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Leonard Cohen's invaluable advice for young songwriters

The late great Leonard Cohen had a way with words that made him become a source of envy for most songwriters on the planet. The Canadian had a way of telling stories that set him apart from most artists; he indeed operated by his rules and his rules only. An unconventional artist, his success came from his ability to make people truly feel; the emotion he crammed into his songs made him a talent for the ages.

Following the singer’s sad death in 2016, Nick Cave lauded Cohen by saying, “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.” This sentiment was shared by Bob Dylan, who praisingly noted, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

It’s impossible for Cohen to have shared a step-by-step-guide to his genius, he was a real one-off and his way of combing words so beautifully with melody is inexplicable. However, in 2014, as he geared up to release his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, he gave a private preview to fans at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles. He uttered some golden nuggets of advice which the audience soaked up.

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” he said in response to a question regarding his songwriting technique. “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.”

This advice is all about perseverance, and you have to follow an idea through right to the bitter end even though, that doesn’t guarantee a successful result, one day it will. Cohen wasn’t a prolific artist by any stretch of the imagination, instead opting for the quality over quantity approach over his career which served him well. He was always patient in the songwriting process, and it paid dividends for Cohen.

“A lot of young writers ask me for advice – mistakenly because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated,” Cohen warned the audience. “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.”

That night isn’t the only time that Cohen spoke poignantly about the creative process; perhaps, his most famous quote on the topic is about how one should never chase inspiration. The singer once remarked: “One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.”

Working hard was a mantra that Cohen always made sure he followed, once noting: “I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.” 

That mindset switch that Cohen speaks of is perhaps the most generous slice of advice that he ever offered, and you need to take advantage of the time you have to create what you want and step face to face with your mortality, as the Canadian states. Although, he didn’t release his debut album until he was 33 — once Cohen discovered music, he never looked back and even released an album just a matter of weeks before his death. He treated writing as if it was what he was put on Earth to do and never sold himself short for commercial success, as long as his work appeased himself, that’s all that truly mattered to Cohen.