It was a little over a year ago that pop singer Jennifer Warnes called up old friend Leonard Cohen with the news that she was all set to finally record a new album--to consist entirely of his songs.

Chuckling, Warnes recalls a dubious Cohen's reaction at the time: "You'll have about as much luck as I've had."

Cohen had reason to doubt that such a project would ever see the light of day. Careerwise, both he and Warnes were a bit in need of a boost, to say the least--the kind of boost that neither one looked capable of providing the other.

Consider: Her sweet and plaintive voice. His sometimes dark and obscure songs. Their mutual lack of recent hits, or even a current record contract. The number of years since a talented pop singer had done an album exclusively of one talented singer-songwriter's material (the last one of note: "Nilsson Sings Newman," from 1970).

Now, there's a project to invest in. If ever a record seemed guaranteed to go directly to the bargain bins. . . .

But "Famous Blue Raincoat," released last fall, has not only garnered rave reviews but also has sold a respectable 250,000 copies, moving into the low 70s on the Billboard album chart. And that is something of a small miracle of taste triumphant.

Warnes and Cohen are quite the happy--if still seemingly unlikely--pair, reunited in a Hollywood publicist's office. Cohen, attired in his usual three-piece suit and chain-smoking, is fairly cheery and chatty for someone whose songs have had what one reference book called an "aura of quasi-suicidal romantic despair." The more casually dressed Warnes is equally chipper despite the flu, allowing herself one of Cohen's cigarettes as compensation for her bug.

"The songs that Leonard writes give me a very large emotional field to jump around in," offers Warnes about the album's challenge. "It's a good, hefty acting role, like what 'Out of Africa' is to Meryl Streep: 'Oh boy, now I can show what I really can do.' There's more of me that shows on this record, and I think people that pick it up are surprised that I have more to me than what they'd heard before."

What they'd heard from Warnes before were pleasant hit singles in the '70s like "Right Time of the Night" and "I Know a Heartache When I See One," the success of which led the singer's record labels to peg her warble squarely within the balladic pop/country crossover camp.

"Because of the amount of money Linda Ronstadt was making for Asylum," says Warnes, "Arista pretty much saw me as that ticket for them."

In the early '80s, she began to record a slew of movie theme songs, four of which were nominated for Academy Awards and two of which (the themes from "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Norma Rae") got the best song Oscar. With plenty of film work but no new records out, she seemed destined to become the Shirley Bassey of the '80s--making a career out of crooning over the closing credits down at the bijou.

Toiling as a hired hand in the film industry paid the bills for a while but didn't do much to showcase her skills as a songwriter, arranger or interpreter.

Says Cohen, "I think one of the nice things about (this success) is that Jennifer is acknowledged as a musician on a high level. I think people have thought of her as a canary up to this point."

Warnes agrees, citing the constant encouragement she had to stay in her perceived cage. "Generally my managers and record companies and supporters liked me to keep it light. They liked light product with a general point of view, general references so that everybody could find something in it rather than this very particular kind of thing. Most people would've rather in 1976 heard me sing, 'It's the right time of the night' than 'A singer must die for the lie in his voice.' "

Warnes--who met Cohen in 1969 and first sang backup vocals on one of his tours in 1971--had long wanted to do an album of his songs, but it was out of the question until she hooked up with the people who were forming the new Cypress Records, a label the singer says is targeted at the lost baby-boomer audience. "Famous Blue Raincoat" was apparently the sophisticated flagship release Cypress was looking for.

Besides making his own albums, Cohen has been interpreted before--most notably by Judy Collins and Tim Hardin in the '60s.

"I think part of the reason why these songs have not really made the charts all that much is because Leonard's lyrical choices are really hard-edged," says Warnes. "I can't hear softer artists singing some of those words. But actually, as it turns out, with a soft, feminine person singing lyrics with a lot of teeth in them, it causes a little tension."

Whether that delicate tension in these saber-toothed ballads will be inviting enough to enlist record buyers en masse remains to be seen. ("First We Take Manhattan," a wry track of modern counterculture restlessness that features the guitar work of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is just beginning to pick up air play.) For Cohen--who has been writing songs, poetry and novels since the mid-'50s, and recording his own albums since 1968--commercial considerations are nothing worth getting too worked up over anymore.

"You know, the marketplace changes legitimately and naturally," he says good-naturedly. "It works on resistances and laws of its own, and you can't nourish any fundamental quarrel with the marketplace; you can just acknowledge it and take it into account.

"But on the other hand, if you do have some sort of vision and some sort of integrity, as Jennifer does, you just have got to retreat and back up for a number of years until the times are more hospitable.

"You can't start a revolution and overthrow the industry, because the industry does respond to some kind of reality. I mean, they try to manipulate that reality and they're often wrong about it, but nevertheless you can't really waste too much time tinkering around with that kind of stuff or even embittering yourself with a sense of your being overlooked.

"I think that is a completely useless kind of activity. The most important thing is to keep singing and keep writing, and from time to time the doors will open, and if you move very fast and move through before the spikes of the iron gate close. . . . "

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