Andrea Ramolo pays tribute to Leonard Cohen

Andrea Ramolo. (Photos by Jen Squires)

Andrea Ramolo. (Photos by Jen Squires)

Andrea Ramolo was singing with The Wooden Sky’s Gavin Gardiner in Montreal, just days after Leonard Cohen’s passing. As a long-time fan of the poet, she knew they had to honour him. With only two rehearsals beforehand, they closed the show with ‘Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye.’

It was her first time singing the song. And, it brought a rock n’ roll crowd to complete silence.

“I think as a person he is timeless. I think the music and the reason why it reaches so many people, beyond his golden voice, is because his songs are so rich and honest.”

The Toronto-based artist is releasing her latest album, Homage, on Nov. 7 — marking the second anniversary of the Canadian icon’s death. It was produced by Michael Timmins, who collaborated with Ramolo on her previous album, NUDA.

Years before, she was asked by Adam Cohen to sing back-up, as one-half of folk-duo Scarlett Jane, at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and stayed at Cohen’s home in Montreal. Reflecting on the songs and life lived in the house was also a stepping stone into this album.

Throughout a two-month time span, Ramolo carefully studied every one of Cohen’s albums, choosing the ones that spoke to her, the ones that she felt she could honour (no one can top k.d. lang’s version of ‘Hallelujah,’ she says). Studio time took less than a week.

Ramolo captivates the listener through spoken-word and has stayed true to Cohen’s stories — albeit now, with a woman’s touch and perspective. “I don't know if a woman at his time would have been able to be successful at that,” she says. “There is something really thrilling in covering such a powerful body of work.”

NUDA, released about a year ago, was the beginning of creating a new sound — something that is further explored and validated in Homage. Ramolo has stepped out of the comfort zone of her acoustic guitar (heard in her work with Scarlett Jane) to experiment with the bass-like sounds of the baritone guitar, and the use of delay and pedals, which have tailored Homage with influences of folk and rock.

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“There is a fear that you want to honour this artist, but you want to be true to who you are but respect the material,” Ramolo says. “It was just an entirely different but equally as enriching process to develop the songs and find my way into them as it would be to write my own.”

If there is anything Ramolo writes and sings about the best, it’s love and turbulence of relationships. “I wanted to make it sound haunting and sparse and ethereal and dark,” she says. “I think Leonard naturally has those ingrained in his songs.”

She’s unguarded herself just enough to allow the listener to find themselves in Cohen’s words along with her. Staying true to his melancholic signature, we’re left comfortable within our solitude by the album’s end.

The album opens with ‘Suzanne,’ a nostalgic stroll down the streets of Montreal. This track is dedicated to her mother. Ramolo first picked up the guitar in 2003, after her mother’s diagnosis with stage-three breast cancer and has childhood memories of her singing it.

'Dancing To The End of Love,’ has been toned down to a visceral and seductive serenade. “I wanted to approach it in a way that it sounds drunken, as this sort of clumsy dance,” Ramolo explains. She’s rejuvenated the soulful tracks with rock —  ‘Who By Fire’ sees Cohen’s Middle Eastern maqams replaced with electric guitar, and ‘Everybody Knows’ originally with Spanish guitar, with slinky bass.

Ramolo also wanted to speak to the contemporary issues of society. The album includes Cohen’s 1992 single, and title of his ninth studio album, ‘The Future’ which she describes as “prophetic.” He’s predicted the political and cultural chaos that speaks all too well for our times.

“It just foreshadows everything that we are living today with the complete loss of privacy and just how we are run by social media,” she says. “I love the blunt nature of that song.”

‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ is what Ramolo describes as “the heart and soul of the album.” She’s clearly left the best for last.

The 51-year-old love song is about Cohen’s ex-partner Marianne Ihlen — the muse behind many of his songs. The couple’s romance started on the Greek island of Hydra, and Cohen most notably traced their love story in Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs from a Room (1969).

Ramolo’s solemn rendition sees the addition of her Italian roots with her poem, ‘Senza Te’ (‘Without You’), that she wrote about her last significant other during the instrumental break — the final touch in finding her way into this album, and a song with a legacy’s worth of meaning.

“That’s pretty intimate and personal, and I just wanted to take that extra step and make that version of the recording my own.”

The process is something that has given her a new sense of meaning as an artist.

“It evaporated this sense of pride I had about what an artist is. I always had this assumption that if I were to sing other people’s songs, it wouldn’t make me a true artist,” Ramolo says.

Music, she says, “is to be shared and celebrated, and this was my way of doing it.”