Meet the Writer Behind “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is arguably one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. He expresses this through his catalog of lyrically rich songs, perhaps the best example being his signature song, “Hallelujah.” Cohen is not only the voice of “Hallelujah,” he’s also the sole songwriter. Featured on his 1984 album, Various Positions, the song peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart and was famously covered by John Cale, whose rendition can be heard in the 2001 film, Shrek.

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Before he was a prolific singer/songwriter, Cohen was a poet. A native of Quebec, Canada, Cohen graduated from McGill University where he first published some of his poems in 1954. He published his first book of poetry in 1954, Let Us Compare Mythologies, and published more than 10 more in his lifetime. But it wasn’t until 1967 that Cohen started his music career, moving to the U.S. with the intent of becoming a singer/songwriter.

He found his first hit as a songwriter with Judy Collins’ “Suzanne,” which he originally published as a poem before Collins recorded it as a song. Collins proved to be instrumental in his career, as she invited him to perform at a fundraiser with her in 1966, and brought him onstage at one of her live shows that same year.

“He came to my apartment, and on the first day, we just talked,” Collins recalled to The Globe and Mail in 2016. “He thought he had a terrible voice. When we parted that night, I said, ‘[A mutual friend] says you’ve written some songs. Do you want to come by tomorrow and sing them?’ He came by the next day and he said to me, ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.’ And then he played me ‘Suzanne.'”

She also noted how deeply moved the audience was by his voice the night of the fundraiser. “He’d never sung [in front of a large audience] before then,” she continues. “He got out on stage and started singing. Everybody was going crazy–they loved it. [He] stopped about halfway through and walked off the stage. Everybody went nuts. … And they demanded that he come back. And I demanded; I said, ‘I’ll go out with you.’ So we went out, and we sang it. And of course, that was the beginning.”

In his music career, Cohen released 15 studio albums, beginning with Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967 and concluding with You Want it Darker, released in 2016, merely days before his death on November 7. Though not many of his songs made an impression on the charts, his voice spoke across generations. “Bird on the Wire,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Suzanne,” “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Tower of Song” are some of his other well-known songs in addition to “Hallelujah,” with Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, the Eagles’ Don Henley and Jeff Buckley among the vast range of artists who’ve covered Cohen’s songs over the decades.

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” Cohen told fans in the audience at the 2014 release party for his album, Popular Problems (quote via Far Out magazine). “Being a songwriter is like being a nun: You’re married to a mystery. It’s not a particularly generous mystery, but other people have that experience with matrimony anyway…A lot of young writers ask me for advice – mistakenly because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated. The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression.”

Cohen passed away at the age of 82 in 2016. His album Thanks for the Dance was released posthumously in 2019.

Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

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