To Smitty and Julija, With Love
by Zoe Murdock
Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the great pleasure of listening to Smitty West and Julija Zonic’s new CD, To Leonard, With Love: Seven Songs from Leonard Cohen.
I’ve listened to the songs of Leonard Cohen for years, and have always been struck by the way they open my heart and mind to something deeply human and authentic. The seven songs on this tribute album from Smitty West and Julija Zonic are some of his most powerful songs in terms of that effect.
Cohen’s songs are never easy; he can’t seem to rest until he has reached a point of perfect equilibrium. The play of opposites continues back and forth until all sides of the emotional equation have been explored and laid out in a perfect tenuous balance. When I listen to Cohen sing his songs, it feels like I have entered the sacred interior space of a mind engaged in a critical internal dialogue. It is a fragile mind that forces itself to continue down through the layers, no matter how painful it is, no matter how hard, until it reaches the core of compassion and understanding.
What fascinates me about this album from Smitty and Julija, is the way they bring that internal dialogue out into the space of the world, enacting the conversation, as if it were a play, a tragedy, perhaps. The story proceeds from one song to the next, from beginning to end, moving through a whole spectrum of human emotions. The script belongs to Leonard Cohen, but Smitty and Julija understand their parts. They know what the songs are about, and it is evident that they have lived life fully and know how it feels to love, to suffer, to feel joy and compassion. Smitty’s expression comes vibrantly through his voice, which is deep and resonant and fine, but it also comes through his hands on the keyboard and from his anticipation and love of what is to come when his own voice retreats: Julija’s voice. She soars. She expresses every nuance of every emotion, perfectly. The movement between the two of them is sublime. It’s balanced. It’s rich. Neither one demands too much, neither retreats. It is just as the songs require. The album is a great tribute to Leonard Cohen.
Last week, I met with Smitty and Julija at Euterpe Studio to talk about their singing relationship and the process involved in creating the album.
Zoe: Can you tell me a something about your musical backgrounds and when you started performing together as a duet?
Julija: It’s funny that we both love singing dark music, because we first met at a funeral in March 2007. A friend of mine asked if I would sing for her father’s funeral, and I agreed to do it if she would provide an accompanist. Smitty was that accompanist. I used to sing professionally in Croatia, but then the war came, and I hadn’t sung in the seven years since I arrived in the United States. I wanted to sing again, and after the funeral, I contacted Smitty and he invited me to a rehearsal with his old rock and roll band, Myridian. The first song I sang with them was Bob Dylan’s, Forever Young.
Zoe: I remember that song. It was the first song I ever heard you sing. It had a powerful affect on me, because I associated it with my mother, who died very young. That was the first time you made me cry. Smitty, what about your musical history. When did you start playing the piano and singing?
Smitty: I’ve been playing piano since I was six, but I didn’t start singing in public until 2004. Julija, who had formal voice training in Croatia and teaches voice at schools throughout the Ojai Valley, has coached me over the five years we’ve worked together. She worked with me to make the songs my own, especially our Leonard Cohen songs. I’ve never sung without playing, so my interpretation of a song is expressed through the lyrics and the music. In a Leonard Cohen song, the lyrics, the phrasing, and the progression of the chords are inextricably linked. When I feel certain chords coming, it makes my mouth water in anticipation. And every chord has a color, for example, B minor is a blue chord.
Zoe: I understand you recorded the album here at Euterpe Studio. How did that go?
Smitty: Yes, we tracked all the vocals here. It was a much more-relaxed atmosphere than working in a formal professional studio, like the places where we tracked some of the other instrumentation and mixing. If we were in the right mood, we could just keep going. If we weren’t in the mood, we could stop and take a break, do some chores, or make a run for a burrito, and not worry about having the meter running. I think that helped capture an authentic vibe on the album. Incidentally, we have a lot of really funny stuff in the can, joking around between the two of us, sound effects, laughter …haha! Maybe that stuff will become a collector’s item one day.
Julija: Not having to deal with a clock made everything that much easier. We could experiment, change, add, subtract elements along the way. At the same time, we tried to stay as raw as possible, making sure we didn’t over think things.
Zoe: You have a great diversity of songs in your repertoire, with all of that music to choose from, what drew you to produce this tribute album to Leonard Cohen?
Julija: If a song can make me cry, it's a song for me, and I'm not a big crier. Yes, I get misty here and there, and yes there was a war in the place I came from, with the loss of life and loved ones, but I don't necessarily think of those experiences while I’m singing. It's more that these songs evoke emotions in me that let me feel how human I am. There are many people with uncried emotions, and these songs allow them to release their emotions through the safety of a song, where it’s not so painfully personal. There is comfort in that.
Smitty: You can see the emotion in people when we perform. They’re not just listening to Leonard’s songs, they’re listening to their own hearts, and it takes on a personal element for each listener. Like a perfume that smells different on every woman, Leonard’s songs evoke different feelings in every heart.
Zoe: You seem to choose songs that mean something to you. Songs that move you in a particular way. Can you talk about that?
Julija: Leonard Cohen songs speak to me in a profound way. There is a kind of bond between a songwriter, a performer, and the audience. In the perfect situation, each participant in the equation is actively involved in the interpretation of meaning. When a singer cares deeply about the song they are performing, and the audience is responsive, a communication takes place at a very deep level. It’s like talking to a lover; if they are listening, it makes it so much easier to convey what’s in your heart.
Smitty: Leonard Cohen’s songs are complex and emotionally rich. It takes passion and focus to communicate his message to an audience. That’s a challenge that interests us both.
Zoe: Dance Me to the End of Love is a great choice for the first song. It establishes the dialogue between the two of you that continues through all the songs on the album. It is a wonderful production, with Bob Ryman’s captivating fiddle adding richness. And it has a great rhythm that makes me want to move in time with it. Can you tell me about how you worked on that song?
Smitty: I worked with Scott Luedke, the sound engineer, to visually set the mood for each song. He is a very talented engineer, and I’ve learned that he loves visual clues to the musical vibe. So I try to create that for him, sometimes describing the position on the stage where I see the performers and musicians, or the lighting color and effects, or even a setting like a music video. The way I saw Dance Me to the End of Love was as a street scene in some old European city, I don’t know, maybe Seville in Bizet’s Carmen. The violinist is walking and playing a narrow street and the sound is echoing off the buildings as he moves toward a tavern where people are starting to stir. It’s not dark yet, but the night has promise. Then people start dancing. Sultry, sexy dancing.
Julija: Leonard Cohen’s songs are like paintings. Each one has a color and a quality that evokes a particular emotion. Joan of Arc, for example, references a real person that we all know, but Leonard Cohen has taken her story, and in an impressionistic way, he has made it his own. Then, Smitty and I, and the audience, interact with the impressionistic image and make it our own.
Smitty: Tempo is important too. It can effect an audience in a particular way. Nine out of ten songs are written in 4-4 time. 4-4 is a tempo audiences are used to, and it has a particular effect. On this album, more than half of the songs are not 4-4. The unusual tempos create a kind of imbalance or tension, which contributes to the emotions that will be evoked.
Zoe: What does The Letters represent to you, and why were you inspired to use it as the theme for the cover?
Smitty: The Letters is musically very interesting, and certainly the most obscure of our choices for this collection. As you can see, we chose artwork for the CD that tries to evoke the tension and darkness of this song.
Julija: It was the song of his that was most unfamiliar to us, so the challenge was there. And it was already a duet. It’s a song about that crazy moment when you love a person and hate them at the same time, a song about having something to say to someone, wanting to tell them, but never sending that letter. There is a lot of subtext, both in the lyrics and the music. It is written in two different keys: G and G sharp. The man sings in the first key, and then the woman’s voice is modulated up a half a step. It has an effect like they are each in their own living room going over the loss of their relationship. Some songs are pretty, or evoke nostalgia, but this one is filled with anguish, and it's very authentic. Also, it's kind of our letter to Leonard.
Smitty: Meter is important in The Letters, too. It can affect an audience in a particular way. Almost all songs now are written in 4-4 time, a tempo audiences are used to. Interestingly, and without intent, I see that on our album, more than half of the songs are not 4-4, but 6/8 or in 3. I guess we like the emotional tension, the slight drunkenness, or sensuality elicited by the meter sets in the middle songs of the CD: Hallelujah, Anthem, Joan of Arc, and Bird on a Wire.
Zoe: There is a sense that a drama being played out when you perform these songs. Neither of you sing backup for the other. It is more a conversation that moves back and forth between you, carrying us ever deeper into the emotional realm that Leonard Cohen has so powerfully created with his lyrics and music. Do you see it that way?
Julija: I see it as any piece of art, trying not to make that one line too many that’s going to make it sound forced or kitsch. We sing it as a conversation-between us, someone else-real or unreal, between us and Leonard, between us and the emotion that produces in us. So, I do not want to say that one word that is going to dilute it-just to have the last word
Smitty: That’s a neat observation. With these, and all of the songs we perform live as duets, we spend a lot of time arranging “who sings what.” We want to create a statement that takes the meaning deeper. There’s always musical structure and poetry in a song, but in our arrangements we try to further interpret and script each song for two voices: a man and women in a complex relationship. There are lot’s of songs we love that we’ve tried to work into a duet, but it doesn’t always work out. We either dump those songs, or just have Julija sing them as solos. For instance, she sings all the Eva Cassidy-covered songs we do, and Angel. But most of Leonard’s songs speak to both of us as passionate love, or hate duets.
Zoe: Are there other songs on the album that were a particular challenge to produce?
Smitty: Whenever I hear Anthem or Bird On The Wire, I always envision angels or a choir singing with a pipe organ in the background, so I wanted real organ for these two songs. I learned about a beautiful Manuel Rosalez-built organ here in the Ojai Valley. The thing is a work of art: all wood, manual stops, sixteen-foot redwood pipes, and a struggling wind system to keep up the air flow. All these things contribute to that slightly-imperfect organic sound that I knew would be perfect for the mixes. A friend instructed us on finding the sweet spot in the sanctuary, and setting the mics to get the best sound. We had to fit sessions in between weed-wackers and blowers, but we got some beautiful “tape” for the sound engineers to work with. Also, the choir voices in these tracks were assembled from individual tracks of Julija and I singing, so it’s a choir of angels, that are just us.
Zoe: Is there anything else you want to say about the album?
Julija: We have done our work, and now it is up to each listener to respond to the songs in whatever way they will. We poured our energy and love into the album, what it touches in each person, we can’t know. My hope is that people will enjoy the songs. That they will feel deep emotions. That they will dance and cry and laugh.
Smitty: It’s really a neat collaboration of people we love and respect from all over the world. Julija is a Balkan war refugee. I’m a part-Lebanese white boy from Western Pennsylvania. Leonard is a Canadian Jew who touched us both with his songs. Our engineer, Scott Luedke, from Cabin Trax Studios in Thousand Oaks, California, is a long-hair 80s rocker from LA. Our photographer, Mariana Schulze, is a German Argentine immigrant. Our album artists, Ben and Zdenka Blumensheid, are living in Croatia, and our sound engineer, Sean Ingoldsby, is from Real Time Studios in Ojai. Our bass player Dave Hutchison is an Okie, and somehow the wonderful Texas mentsh fiddler, Bob Ryman waltzed into our life. We did much of the collaboration over the internet, but in the end, we did what we love with who we love, and I think we did a pretty good job of recreating our live, acoustic experience in this album.