I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
-- Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song
In 2011, British Columbia singer/songwriters and longtime collaborators Oliver Swain (Outlaw Social, the Duhks, the Bills) and Glenna Garramone teamed up -- at Glenna's behest -- for a tribute show to Leonard Cohen at Vancouver's Media Club. Named for one of the Bard of Montreal's most well-known works, Tower of Song was originally intended to be a one-off event celebrating the legendary singer/songwriter/poet/novelist/wisecracker/ladies man.
"There were no limitations; it didn't have to be a radical reinterpretation of the song -- but it could be," Swain recalls.
And he was hooked.
After several sold-out shows on Vancouver Island, Tower of Song has evolved into a full-fledged recording and touring project. The duo just released its debut album, In City and In Forest, which features reinterpretations of some of Cohen's best songs drawn from across his estimable catalogue -- including Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye and Take This Waltz -- as well as a few originals.
The live iteration of Tower of Song usually features guests: Nathan Rogers and Jeremy Penner will join the duo at the West End Cultural Centre on Thursday night. (There may be a few other surprises). The setlist is ever-changing; after all, there's certainly no shortage of material to mine. Swain responds to the quality of the writing.
"It's such well-considered work," he says. "Every syllable is dripping with this rich spiritual and sensual meaning, but what I think is the most fascinating and inspiring is the courage -- his willingness and desire to go into every element of life and love, mortality and sexuality."
Neither Swain nor Garramone possesses Cohen's baritone, so in their hands, even his most dirge-like numbers have an airiness to them. Their vocal arrangements emphasize melody and musicality, and the weight of Cohen's words isn't lost in translation. Their interpretations are more than just cover songs; they really are loving tributes by "two of the biggest Cohen fans you'll ever meet."
As for deciding what songs they'll work on, the pair goes in with an open mind.
"The songs pick us," Swain says. "We do a lot of jamming and listening. Certain tunes will just speak to us." (Still, they have their favourites: Suzanne and A Thousand Kisses Deep rank among Swain's.)
Both Swain and Garramone have other musical projects on the go, but Tower of Song's pull is strong. Swain says it can be intimidating performing for Cohen fans, who tend to be discriminating, but the response to the project has been incredibly encouraging.
"Both diehard fans as well as people who always respected the work but maybe it wasn't their kind of music, seem to be liking what we're doing, which means a lot," he says.