ONLY NOISE: What I Learned From Bad Covers of “Hallelujah”

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Erin Lyndal Martin takes comfort in unexpected covers.

“Hallelujah” is pretty much a perfect song. Appearing on his 1984 LP Various Positions, it took Leonard Cohen so long to write that he kept a diary of his failures. The original song had 80 verses. The power of Cohen’s words doesn’t have to fade in the million bad covers, but the song’s over-use has made “Hallelujah” synonymous with artificially lending deep emotion. I often joke they’ll soon play it during Pat Sajak’s nightly final spin on Wheel of Fortune.

There are obvious outliers among “Hallelujah” covers, truly transcendent ones like Jeff Buckley’s, his elegiac falsetto highlighting the eroticism of the song. Or Kate McKinnon performing the song as Hillary Clinton after the 2016 election. But most covers lack the impact of these. While too many musicians to name have recorded the song or played it live, I have a special fascination with the more amateur covers.

Once I was browsing my local farmer’s market. It was 90 degrees, and the humidity lent a haze to the morning. A man was playing guitar and singing “Hallelujah” beneath the din of the crowd. For some reason it seemed odd to play “Hallelujah” in hot weather at all, in addition to the casual environs.

Maybe, though, someone there needed to hear it. Just as it was.

I realized this much later. Last year, I was waiting for my very late bus in a Greyhound Station. It was March 20. The anniversary of my father’s death. Things to know about my father: he loved Leonard Cohen, he loved trying to start philosophical conversations with strangers, and he wore sweatpants in public a lot.

He was, of course, on my mind there in the Greyhound Station. A few other people were there waiting, including a young woman listening to music on her phone, the volume in her earbuds turned way up. I didn’t pay attention to what she was listening to until she started singing along. Loudly. I could then tell she was listening to the Pentatonix version of “Hallelujah.” Hearing those lyrics on the anniversary of my father’s death felt magical and chilling.

I pictured my father there in his sweatpants. I have no doubt that he would have approached this woman and talked about the song. He probably would have sung along. And I think of some of the things my father said about Leonard Cohen, like that he “brings punctuation to experience,” and I thought he’d say that to this woman and not notice she had no idea what he was talking about.

I recorded her singing on my phone and sat excitedly in the station, uploading it for my mother and sister. My mother frequently looks for signs my father is reaching out, and I hoped she’d be excited about this. But she deemed it “too stupid to listen to.”

Eventually my bus showed up, and I went off on my trip. One night I ordered a Lyft to take me to a concert. The driver was… an eccentric fellow, who told me about this disgusting fruit punch flavored grain alcohol drink he liked to order by the case.

“Do you like music?” he asked. “I want to put on something relaxing.” He turned on satellite radio and a new age version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” started playing. “This right here is what I like,” he said. “Pure classical jazz.”

When I told this story to a friend later, the only part he didn’t believe was that anyone would bother making a new age version of “Fields of Gold” since the original was most of the way there. It became a running joke between us, finding new age versions of that song or of other songs that are already soft. I even made a version of the original “Fields of Gold” slowed down seven times as a joke for him (as of now, it’s gotten 82 views).

Later, our friendship began to fracture. We’re not speaking now. I miss him. I miss looking for haunted items on eBay with him, and I miss his chocolate chip pancakes and goddammit, I miss joking about pure classical jazz.

In my therapist’s waiting room, a CD of new age versions of pop songs was playing, and there it was. A pure, classical, jazz rendition of “Hallelujah.” It was, of course, terrible, and there were all these bizarre keyboard flourishes that just didn’t belong, including this slightly jazzy outro that had nothing to do with the song.

Of course I imagined telling my friend. I’d say, “Well, maybe the outro was the only chance the musician ever got to experiment. Maybe it was his big moment, you know?”

And he would say something like, “There’s probably just an ‘artsy outro’ button on the keyboard.”

And we’d stay on the phone discussing what songs we wanted to hear lite piano versions of, and I’d swear that “What’s Up?” by 4 Non-Blondes would be ideal.

Then I remembered we wouldn’t have this conversation at all. Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

Maybe it’s all the lite piano I’ve listened to, but I’m starting to believe that sometimes “Hallelujah” finds us when we need it most, in the context when hearing it would do us the most good. Even if it’s a really, really bad version.

I still reserve the right to roll my eyes and make snarky remarks at when the song is performed badly or used inappropriately. Yet, two bad covers were there for me when I needed to remember what was eternal about my absent loved ones. “Hallelujah” is a capacious song, and it can hold even the Greyhound singers and the lite piano version, as well as ones like Jeff Buckley’s or Kate McKinnon’s that are universally moving.

Given Cohen’s humility, it’s very fitting that he subtly works his magic even through the unlikely troubadours we encounter in farmer’s markets and bus stations. As Cohen himself said, “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all—Hallelujah!’”

ONLY NOISE: A Year In Song

Certain songs have a way of tangling themselves in our days, weeks, and months, eventually embedding themselves in our psyche, forever to be associated with the particular time and place in which they meant the most to us. Here, Madison looks back on 2017 by recounting the songs that dominated each month of the year – sometimes because of the anticipation of a live show, sometimes after crate-digging yielded a new discovery, and sometimes, maybe too often, because they helped mend a broken heart. – Ed.

January: Austra, “Future Politics”

This song represented two facets of optimism at the start of a bleak year. One was that my generation, once so blasé and apolitical, was finally mobilizing and becoming informed. The second was that pop music felt like it would be radicalized in 2017. Austra made me feel like dancing was an act of dissent, and while I know intellectually that is an illusion, it was a welcome notion after the election of Donald Trump. It’s difficult to resist this track’s rubbery drum pads and laser beam synths, qualities that made the title track from Future Politics seem like the anthem for an era of awareness when it came out. While I can’t say it solved anything, at least Austra’s lead single had us looking to the future in time when the present seemed unbearable.

February: Sam Cooke, “Get Yourself Another Fool”

Ah, February: a month synonymous with frigid weather, annual depression, and Valentine’s Day. The latter has always been the bane of my existence, though this past annum has been slightly less miserable now that I am no longer designing lingerie (a cruel profession as a single woman). In February 2017, I was feeling bitter and slighted, and so I nursed my wounds with Sam Cooke’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” from 1969’s Night Beat. Its dry piano and walking bass line provided the perfect poison for a biting break up song. Just what I needed to hear come February 14th.

March: Xiu Xiu, “Wondering”
Solomon Burke, “I’ll Be Doggone”

March was a bonkers month. I got laid off from a job that would rehire and fire me within the next two months. I met a dream man who would break my heart in the next three. I ate frankincense at a drag queen party. The freedom, romance, and fear of March 2017 can only be summed up with two songs, the first being the irresistible pop cacophony of Xiu Xiu’s “Wondering.” The lead single off of this year’s Forget LP was a perfect combination of wild fury and glittering disco melodies to get me through an unmoored month.

Mid-March I found myself jobless and smitten in the dream man’s dining room. He handed me a beer and cued up Solomon Burke’s 1969 recording of “I’ll Be Doggone,” a song that despite its age, followed me for the remainder of 2017. I played it while cooking, tidying, and getting ready for a night out. Sometimes I would blast it when no one was home just so I could sing along. It was without a doubt the best old song I discovered this year. The fact that its discovery can only be attributed to one person in my life is unfortunate, but that’s just the joy and danger of music and memory.

April : Happyness, “Falling Down”

I’d been anticipating Happyness’ sophomore LP ever since I heard their debut, so when this year’s Write In was more somber than expected, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. After about a billion plays however, the record clearly fell under the “grower” category. Throughout Write In’s many rotations on my turntable this spring and summer, I fell in love with its opening track “Falling Down.”

“Falling Down” sounds like a late night observation, seen through too many layers of smoke and booze. Its hazy build of rhythm guitar is lulling, and remains so even when the drums finally kick in. It is a song that takes its time, and when bassist Jon EE Allan unleashes his half-awake croon and the squealing synths take over, the wait really pays off.

May: Blanck Mass, “Please”

“Please” is not only the sonic outlier on Blanck Mass’ third LP World Eater – it might just be Benjamin John Power’s magnum opus. This song dominated my May (and the remainder of 2017, truthfully) after I saw Power perform it at the Red Bull Music Academy for Sacred Bones’ 10-year anniversary gig. I was bewitched by his set, and though I loved the abrasive, blood-curdling songs in Power’s repertoire, “Please” was a dose of calm and beauty amidst the chaos – its gorgeous vocal melodies conflicting with shrapnel soundscapes and a choir of AI angels. “Please” is at once sorrowful, joyous, and frightening, which suited the state of 2017 all too well.

June: Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians

Summer is a strange time to seek out no wave compositions while everyone else is listening to “Despacito,” but I did so out of pure necessity. June was the beginning of a hellacious summer, one that commenced with heartbreak and culminated in underemployment and family catastrophe. I needed a break from evocative music, from songs that reminded me of a specific person, place, or time. I was on a quest for a song that made me feel nothing, and I found it in Steve Reich’s lauded hour-long piece. Its wash of polyrhythms and blips of human voice made a mosaic of sound – something that let me focus on every individual tile and the whole picture simultaneously, creating a calm that is the closest I’ve ever come to meditation.

July: Ocean Music, “When I Went to California”

This song was unfortunately stuck in my head for most of July. It isn’t unfortunate because it’s a bad song – it’s a good song – but one tied to an ill-fated evening. It was the kind of night typically reserved for rom-com screenplays, only with a far worse outcome.

It was a Tuesday. I thought it’d be nice to take myself out to a neighborhood club I’d never been to before. A date with myself, the sad last stab of a single lady nursing heartbreak. I wore lipstick. The headlining band was called Ocean Music, and their name sounded vaguely familiar, though I could not figure out why. I particularly enjoyed their sleepy ballad, “When I Went to California” as I listened to their Bandcamp offerings. It was enough to get me out of the house midweek.

I sidled up to the bar, ordered a Tecate, and before I could take a sip a man said my name. Only, it was my name with a question mark behind it, like, “Madison?” This is never a good sign. It was the man who’d just dumped me, and he was the opening act. I had, though accidentally, gone to his show, a mistake made even more comically tragic considering my profession. I stayed for the entire gig out of politeness and then left without saying goodbye. This song played as I walked out the door.

August: Leonard Cohen, “On the Level”

I spent most of August in the kitchen of my sister’s Washington farm. As reciprocity for feeding, housing, employing, and entertaining me all month, I thought it was only fair to do the goddamn dishes. The wooden shelving across from her kitchen sink is home to a Bose CD player, which has been occupied by Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker since he died in 2016. “On the Level” is one of my favorite songs on that record, and I now directly associate with my sister’s doublewide cast iron sink. When I was alone on dish duty I would crank the volume on the Bose and belt, “They oughta give my heart a medal, for lettin’ go of you,” scrubbing our coffee mugs to the beat.

September: Benjamin Clementine, “Phantom of Aleppoville”

This stirring piece of music was on heavy rotation during my late summer walks. The only problem with listening to Benjamin Clementine’s avant-pop-jazz masterpieces while shuffling around in public is that they inspire immense urges to dance. I cannot tell you how many spontaneous bursts of limb thrashing I resisted while listening to “Phantom of Aleppoville” beyond the walls of my apartment. It was difficult to remain disciplined, especially midway through the song when Clementine bursts into tango piano flair and spirited shouts. I managed to keep it together in public, but if you looked close enough you would see my hips twitching ever so slightly.

October: Diamanda Galás, “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill”

I can’t imagine a better artist to listen to throughout October than the High Priestess of Darkness herself, Diamanda Galás. Before I even thought of naming her the Queen of Halloween, I was just excited to see Galás’ Halloween night set at Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre. In the lead-up to All Hallows Eve, “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill“ was the perfect song to sing at the Weinsteins of the world – a kind of feminist power anthem cloaked in black magic.

November: Animal Collective, “Leaf House”

In the weeks before Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and Panda Bear reunited at Knockdown Center, I needed a refresher course on their 2004 record, Sung Tongs, which they would be playing in full for the first time live. I must have listened to opening track “Leaf House“ a hundred times in November, following its dizzying rhythms through subway tunnels and side streets en route to and from work. During the rush hour grind this song seemed to mirror and quell the chaos of the city simultaneously.

December: Bill Evans Trio, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”

I bought Bill Evans Trio’s Portrait In Jazz LP as a birthday present to myself in mid November, but I didn’t really get around to listening to it in full until late November and December, during which time it never left my turntable. It would seem from these blurbs that I am partial to opening tracks on albums, and the same applies to this record. Its first song, “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is exemplary of Evans’ diverse, elegant, and downright gorgeous playing. Watching this video of his trio performing the song in 1965, Evans’ facial expressions make it plain to see his immense passion for the music he so effortlessly makes.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Market Hotel Is Back, NYC’s Cabaret Law & More


  • Market Hotel Ends Their Hiatus

    Bushwick’s Market Hotel will host shows again starting on November 1st, with yet-unannounced special guests playing the grand reopening show. It’s been out of commission while Todd P. and his crew secure the proper licenses t0 turn the longstanding DIY club into a legit venue (in the eyes of NYC officials), but will soon be back with a new sound system. The next batch of announced shows include Tera Melos with Speedy Ortiz, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die with Rozwell Kid, Pile with Bad History Month, Titus Andronicus, Black Marble, and Royal Trux. See the full schedule and buy tickets here!

  • NYC May Finally Repeal Its Cabaret Law

    In 1926, the Cabaret Law was created to forbid dancing in certain spaces without a license. Many have pointed out the racist implications of the law, which mostly targeted black jazz clubs in Harlem and required its musicians and employees to submit to a background check. In modern times, the law has added a mountain of paperwork to bars and clubs that want to host events with dancing, but hopefully not for much longer; the Mayor’s office has expressed support for repealing the law, as long as certain clubs are required to install more security cameras. NYC, get ready to dance!

  • Other Highlights

    Yoko Ono will voice a character in Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs, Rolling Stone is up for sale, Morissey joins Twitter and announces new song/album, women are keeping guitar makers in business, new videos from Bjork, Downtown Boys, Leonard Cohen and Torres, Avril Lavigne is apparently very, very dangerous, please don’t try to make out with musicians while they’re on stage, Taylor Swift may end up in court yet again, and ICYMI, the Juggalos marched on Washington.

ONLY NOISE: Back In The New York Groove

It was native New Yorker Lou Reed who sang, “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor/I’ll piss on ’em/that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says” in “Dirty Blvd.” The wry piece of poetry was one of many city-centric tracks to grace Reed’s New York LP from 1989. While Reed’s lyrics sound hateful towards NYC, you might consider them more love/hate when you realize that the man who wrote them never left New York (well, New York State, at least). Lou Reed remained a New Yorker when he passed in 2013, and his city praises him still. I am no stranger to the Big Apple ambivalence Reed has put to music since the 1960s. Once you’ve put in enough time here, you tend to make love and fight with this city like a spouse. But good times and bad times aside, New York is hands-down the best boyfriend I’ve ever had.

Today is my first day back in town after being away for more than a month. You can imagine my delight the moment I landed, grabbed my luggage, and ran down JFK Airport’s many moving sidewalks after weeks of sitting. That’s a lot of what you do on the West Coast: sit. I sat in cars, on couches, and at bars, my legs nearly atrophied from disuse. So thirsty was I for the unrelenting motion of this city, and the ability to walk anywhere if you have the time. I longed for efficient but banal things like the Air Train and the MTA, and I beamed when finally boarding them, despite it being 5:38 in the morning. My MetroCard even had $10.50 left on it. Damn, I love this place.

It’s surprising to me that I haven’t written an I <3 NY piece until now, but sometimes you have to step away from something to appreciate it, as the old cliché goes. Fortunately, hundreds – likely thousands – of artists have enshrined their love of New York in song, and that makes things a lot easier for me. Why use my own words, when I can defer to the borough-praising rhymes of say, The Beastie Boys? Their 2004 hit “An Open Letter To NYC” is a sprawling poem to the city, with more New York in-jokes than Seinfeld. But the chorus alone says it all:

“Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin/Black, White, New York you make it happen.”

I can’t boast East Coast origins like The Beastie Boys, but creeping up on a decade of living here, I’m that much closer to earning my I <3 NY t-shirt, and I sure as hell feel all the love for this place evident in “An Open Letter To NYC.”

If you’ve been reading my column lately, you may have noticed a less-than-optimistic taint to my voice. I blame the infernal state of the world, of course – but why the sudden burst of joy? It’s because I am back. And dear sweet New York, I am never leaving you again.

I have just come from Huntington Beach, California, where the idea of culture is bottle-blonde, bronzed, fond of CrossFit. Young professionals can be found dancing to “Margaritaville” and the musical cannon of Pitbull, all while shouting “let’s do shots!” sorority style. One such cultured resident harassed me at a bar a few days ago. She was a former hairstylist-turned-Billabong-clothing-designer and breathing stereotype who proceeded to tell me to shut the fuck up, threaten me with her assault history, and hug me while saying, “I love you” in the span of 10 minutes. Then she flashed me.

If people think New Yorkers are cold, I much prefer our brand of chilliness to the Southern Californian “warmth” I often experience. Everyone makes the assumption that New Yorkers are rude, brash people, but I never get offended more than when I go to other parts of the country, particularly Surf City USA. When the fit, well-hydrated inhabitants of Huntington Beach ask me why I’d ever want to live in such a dirty, crowded city, I just respond with the words of Judy Garland: “The more I see New York, the more I think of it/I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it/I Happen to Like New York.”

No truer words have been sung. I love New York for its music, and films, and fine art, sure, but also for its sludge, and grime, and smog. When I travel to clean cities, my first question is always, “Where is all your trash?” Cleanliness unsettles me. Dirt=history. Do you think London and Paris would possess the same je ne sais quoi if their cobblestones hadn’t been washed in blood and filth for centuries? No. Filth=character, and if the lyrics of The Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” (“You got rats on the West Side/Bed bugs uptown”) or Fear’s “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” (“New York’s alright if you like drunks in your doorway”) doesn’t convince you of that, I don’t know what will.

You can say what you will of New York. Call our city expensive and wretched and unsanitary. Call us snobs, hipsters, careerists, assholes and aesthetes. We’ve probably been called worse. We don’t mind the hassle or hustle so long as we never run out of music, or museums, or midnight movies to enjoy. And in New York, that’d be pretty unlikely.

Perhaps the countless songs by artists like Leonard Cohen, Grandmaster Flash, NAS, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and so many others will better encapsulate the sprawling organism of New York City. I certainly can’t do better than them. So here is a playlist of all of my favorite New York songs. If you still don’t like it here after listening to “Chelsea Hotel #2” or “The Message,” get out. No one is asking you to stay, and the subway’s too crowded.

ONLY NOISE: Cover to Cover


“What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process.” In her latest memoir M Train, Patti Smith speaks of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature with bibliophilic hunger. She is seeking inspiration and therefore turns to a favorite work. Smith continues:

“I read and feel the same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.”

As I read her book with a similar hunger, I realize that I’ve felt this way before, in the precise way she has described it – when I listen to the music I love. “The desire to possess” what has been written, played, and sung. This desire is so strong that it ventures upon wish fulfillment; I often feel as though I am taking communion with the music…eating it, so to speak. For a split second, I near convince myself that I have written it. That it is mine.

I often wonder if this is a personal quirk (a hallucination) or if others experience the same phenomenon. I wonder if it is perhaps the subconscious impetus to cover songs, even. What if instead of mere flattery, or tribute, possession also informed Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” or Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower?” They certainly made both songs their own. I do not mean a jealous possession, necessarily, but an attempt to be “one with” the song, at the risk of sounding faux-metaphysical.

Cover songs as a genre get a bad rep, it seems. Covers = karaoke, or worse, Covers = Cover Bands. It was after all a throng of home-recorded cover songs that launched Justin Bieber’s career. But cover songs lead a double life. In their pop/rock identity, it is often considered a lowbrow, unoriginal form – sometimes even an attempt at latching onto the search engine optimization of the artists being covered. But in a cover song’s blues/folk/country life it goes by another name: a traditional. Throughout countless genres that could be filed under the umbrella of “folk” or “roots” music, artists recorded their own versions of songs passed down by performers before them.

Much like the poems and fables of oral history, it was common for the original authors of traditional songs to remain unknown. Take for instance the trad number “Goodnight, Irene,” which was first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933, and by many others thereafter. But the original songwriter has been obscured from music history. There are allusions to the song dating back to 1892, but no specifics on who penned the version Lead Belly recorded.

Lead Belly claimed to have learned the song from his uncles in 1908, who presumably heard it elsewhere. “Goodnight, Irene” was subsequently covered by The Weavers (1950), Frank Sinatra (1950, one month after The Weavers’ version), Ernest Tubb & Red Foley (1950 again), Jimmy Reed (1962) and Tom Waits (2006) to name but a few.

The reason so many artists (I only listed a couple) covered “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950 was because that was the way of the music biz back then. If someone had a hit record – like The Weavers, who went to #1 on the Billboard Best Seller chart – it was in the best interest of other musicians to cash in on the trend while it was hot by recording their version of the single. Not as common today of course, but in a time when session musicians were rarely credited and hits were penned by paid teams instead of performers, it made sense.

The history of traditional folk songs or “standards” is a fascinating one because it is like a musical game of telephone. The songs’ arrangement and lyrics change with the times, the performer, and the context. And that same model of change can be applied to both the artist’s motive for covering certain music, and the listener’s reaction to it.

For years I quickly dismissed cover songs, finding them boring at best and unbearable at worst. But in my recent quest to become more open-minded, I have revisited many covers…and become a bit obsessed in the process. The first cover song to move me was The Slits’ version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which in itself is a pop traditional as it has been covered by everyone from Marvin Gaye, to Creedence Clearwater Revival, to The Miracles. Gaye’s version is the most widely recognized, however, making The Slits’ rendition all the more fascinating. Their 1979 stab at the Motown classic was what taught me that a cover song could be more than just a karaoke version of something. It can become a completely new medium of expression when the artist tears the original apart and stitches the pieces into a new form. The Slits did this so effectively, to the point that theirs and Gaye’s versions are incomparable.

The Stranglers achieved a similar result by reconfiguring the Dionne Warwick classic “Walk On By” in 1978, morphing the lounge-y original into a six-minute swirl of organ-infused punk. Another master of pop modification was the one-and-only Nina Simone, who somehow took the already perfect “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen and managed to make it…perfecter. I remember a friend playing this cut for me three and a half years ago, and I haven’t gone so much as a week without putting it on since. Nina’s phrasing can make Dylan’s seem predictable, and she dances through Cohen’s poetry in a way that astonishes me to this day, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I feel that her version is, dare I say, better than the original, though I love both dearly.

But of course, not all covers exist for the purpose of possession. Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one: that a cover is an opportunity to pay tribute, not ironically, but with reverence. Of course, even artists performing the best reverent covers make the songs their own. Take Smog’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Beautiful Child,” which is such a gorgeous recording that I was heartbroken to learn it was a cover, and disappointed upon hearing the original. Ditto Bill Callahan’s more recent take on Kath Bloom’s “The Breeze/My Baby Cries.” Bloom’s take isn’t short on oddball, winsome charm, but Callahan brings a barge full of sorrow, which always wins in my book.

In similar form, Robert Wyatt somehow out-Costello’d Elvis Costello when he covered “Shipbuilding” in 1982, which reaches another dimension of despair with Wyatt’s wavering vocal performance. Another favorite is Morrissey’s interpretation of “Redondo Beach,” an oddly bouncy rendition by the King of Sad.

Though I once turned my nose up at cover songs, I seem to fanatically collect them now. I often dream up cover song commissions that will likely never come to fruition: Cat Power singing Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” or King Krule doing “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. I’d pay them to do it myself if I could damn well afford to. Until then, let the covers of others stoke your desire to possess.

ONLY NOISE: Memento Mori – Leonard Cohen


No one really wants to be a curmudgeon all of the time – not even me. If Only Noise leans more towards the darkness one week, I strive to be more upbeat in subject matter the following week. But in addition to the numerous tragedies that befell us last week, including the election, the death of Leon Russell and the election, we also lost one of the greatest poets of all time, Leonard Cohen. His name has now been added to a long list of the year’s casualties. The enormity of the musicians 2016 has robbed us of – David Bowie, Prince, Alan Vega – is seemingly colossal, as if the stars were perfectly aligned for the fall of giants. I fearfully wonder who will make it through the year, and dare not speak a word for fear of cursing anyone.

When David Bowie passed in January, I was distraught with the rest of the world. Having just pitched an article to The Guardian the night before his death investigating what Blackstar could teach contemporary musicians about longevity, I felt cosmically complicit in his death after the fact. Imagine the spook I felt waking to “RIP David Bowie” tweets the following morning. That night I sat at my desk, staring straight ahead at the wall, until my phone buzzed, and I boarded a cab to Sunset Park. I entered a sweet-smelling, steamy apartment that felt like it was in another city – in a house perhaps, with books and scraps of paper everywhere. The man who lived there offered me seltzer water and Oreos. A framed Leonard Cohen poster hung to the right of his bed.

I could barely express the overwhelming sadness I felt from the loss of Bowie that night. My companion was less distressed, but had witnessed such mourning all day long as his work was a scant block from Bowie’s SoHo home. “It is sad of course, but honestly, I’ll be more upset when Leonard Cohen goes,” he said gravely.

Ten months after we lost The Thin White Duke, I found myself slowly ascending the escalator of a theater in Times Square, meeting the very man with the Sunset Park apartment for post-election, action movie distraction. Tweets suddenly flooded my phone: “RIP Leonard Cohen,” “Now Leonard Cohen! Fuck this year!” and the like. I was already wobbly from the political climate, but I nearly fell off the goddamn escalator at the sight of such news.

It is only now I am learning that Cohen himself suffered a fall the night he passed, which directly contributed to his death. As the press release from his manager said, Cohen’s death was, “sudden, unexpected and peaceful,” which contradicts the songwriter’s claim in an October interview with The New Yorker that he was “ready to die.”

When Cohen’s parting masterpiece You Want it Darker came out last month, I thought of another pitch idea – one that never made it into an email but that I’d mentioned to friends and family. It went something like: “Is You Want it Darker Leonard Cohen’s Blackstar,” insinuating that the aged poet, like Bowie, knew his fate before we did, and was saying goodbye in the best way he could. Given this pattern, I am now convinced that I am slowly killing my favorite musicians by way of my unsuccessful pitches, which is depressing on numerous levels.

We have lost a songwriter, yes – a poet, of course. But we have also lost an invaluable translator of human emotion, in all its unperceivable complexities. When I came to his music in high school, his abstract yet exacting lyrics left me stupefied. I believe that his words truly altered my approach to writing, and while I am not and never will be anywhere near the caliber of a writer he was, I know I am all the better for being exposed to him.

And isn’t that the point of pop music? Of any kind of music, or art? To better know ourselves, in ways we couldn’t imagine were possible. Cohen’s art, his words particularly, cut so sharply to the core of human experience that you can’t really feel the incision until after his knife is removed. It is a clean cut – the effect of a specter whose impression lasts far longer than its presence in the room. He was a subtle legend. A quiet titan.

As with most musicians who have altered my perception of what makes great art, there is typically one or a few people that I directly associate with the artist. With Leonard Cohen, it is no different. One friend who is much older than I am bears an eerie resemblance to a young Cohen. He was the person who played me his music, despite the fact that a copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen had been nestled in my dad’s record collection my entire life. So when I heard “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” for the first time, and it effectively floored my soul, that album was waiting for me right at home.

I called my old friend as soon as I could upon hearing of Cohen’s death, and asked him what the poet had meant to him. This friend, who often speaks in florid non-sequiturs, said that to him Cohen seemed like “the standard for effortless grace…you can listen to him over and over and it just keeps opening up. He really is a sort of sacred ground that’s vast, elusive, and hard to talk about.”

It is perhaps even harder to speak of for my friend, who was sired into the lugubrious cult of Cohen by his mother in the ‘70s. Not long after, his mother died when he was only 12, and I sometimes wonder if Leonard Cohen is a signifier for her in the same way that Bowie is for my mother. Memory cuts deep and clean just like a perfect song.

Leonard Cohen, though enormously different than David Bowie, was similar in the sense that he never tarnished. In his decades of writing and recording, he remained at his own golden standard, one that few others have touched. Despite his grave, death-welcoming remark to The New Yorker last month, he adjusted his statement in a later press conference, smirking and clutching a cane with his right hand:

“I said I was ‘ready to die’ recently, and I think I was exaggerating. One is given to self-dramatization from time to time. I intend to live forever.”

Regardless of Cohen’s dry humor as he spoke those words, and the uproarious laughter that met them, there is a peaceful truth within them. Yes, it is eerie that Cohen died not long after redacting his pact with death, but I think he knew exactly what he was saying. And who’s to say that he hasn’t lived forever already?

Perhaps true immortality lies in the ability to look death in the face and acquiesce to its beckoning, imparting one last gift to the world as you leave it.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Leonard Cohen, The Election & Jessica Hopper


  • Leonard Cohen Dies at 82

    Piling onto a week we thought couldn’t get any worse, the family of Leonard Cohen announced yesterday that the singer had died at age 82. The poetry of his words, and the darkness and depth of his voice which be sorely missed, but at least we have decades of his work to remember him by. Like David Bowie, he recorded an album shortly before his death, You Want It Darker.

  • Read This: Jessica Hopper On The Future State Of Music

    “In the months leading up to the presidential election, there was a glib joke that journalists, musicians, and fans would default to. The silver lining to winding up with four years of Trump…is that music will be better: Punk will rise up, or maybe pop will deflate and get ‘real.’” Jessica Hopper shatters this cliched illusion by with a serious reality check, pointing out that many of our best artists fall into the groups a Trump presidency will actively harm, and asks, “If your favorite creators are made to feel even more unsafe…than they already were before this hateful prick came into office, why should we expect them to tour?” Read the whole article via MTV here.


A Brief Roundup OfMusical Responses To The Election

  • Run The Jewels’ ”2100”: Though it was scheduled to be released along with their upcoming Run The Jewels 3, this song is seeing the light of day earlier, for obvious reasons.
  • Charly Bliss’ “Turd”: As singer Eva stated on Facebook, “I wrote this song a year ago after I was catcalled repeatedly on my walk home from a guitar lesson… I wrote this song to make me feel like I had some power in a situation where I felt totally powerless, and we’re releasing it for the same reason.” All profits from Bandcamp will be donated to Planned Parenthood.

  • Black Lips’ “Deaf Dumb And Blind”: Short, to the point, and angry. The band stated that after learning of Tuesday’s results, they “felt like making an anarchy style punk song.” 


Andy AudioFemme

To begin with: Andy Ferro’s Dad. The man remembers the the first time Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” aired on Australian radio. But more importantly, he crammed his son’s young ears with as much jazz and blues as they could contain. Meanwhile, Ferro spent his childhood ping-ponging back and forth between the the UK and Nashville, where he’s planted his flag since the tender age of 10.

Today, Ferro’s hometown is teeming with artists drawing from the communal psych-folk pot, but Ferro’s austere creations err on the side of minimalism, which is why his forthcoming LP Muirhead might be the exact sort of winningly raggle taggle rarity your ears have been craving.

Inspired by White Fence’s Tim Presley and drawing insight from the likes of The Kinks, Capain Beefheart, Bob Dylan and 70’s Krautrock darlings Can, Ferro also cites his friend group, lady, and mentors as a primary source of artistic stimulation. These auspices can be warmly felt throughout his new lo-fi solo project, much like his off-kilter upbringing.

Crowning Ferro as AudioFemme’s February Artist of the Month, Joanie Wolkoff of Wolkoff, formerly of Her Habits, and Artist of the Month herself, Wolkoff shared a conversation with Ferro over his music, growing up, and what’s shaking these days in Ferro’s neck of the woods.

Joanie Wolkoff: How’s life in Nashville?

Andy Ferro: It’s growing really quickly now. There are a lot of good opportunities, but we’re dealing with traffic, which is a new thing. It’s an inspiring place to be, with lots of people doing great stuff. I don’t know what it’d be like to make music in a place where I wasn’t connected to my community. There’s a lot of… not competition, but I’d say that the bar is set high. It definitely makes you try harder. And I prefer the smaller hang; the typical Saturday night is about finding somebody’s house to have dinner at.

No all-night ragers or underground raves?

Oh, they happen. I’m just not there when they do.

What would you say is happening instrumentally on Muirhead?

It’s stark. There aren’t drums, or a lot of lead guitar or electric guitar at all, for that matter. I’m really into the Leonard Cohen and Syd Barrett solo records, and I recorded everything on the LP myself except for some of the weird noises and piano which were sourced by my friend Mitch Jones. As you can imagine, you run out of space pretty quickly when you’re only recording with a four track.

It’s a medium that could certainly account for your minimalism here.

Yeah, I just worked until I felt I’d done my part and then I took it to Mitch who put it on a computer and did a few things here and there; what he added brought a lot to the album [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Ferro’s voice cracks]… excuse my voice, I lost it two days ago and it’s only just coming back now.

The first time I ever lost my voice I was really excited because I thought it made me sound like a character I idolized on GI Joe, so when I got to school and spoke up in class I remember thinking, “Finally! I sound interesting!”

I know what you mean. I’d been sort of excited about losing my voice, like “Maybe when the release show comes around, I’ll have this gruff voice!” but I tried to sing some of my songs last night and it wasn’t working.

It makes you sound like you’ve been through a lot! Seasoned! 

Ha. Seasoned.

Are all the the tracks on the LP tied into a theme or are they just moments in time for you?

It’s a story but not intentionally encoded that way. For example, the song “Crystal Tongue” is about being with my dad in Tennessee two Christmases ago. I woke up in the morning to the sound of his voice saying, “Merry Crystal Bum!” So I wrote this little poem in a card for my girlfriend about a child with a crystal bum. Anyway, later on I turned it into a song.

We also say “bum” in Canada, where I grew up. In America, people say “butt.” Anyway, if you close your eyes and look at a visual version of Muirhead, what do you see? 

I can tell you easily. Since the beginning it’s been green. It feels like standing on a creaky, rickety boat dock thats rocking back and forth a little and it’s dusk. You can’t see the horizon across the water.

Tell me about your recording setup with the four track.

Most of it was at my girlfriend’s apartment. I hit this two-week window of time where she and her roommate were gone for the first part of the day and I didn’t have to go to work til mid-afternoon , so I would just sit there working on songs. My girlfriend lives on a main road, which is why you can hear cars and birds and stuff on the tracks. I’d already demo’d a few songs on Garage Band with iPhone headphones plugged into my computer.

Garage Band is a good, sturdy little donkey that’ll take you over the mountain. Some people get snobby about what “digital audio workstation” you use, but Garage Band’s so user friendly, and a great gateway drug into music production. 

Absolutely, Garage Band is approachable. So then, I bought a four track from my friend David Stein, who sold it to me when I mentioned that I was looking to buy one. He said if I gave him a ride home, he’d sell it to me for $150.

Are you friends with your four track recorder?

Oh, man. I didn’t have any problems with it at all, besides not knowing how to use it and erasing bits of songs that I didn’t want to erase for the first little while. But now I feel comfortable with it. It opened the door.

How does your girlfriend help to shape your music?

Friends and family and the people I see every day are the primary source of influence on my music, aside from stuff I listen to. I want to articulate my girlfriend’s role in a good way: I’ve been playing with a band of best friends for a long time but this album was a first go at showing the public what I can make on my own.  I don’t want this to sound like [Ferro uses a sappy voiceover drawl here], “Without love, I wouldn’t have written these songs.” But it certainly plays a role, this relationship, having someone so genuinely supportive and honest. It’s encouraging. For me, it’s a really sweet validation.

Give me three adjectives for this album.

Stark. In terms of instrumentation, anyway. And rich. Or… sorta thick in a way? The analog approach made it… textural.

It has teeth?

There you go.

How does the omnipotent beast that is the Nashville’s music industry affect your life as an artist?

It provides opportunities, but it’s up to me to take the right ones. This year I just want to make lots of music and share it with lots of people. I’m not gonna worry about quote-unquote success. That can stifle your creativity if you focus on it too much. At around fourteen, at which point I didn’t have an inkling that I’d end up playing in bands at all, I met my friend Mitch. He’s played in bands for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and that’s when I figured out about jamming. Later, I started going to college and my band Ranch Coast formed one semester into my studies. I didn’t want to do both. But I still try to learn every day.

What do you think you might’ve studied if you hadn’t pursued being in a band full time?

Philosophy. Or writing.

By osmosis of making and being around music, I’m pretty sure you do both of those things all the time!

I hope so.

Well, none of your songs are about going to the club and finding out who’s wearing the best thong. Then again, that’s its own philosophy.

You’re right. That’s the next record.

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