We’ve had the weekend to mull over Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” and our conclusion — like much of the internet — is that we can’t quite believe we’re saying this, but we really rather like it. It also got us thinking about how relatively few great covers of Cohen songs there have been by female artists. In a way, this makes sense — Cohen’s songs are quintessentially male in their own lugubrious way. But still, we’re always up for a challenge, so we’ve rounded up a selection of some of our other favorite female-fronted Cohen covers. Let us know if we missed any.
Marissa Nadler — “Famous Blue Raincoat”
This is a difficult one to take on, given that of all Cohen’s songs, it’s perhaps the one most identified with him as a narrator (it even ends, “Sincerely, L. Cohen”), but the ever-wonderful Marissa Nadler imbues it with enough personality for it to work as her own song. The multi-textured vocal arrangement, in particular, is both beautiful and haunting, making the song as creepy as it is melancholy.
Nina Simone — “Suzanne”
Simone’s mournful voice seems a natural fit for Cohen’s melancholy songs, but she turns in a surprisingly upbeat rendition of “Suzanne,” replacing the quiet acoustic instrumentation of the original with a jaunty piano accompaniment. It works quite well in its own unlikely way, largely because Simone sprinkles gold dust on pretty much every track she ever recorded but also because, while most Cohen tracks seem to benefit from being left well alone, this is a rare example of a radical reinterpretation that works and works well.
Concrete Blonde — “Everybody Knows”
Also on the perfect-voices-for-singing-Cohen front, Johnette Napolitano’s rich alto is pretty much as ideal a fit as you could imagine for the great man’s songs. She does a predictably fine job of nailing this I’m Your Man-era highlight, rendering it with a knowing, sassy delivery that befits the cynical nature of its lyrics. The song appears on the soundtrack to ’90s zeitgeist film Pump Up the Volume, which was one of the all-time great indie rock soundtrack albums.
Jennifer Warnes — “Joan of Arc”
You may know her from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, but Warnes was Cohen’s backing vocalist for most of the 1980s, performing on Various Positions, I’m Your Man, and The Future and serving as vocal arranger on those albums and also the live albums Live Songs and Field Commander Cohen. In view of all this, she was pretty well qualified to record an album of Cohen coves, which she duly did in 1987 — the record was called Famous Blue Raincoat, but was generally referred to affectionately by both Cohen and Warnes as “Jenny Sings Lenny.” All the songs on the record are good, but we’re particularly partial to the above version of “Joan of Arc.”
Sharon Robinson — “Alexandra Leaving”
On a similar note, 20 years after Warnes’ album, Cohen’s current collaborator performed three of his songs on her own debut solo album, which was released in 2008 and is well worth checking out if you enjoyed her work on his post-2000 output. Honestly, you’d have to try pretty hard to fuck up this song, one of the great man’s very best, but Robinson does better than just OK — as befits someone who co-wrote the track in the first place, she makes it her own, so much so that she handles vocals on live versions of this song at Cohen’s shows these days.
Roberta Flack — “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”
She butchered “Suzanne,” to be honest, but she did a beautiful job on this version of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” The difference, perhaps, is that this version has enough sense to leave well alone — the original’s understated melancholy is left largely untouched by Flack’s delivery, her soulful voice more than enough to convey the song’s meaning with a minimum of emoting and a relatively restrained accompaniment.
Mama Cass Elliott — “You Know Who I Am”
Who knew that Mama Cass did a version of this little-known track from Songs from a Room? It’s a curious choice of cover, made all the stranger by its frankly bizarre arrangement — it starts out quiet and restrained and then goes all big band on you for the chorus, before receding into what sounds suspiciously like ’70s porn music for the chorus — but somehow, it works.
k.d. lang — “Bird on a Wire”
This is one of the most-covered of Cohen’s songs, probably trailing only “Suzanne” and the ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” but if we had to pick one version only, it’d probably be this country-tinged rendition by k.d. lang, another singer whose deep, resonant vocals lend themselves well to the exercise of performing Cohen’s music.
Beth Orton — “Sisters of Mercy”
Listen to the crowd go crazy at the start of this video when they hear what Orton’s singing. We’ve always been fans of her work, and she does this beautifully — the recording comes from the 2008 album Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which soundtracked a film of the same name. If you like Cohen, it’s worth checking out — it also features Nick Cave covering “I’m Your Man” and Antony doing “If It Be Your Will,” amongst many others.
Susanna and the Magical Orchestra — “Hallelujah”
And finally, a song that’s been covered so much that it’s nearly impossible to do something new with it, so much so that our own Judy Berman argued a while back that it should never be covered again. Still, we really love Susanna Wallumrød’s ultra-minimalist rendition of “Halleljuah,” just her impossibly beautiful voice and a funereal organ. It’s proof that there’s a new spin to be put on even the most over-familiar of songs.