One of the most prolific creative minds of the past century, Leonard Cohen’s body of work is as vast as it is daring, and as important as it is thought provoking. He brings his skills as a poet and novelist into his songwriting, a master of words, mood, and theme. His fearless, genre-bending approach to songwriting is his unmistakable brand, and although many have tried to replicate his style, Cohen’s voice and expertise as a storyteller continue to make him one of the most thoughtful and purposeful songwriters of the century.
Born in Montreal and raised by a middle-class Jewish family, Cohen grew up studious and artistic. He fed off of the multicultural environment and loved to study music and writing from an early age. Throughout his twenties, Cohen lived as a struggling writer, publishing collections of poems and two novels. However, he was unable to find mainstream success and decided to move to New York to be a songwriter. Within the same year he moved to New York City, Cohen became friends with several of the city’s legendary underground artists, such as Andy Warhol and Nico. He also got a contract with Columbia Records and released his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. The album brought his music to the attention of contemporaries like James Taylor and Judy Collins, who famously covered some of his songs. Five decades later, Cohen’s career as a musician has earned him entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He has helped shape how albums are recorded and how songs are written with his modern standards like “Suzanne,” “I’m Your Man,” and “Hallelujah,” the latter of which has been covered by more than two hundred artists. Cohen has also lent his talents in collaborations with other iconic artists, including U2, Paul Simon, Philip Glass, and Herbie Hancock.
Leonard Cohen’s music and writing continue to inspire through their complexity and eloquence, but Cohen’s work is also notable for its symbolism and ideology. There is seemingly no human issue beyond Cohen’s reach, and he has aptly captured the essence of romance, longing, depression, loss, faith, and modern politics in his songs. Even his simplest, most stripped down works can become labyrinths of multilayered symbolism, conflict, and philosophy. His work has supported farmers, victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, disaster survivors, and victims of social injustice all over the world. In 2011, Cohen was awarded the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize for his lifetime contributions to music and communication. In an act of generosity that mirrors his work as an artist, he donated the entire $50,000 award to the Canada Council for the Arts.
Leonard Cohen has earned his place in history with his uncompromising belief that songs should always tell a story, stand for something, and speak to someone. Today’s popular music does not always pay mind to these principles, but the countless artists who do share them have Leonard to look up to. Cohen’s art is ageless, timeless, and without nationality – it tells the story of the human experience, for better or worse. Yet even from the depths of sorrow and despair, there is always hope. This is Leonard Cohen’s legacy.