord that pleased the Lord, as the song goes, but satisfying label A&R guys is a whole other deal.
Of course, Hallelujah eventually pleased a lot of people. Released in 1984 on the album Various Positions, the song spawned some 300 cover versions, at least two of which – by Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang – were more memorable than the original.
Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, at 82. At the recent Juno broadcast from Ottawa, the singer-songwriter Leslie Feist paid tribute to the deep-voiced fedora fetishist with a stunning version of his mournful love song Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye. Accompanied by backup singers, the artist known professionally as Feist offered a tender acoustic-guitar tribute, performed with a slide show of black-and-white photos playing behind her.
If covering a classic song isn't thought to be as demanding a chore as writing one, the undertaking isn't a blithe one at all, particularly when it comes to sending off someone as iconic as Cohen.
"I really had to climb into it," says Feist, speaking to The Globe and Mail in her Toronto rehearsal space two days after the Juno performance.
Feist is preparing for the release of Pleasure, set to drop on April 28. The album is the Grammy-nominated musician's first in six years. The material is reflective and sparsely produced, though the just-out single Century is a punchy rocker.
Recently announced tour dates include an instantly sold-out album-launch concert at Toronto's Trinity-St. Paul's Centre on April 27, and summer festival appearances at Toronto's Field Trip (June 4) and the Winnipeg Folk Fest (July 8).
Her Juno-show performance wasn't the 41-year-old artist's first Cohen interpretation: She graced Sarah Polley's 2011 drama Take This Waltz with Closing Time.
"You have to determine what's in a song of his that's mine enough to feel entitled to sing it," Feist says, "Otherwise, it's touchy, dangerous territory to go into the world of Leonard Cohen."
Taken from the late Montrealer's debut album, Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye is at least 50 years old. Its meaning is malleable.
"I can almost smell the sea air or whatever it is I imagine," says Feist, surrounded by guitars and amplifiers in a small second-floor space. "I tried to think about what the song meant to him. But at the same time it becomes metaphor, because I don't know what the story is for him. I'll never know."
Most who saw her rendition would agree that Feist had reached a truth. "But now it's come to distances," she sang poignantly, "and both of us must try."
It was some way to say goodbye.