Go behind the scenes of the new Leonard Cohen album
Thanks For The Dance recorded in Montreal, L.A., Berlin, comes out in November
Howard Bilerman always dreamed of recording Leonard Cohen. He even pitched unsolicited proposals to the legendary poet-singer through the mail slot of his Montreal home in the 1990s, when he was just in his 20s.
So working on a Cohen album was an exciting experience for the 48-year-old engineer and co-owner of the hotel2tango recording studio in the city's Mile-End neighbourhood.
"Imagine being in the position to be able to push the solo button on that," he said about isolating Cohen's intense, gravely voice on his studio mixing board. "That was me."
Cohen's son Adam had asked Bilerman and Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson to add music to some of his father's solo vocals, which had previously been recorded in Los Angeles, in June 2016.
One of the songs, The Hills, was originally slated to be on Cohen's album You Want It Darker — which came out 19 days before his death that November — but wasn't ready.
Instead, it and eight other unfinished Cohen compositions will be released on the posthumous album Thanks For The Dance, out Nov. 22.
"The record is fantastic," said Bilerman, who says it feels like a classic Cohen record — not one of those "we're combing the archives for anything that we can cobble together" albums.
In addition to recording parts of The Hills, Bilerman also helped set up Adam's home studio in L.A., a converted garage, where much of the new record was produced.
Adam had flown him down to California for Cohen's memorial service in December 2016. That was where The Hills was played publicly for the first time, as a musical backdrop to a video montage Adam had made to honour his father's life.
"It took me about five seconds to realize, 'Oh my God that's the song that we did,'" said Bilerman, "I just immediately started bawling."
But it wasn't the only time Adam called on his friend while making Thanks For The Dance.
In May 2018, he asked Bilerman to host famed musician-producer Daniel Lanois at hotel2tango to get his feedback on the project.
"I don't even think the session started out as, 'Let's have Daniel Lanois play on [the] record,'" Bilerman said. But after hearing the first song, he says, Lanois was reaching for a 12-string guitar.
"Within two hours he had played six different instruments and sang," said Bilerman. "Ideas were just oozing out of him."
Bilerman says even Lanois, who has helmed records for giants like U2 and Bob Dylan, was humbled by the long artistic shadow cast by Cohen, even after death.
"I feel like Daniel showed up in complete reverence to Leonard and his music," he said.
'Great love and pride'
Bilerman's involvement in Thanks For The Dance morphed out of his experience recording the choir from the Cohen family's synagogue for the song You Want It Darker, which won a Grammy for best rock performance in 2018
The Shaar Hashomayim choir also appears on the song Puppets on the new record, although it wasn't recorded by Bilerman.
The choir's cantor Gideon Zelermyer was tight-lipped about the recording process but says it was a tremendous honour to have played a small role in what he calls "amazing statements" by Cohen near the end of his life.
Zelermyer says the choir didn't hesitate when Adam called on them again.
"He felt we had something to add to the statement so we did [it] with great love and pride," he said.
The new album also features performances from creative luminaries including Jennifer Warnes, Javier Mas, Feist and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire.
More unreleased material
Adam says he's been moved by the response of those who've already heard Thanks For The Dance. And Zelermyer says he thinks the song his choir sang on, "rises to the level of any of Leonard's greatest works."
Bilerman agrees: "It's heartbreaking to hear that voice and hear those songs," he said.
"I think it's going to be really moving for people."
He says besides the new album, more unreleased material could find its way out of the vaults.
"I know for a fact that one of my favourite songs was left off of it." he said. "I'd love for it to see the light of day too."