Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell have both written some of the most striking heartbreak songs of all time; it puts them in a unique position when it comes to their personal relationships. Given their penchant for pouring unrelenting emotion into their music, when the duo had an intensely romantic love affair with one another—even if it didn’t turn how they may have planned—it was always going to result in a heavy dosage of incredible songwriting material.
The two longtime friends – and one-time lovers – first met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Instantly hitting it off, the two then embarked on a romantic relationship which would burn out within a few short months. Joined by poetry and songwriting, the two would remain close friends until Cohen’s death in 2016. Cohen, who was nine years older than Mitchell when they met, often found inspiration from those he lived in close proximity with.
Mitchell was a pioneering figure of alternative and folk music and was repeatedly compared to Cohen during the early stages of her career until she solidified her own unique style even though some similarities in their work overlapped, given the fact that they both expert storytellers and confessional observers, the two artists were firmly in their own lane sonically.
Following the festival appearance when the pair first met, Cohencentric states that Mitchell would spend a month living with Cohen at her Laurel Canyon home. The period coincided with a time when Hollywood producers urged him to score a film based on his song ‘Suzanne’ and, tasked with the project, the Canadian musician attempted to enlist the assistance of Mitchell on the score—an effort which never actually came to fruition.
Mitchell, reflecting on her career years later, told Malka Maron this in the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words about their first meeting: “Leonard did ‘Suzanne’, I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. ‘Suzanne’ was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.”
After their relationship as lovers fizzled out, Mitchell penned the incredible song ‘Rainy Night House’ as a farewell to their short but sweet relationship. Joni confirmed that the track was about her relationship with coming to an end, stating: “Yeah. I went one time to his home, and I fell asleep in his old room, and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all night, and he watched me see who in the world I could be.”
She continued: “There’s some poetic liberty with those two lines; actually it’s ‘you sat up all night and watched me to see who in the world…’ I turned it around. Leonard was in a lot of pain. Hungry ghosts is what it’s called in Buddhism. I am even lower. Five steps down.”
It is also rumoured that the timeless ‘A Case Of You’ was written with Cohen in mind but this has never been publically confirmed. Whether this is true, however, the timing would suggest that it could be the case. But though he may have had a claim to two songs from Mitchell, he could definitely lay his hands on one.
Listen to the beautifully bittersweet ‘Rainy Night House’, below.