Key Tracks: Howard Bilerman on Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”
The Montréal producer explains how he came to work on the singer’s final masterpiece
Since 1995, the Grammy-nominated Howard Bilerman has been one of the most sought-after engineers to get behind the boards for an album in the city of Montréal. Throughout his prolific career he has worked with over 400 artists, including some of Canada’s finest: Godspeed, Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade, Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Bell Orchestre and more. He co-owns and co-operates the recording studio Hotel2Tango and recently recorded parts on the final Leonard Cohen album, You Want It Darker.
In his lecture at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy, Bilerman explained how he came to meet the famed poet and eventually got to work him.
Leonard Cohen was born in Montréal and lived here for a bit. It’s kind of like in the same way that you would go to the forest and, eventually, one day you see a moose. Anyone who lived in Montréal long enough, at that time, would see Leonard Cohen walking on Saint-Laurent or having breakfast somewhere.
Something like 20 years ago, I was like, “I want to record Leonard Cohen,” and so I wrote this really poetic letter. “Dear Leonard, I have a recording studio...” I don’t know, some ... It’s ridiculous, this letter. I would be so embarrassed if I saw this letter now. I also made a little CD of some songs. I slipped it through his mailbox, and he didn’t call.
Then, a few years later, I was like, “I think my poetry is better, so I’m going to write another letter.” Some of the bands that I’d recorded at that point, actually people had heard, maybe even he’s heard. So I wrote another letter to Leonard Cohen and made another CD. I slipped it through his mailbox. He didn’t call.
Now, the funny thing is, having been to Leonard Cohen’s house, and having gone to the other side of that door, there’s a fucking mountain of letters on the other side of that door. He probably has a shovel by that door, just shoveling them into the backyard.
But then, I was like, well, whatever. There is a lot of other people to record. One of them being Vic Chesnutt. Amazing record and an amazing person. Vic loved Leonard Cohen so much. It’s like, “Vic, you want to see where Leonard lives?” We drove there. “Vic, do you want to have breakfast where Leonard eats?” We just talked about our favorite songs. He kept on making Leonard Cohen references. Vic said, “Leonard Cohen should record here.” It’s like, “I know. I know!”
Then the review of the Vic Chestnutt record came out. Said, “This record that Vic did at the Hotel2Tango with these people is one of the best records he’s done in a long time. Someone should get Leonard Cohen to that studio.” Then, about 12 hours later an email comes into my email account that says it’s from Leonard Cohen, “Can I see your studio? Leonard.” Of course this is a practical joke from Vic Chesnutt. Right? Because Vic also got sent the article of his review. I was like, “Alright, Leonard Cohen.” I asked him some skill testing questions, which only he would know the answer to. We have this mutual friend and I went to school with his son. I was like, “What’s the last name of this person?”
Then, we have another friend, his cousin. “I recorded his cousin, and you know his uncle. He lives in New York. For bonus points, what’s his name?” I was like, “All right, Vic, go ahead.” 4:30 AM the next morning, an email comes with huge bold letters, and it just says, “De Salvio, Lack.” I was like, “Fuck me! It’s Leonard Cohen! Holy shit! You know, it’s quite an honor, we’re recording tomorrow at 4:00.” He said, “I will be there at 4:30.”
I was like, “Leonard, I’d like to propose an experiment.”
We’re recording Silver Mt. Zion at the time. We’re all just looking at the clock, and the hand is moving slow motion. Then, it hits 4:30, and as if you’d set your alarm to say 4:30, the doorbell rings. We all looked at each other, like, “Who’s going to answer the door? We didn’t even figure this out.” I was like, “I’ll answer the door.”
I go to the door and I open it and there he is. His suit and cap, and he says, “If you’re busy I can come back.” It’s like, “Dude, if you wanted salt, I would scrape it off my arm somehow and give you salt. Please come in.” He stayed for like an hour and a half, and he was just watching us track. Then, he said, “Would it be okay if I came back sometime?” This is before comeback Leonard Cohen. This is, “My agent stole all my money and I’m in Montréal just trying art and reading and writing” Leonard Cohen. This isn’t third act Leonard Cohen yet.
I said, “Yeah, sure. Come back any time.” Then, I was like, “This is weird...” Because he didn’t really say why he was coming. I’m just going to put it out there. I was like, “Leonard, I’d like to propose an experiment.” “What is the experiment?” “I think you should try coming to record a song here with all the people that you saw at the studio.” I made what I thought was a convincing case for it. Said, “It’s just an experiment. In science, if you have a science experiment, you combine a bunch of things. Nine times out of ten they explode in your face and you’re like, we will not do that again. Then one time out of ten, you find a cure to some disease. It’s just an experiment, if it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, no one will hear it.”
He never made me feel like less than him... He listened, he answered. He asked me questions about my family. It was just wonderful.
He didn’t answer, but he came back. He came back on Tuesday. At this point, I was perplexed. And there was never any discussion about it. Then, he came back, the world tour. He had this amazing comeback. First time I had ever seen him live... It was amazing. It was truly incredible. In the middle of that, he visited a third time, and then he said, “About that experiment, one day.”
I was like, “Okay. Okay. One day.” But at that point, it didn’t even matter. I got to hang out with Leonard Cohen and see how articulate he was, and how hilarious he was and how generous he was. He never made me feel like less than him. He always gave me room. He listened, he answered. He asked me questions about my family. It was just wonderful. That was, really, that was the exceptional thing that came of it.
Later on, I met a bunch of people associated with him, including one of his booking agents, who then suggested that his son, Adam, get in touch with me for a recording. Adam and I started recording a record together, and we had these amazing talks about music and about music production, and about what records should sound like. We recorded a bunch of songs, and he would fly in from LA.
Then he texted me and said, “Hey, is the studio free Monday to record a song of my dad’s?” I was like, “Huh, well, that’s an interesting choice that Adam is going to do a cover of one of his dad’s songs.” “Sure. Of course the studio is free.” Then, he’s like, “Well, how many sets of headphones do you have? It’s this choir. The Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir.” I was like, “Wow.” Then sort of everything came into focus, and I realized, “Oh, you mean record a song of your father’s at the studio?” Then that’s what happened. The choir showed up. We recorded one song, and then the choir came back twice. We recorded another song.
You know, the best part about the experience is I’ve recorded 400, 450 records. At the beginning, beginning, beginning, you really just have to put on your game face and be like, “I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.” The band is paying to be there. If there’s feedback somewhere or somebody’s not sounding good, you’re just like, “I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.” Then eventually you make so many records that you literally are like, “I know what I’m doing.”
It was really refreshing then to have this session come about and have the only thing that was going on in my head being, “Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck it up.” For like, six hours. Just that was on repeat. “Don’t fuck it. Don’t fuck it up. This is important. Don’t fuck it up.” Hopefully I didn’t fuck it up.
Watch the full Howard Bilerman lecture below.