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culture

Artists Take Leonard Cohen’s Music to the Streets

More than two dozen young Toronto musicians are playing the Lady's Man's songs on a downtown corner near you today and tomorrow.

Amy Nostbakken performs at the corner of University and Queen. (Dean Bradley/Torontoist)

Amy Nostbakken performs at the corner of University and Queen.


From his books of poetry and fiction, to his role in the 1960s folk-music scene, to his decades of haunting and iconic songs, Leonard Cohen is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most prolific and beloved artists. This weekend, to celebrate the singer/songwriter winning the Glenn Gould Prize, more than 30 musicians are taking Cohen’s music to the streets of Toronto.

The impromptu concerts coincide with a week of events that culminates on Monday with a gala concert celebrating Cohen. Cohen is the ninth laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, an international award established in 1987 to recognize people who have made a lifelong contribution to the arts.

This is the first time the Glenn Gould Foundation, the organization that administers the prize, is putting on such a large-scale public performance. The foundation’s executive director, Brian Levine, says the decision came out of the popularity of Cohen’s music and the desire to put young Canadian artists in the spotlight. “Given that there’s such a widespread love for Leonard and his work, this provided a forum to not only express that across the community…but also as a way of helping to bring to light some really wonderful young talent.”

Many of the musicians taking to the street today and tomorrow cite Cohen as a major influence for most of their lives. Oliver Pigott, one half of the acoustic pop duo The Pigott Brothers, performs near the Four Seasons Centre at University and Queen. He says he got into Cohen’s music when, as a child, he heard “First We Take Manhattan,” the opening track from Cohen’s 1988 album I’m Your Man. “That affected me in a way I can’t really elaborate on,” he says. “Except to say it was a huge influence in my deciding to become a songwriter myself.”

For Anna Jarvis, cellist for The Benefit of the Free Man, who performs this weekend at the corner of Avenue and Bloor, the introduction to Cohen came from her father, who used to play his music while they cooked dinner. “I now associate songs like ‘So Long, Marianne’ with chopping carrots and mincing garlic,” she says.

Levine says Cohen’s songs remain so popular partly because his lyrics tap into shared experiences, and partly because of the feeling at the core of the music. “There’s a quality in some of his most popular songs, a hymn-like quality just in the melodic structure itself. And that’s the kind of thing that really roots itself in the mind.”

Singer-songwriter Brooke Harris, who performs under the name Gray and can be found this weekend at the Yorkville Parkette, is excited but a little nervous about playing Cohen’s music. “He’s a scary one to touch, because there are so many people that don’t do him justice,” she says. However, she is excited to take part in such a large-scale event. “Canada has some really incredible up-and-coming artists, the majority of whom we have no idea about. I think it’s a chance to open more eyes and to share with the unsuspecting public music they’ve maybe never heard.”

A list of performers and locations can be found at the Glenn Gould Foundation’s website.

CORRECTION: May 17, 2012, 4:33 PM This posted originally stated that Cohen’s version of the song “First We Take Manhattan” appeared on the 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat. In fact, that album belongs to singer Jennifer Warnes; Cohen’s version appeared on his 1988 album I’m Your Man.



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