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Mojo Working Presents "Leonard Cohen classic - Hallelujah"
More prophetic lyrics were never written than the opening lines of Leonard Cohen's timeless song, "Hallelujah"
By Mojo Working International
(more articles from this author)
2009-02-14
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Industry leading PR/Marketing Mojo Working - kicks off its "Mojo Working Presents An Insider Look at Classic Records - from the people that made them" with a look at the recording of the Leonard Cohen classic - Hallelujah - a huge hit in Europe for X-Factor winner - Alexandra Burke.

More prophetic lyrics were never written than the opening lines of Leonard Cohen's timeless song, "Hallelujah": "Now I've heard there was a secret chord/that David played/and it pleased the Lord". Substitute "David" with "Leonard", and you have an idea of the effect this 1984 classic had on the heavens, and a multitude of music lovers right here on Earth.

25 years later, scores of other artists have tried to capture some of the drama, subtle strength, wit and wisdom packed gracefully into the 4:39 original, including such names as Jeff Buckley, John Cale, k.d. Lang, Rufus Wainwright, and 2008 X-Factor champion Alexandra Burke the latter of which who helped make the song the biggest ever download with over 300,000 in one week! and Number One in the prestigious Xmas charts in the UK, becoming the one of the biggest selling tracks of all time (some 600,000) and the biggest seller from a female artist ever. Interestingly, at the same time, Jeff Buckley's haunting version landed at Number Two in the charts at the exact same time again an historical achievement to have a same-song from different artists at both Number One and Number Two in the charts.

Leonard's version also entered the same charts at the same time!

However, just after producer/arranger John Lissauer was at Quad Recording Studios in New York City recording Cohen's landmark original along with the album Various Positions, he couldn't be certain that it would be heard by anyone.

"When the album was finished, Leonard's management had tremendous problems with Columbia Records and the record didn't get released in the United States," Lissauer recalls from his Katonah Mill Studio in upstate NY. "We did the album, we were really happy, and then it totally evaporated. So, yes, we had just recorded this seminal song, and there were other things on Various Positions that we thought were really terrific. But over the next 10 years, it felt like the album that just disappeared. Now everyone is looking for this record, and someone has told me there are over 150 cover versions of that song."

Featuring masterful lyrics penned by an authentic poet laureate, Cohen's gripping voice, a small choral accompaniment, and a simple arrangement of bass, drums, guitar, piano and Synclavier, "Hallelujah" sets an atmospheric scene a person need simply listen to become fully immersed. "Leonard would never really record his songs until they were ready to go," says Lissauer, who also recorded Cohen's 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. "We would usually find the core nugget of the song's aesthetic, record that, and then drape it in colors. But Various Positions was more stripped down, organic, a bit more workmanlike.

"So on 'Hallelujah', we decided not to do a gospel thing with it, and brought in five or six other singers. We did it more with a sense of community singers: They weren't angels, the Harlem Gospel Choir, and we didn't use a children's choir to tug at your hearts. We just went out there and sang our asses off. The vocals are exposed so it's just him, the voice you can't help but listen to every single syllable."

Cohen and Lissauer's copilot at Quad was engineer Leanne Ungar (Laurie Anderson, Janis Ian, The Temptations), who sculpted the signal path going into the Harrison or MCI board in use at the midtown facility at the time. "We used to use a Neumann M49 on Leonard in the '70's," says Lissauer, "but Leonard's voice dropped about 1/3rd when I started working with him later on, and then the Neumann U67 just sounded stunning. You listen to him on 'Hallelujah' and say, 'Wow, is that Moses?' His signal path was a U67 and then a UREI 1176 right into the board, whatever mic pres were in there. Those were not the days when we had separate mic pres, because the pres in the board were pretty good. We were very pristine -- Leanne Ungar is a purist. She really likes to facilitate capturing the art at the time, and not get hung up in engineering.

"We didn't do anything bizarre to record the singers. There were probably six of us singing including the band and whoever was in town. We said, 'Let's not be slick.' We wanted it to sound real, like a mixed church of sincere singers. We used a stereo pair of Neumann U87's with modest compression from either an 1176 or LA3A, doing a couple of passes to beef it up."

Of importance beyond any microphones that Lissauer and Ungar decided to put on drummer Richard Crooks' kit was what they put in his hands. "Richard was one of the great New Orleans drummers, and we wanted him to play with brushes," he recalls. "When you take sticks away from a drummer and give him brushes, he has to do a lot of little things. So playing these big grand choruses without sticks, tom toms or cymbals made him play much more stripped-down.

At Quad, the group had one of only ten Synclaviers in existence at the time. "It was expensive, it was there and we used it!" laughs Lissauer. "What you hear from the Synclavier is a series of pads, so that we didn't have to use a real string orchestra. Often we would go direct, but also mic and amp it and then decide. Going direct gave us a little more to play with, because once you go through the amp you're stuck with it if that's all you have you can't de-Leslie it."

Once "Hallelujah" and the rest of Various Positions was recorded, Lissauer and Ungar launched into the short-lived mix phase. "Mixing was pretty much finalizing what we recorded," Lissauer says. "Our rough mixes were close really close to the final mix. If it sounds good on the first day of tracking and rough vocals and you're honest at every step, you're not counting on any wizardry at the end."

With "Hallelujah" now an undisputed essential in the Western music experience, John Lissauer can look back on the Quad sessions and explain why they still resonate 25 years later. "I will say that Leonard Cohen is the greatest song lyricist that we've had in 40 years," he states. "What was right to him was not wallowing in cleverness: It was about discipline, hard work and heart." - mojoworking.com

Mojo Working International 2009
All Rights Reserved. No replication without consent.


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