Songwriter Interviews

Jennifer Warnes

by Carl Wiser

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In America, even "Hallelujah" couldn't garner much attention for Leonard Cohen when he released the song in 1984. Jennifer Warnes, who had been working with him since 1972, had become far more popular, and in 1986 she spread his gospel with Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Cohen covers that led to his upturn.

"I was writing for my new record [I'm Your Man] and Jennifer, who is an old friend and musical collaborator, said she wanted to do an album of my songs," Cohen told Q in 1988. "She'd been saying this for a long time and I always thought it was just an expression of friendship. I never thought she'd actually do it."

Warnes had two Oscars to her name ("It Goes Like It Goes" from Norma Rae and "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer and a Gentleman) and picked up a third with her 1987 Dirty Dancing hit, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." But as Cohen's career took off, Warnes retreated from music, largely for personal reasons. After Famous Blue Raincoat, she didn't release another album until 1992, and the next didn't appear until 2001.

On April 27, 2018, she returns with Another Time, Another Place, a collaboration with Cohen's longtime musical director and Famous Blue Raincoat producer Roscoe Beck. The album kicks off with one of the few songs that could rival Cohen's for soul-bearing intimacy: Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe." In this wide-ranging interview, she explains her absence and talks at length about the music of Leonard Cohen, including why she left "Hallelujah" off of Famous Blue Raincoat.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): On Another Time, Another Place you start off with "Just Breathe" by Pearl Jam, which is a very emotional song. Can you talk about why you did that song and what it means to you?

Jennifer Warnes: When I looked for songs for this record, I wanted to find narratives that rang true with my age and era, life experience and spiritual position. Because I don't write as much as others, finding those songs was very hard, because a lot of the people who might be writing those songs aren't writing as much. So I had to go to the younger writers to find subjects that had resonance for me. And "Just Breathe" did.

I also liked it because it was unconventional. It doesn't sound like an ordinary song. It's an unconventional way to speak to someone, and I liked that. And the subject of mortality is on everybody's mind at one time or another, so it was a universal theme, just like love and loss. So I thought it was time for us to talk about that in a simple way, an easy-to-approach way.

Songfacts: How do you find it unconventional?

Warnes: The conversational tone. You don't have to do anything to get there, it's right there from the first note. It's right in your face. Eddie Vedder doesn't approach slowly, he's right there.

Songfacts: You have not written that many songs, but you have written some, and many of them have been very good. Why don't you write more songs?

Warnes: I don't know, why don't you? [Laughing]

Songfacts: I'm not sure I have the chops for it.

Warnes: Why don't you cook more beef? Why don't you buy more houses? Why don't you have more dogs or parrots? I don't know why.

Why don't I write more songs? Because life is a really fascinating thing and I'm not ego-driven. That's not my path.

Songfacts: What do you feel is your path?

Warnes: Singing.

Songfacts: Well, that raises another question: Why haven't you been singing more over the last 17 years?

Warnes: A whole lot of people died. A whole bunch of people that meant a great deal to me passed away, and I have been reeling for years.

Everyone who loves and has families and friends loses people, but this was unusual. This was a series of extraordinary events that would silence anyone.

Songfacts: It is very good to hear Jennifer Warnes back in action. You have such a gift and it's wonderful that it has come back.

Warnes: Thank you so much. I sensed that it was important for me to say something to my group, wherever they are. You could probably tell me where they are. But I felt that no matter what I had been through, it was my job to say something, and I felt that if I did, it would help.

It was an emotional calling and I felt like there were people out there I will never meet who I wanted to have an hour of good music with, so it was part of my sorting out of my priorities in the mountain of grief that I had to go through and I'm still going through. It was one shining little thought, whenever I thought that there are still people who might enjoy an hour of intimate conversation from someone that they've never met.

Songfacts: Well, it's easy to feel like you're in a dark corner in this Internet-connected world and everything else is going on around you, especially when you don't engage in social media. But I think you'd be surprised, there are more of your people out there than you might think.

Warnes: Thank you. That's probably why I did it, to find out if they are.

Songfacts: You say you want to say something, and that's what you did crucially with Leonard Cohen, especially when you did the Famous Blue Raincoat album.

Warnes: Thank you.

Songfacts: With the songs on Another Time, Another Place, what are the ones that you really feel are saying something that you want to bring to people?

Warnes: All of it, really. I wouldn't have picked them if they didn't. All of them say a little something. They're definitely not Leonard Cohen songs, which are dense and weighty and heavy and rich and deep. These are more musical, lighter, but not any less intimate. And every single one of them has something I want to say.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Freedom." I wasn't familiar with that one.

Warnes: It came from a chorale piece that was written by Marcus Hummon for a small choir and orchestra. It was around the subject of Frederick Douglass, who was a slave that had written a book and became friends with Abraham Lincoln. And the song "Freedom," which was originally entitled, "What Does Freedom Feel Like?," was the finale of a theater piece. Marcus had sent it through Mary Martin to me just saying, "Here's some of the other kinds of work that I do."

It was so off the pop track - the format was so different. I fussed with it a bit and wasn't sure it would fit, and then we brought in those singers and I thought, "Of course, yes, this fits. It's fine."

It's simple to a fault. It's just about that word, freedom. But I wanted something on the album that could be like a hymn or something that I could give to the culture at a time like this. Our world is so screwed up right now.

Songfacts: In speaking of a modern hymn, something the world seems to need, I would like to get your thoughts on the song "Hallelujah."

Warnes: I could have put it on Famous Blue Raincoat, but we thought it was too generic, and I wasn't fond of the lyric. I loved the chorus.

And Leonard knows - knew - what I felt about it. I sang on it with him on the recording, because I knew what he wanted. He wanted a gospel choir. So that was easy.

But when it took off, I was kind of surprised, because I don't think it's one of his greatest songs. I don't think it's as cohesive as his other songs are.

But after Famous Blue Raincoat, the world was starved for Leonard Cohen, and they would take anything he put out. A lot of artists were looking for something that had a singable nature to it. Somebody hopped on it and there it was. It took off like a great big bird, didn't it?
Lenny and Jenny at work
photo: Roscoe Beck
Songfacts: What is his greatest song?

Warnes: I don't know. What do you think it is?

Songfacts: I hate to say it [because Warnes didn't work on it], but I like "Suzanne."

Warnes: Yeah. The old original. I love it too.

Songfacts: When Nina Simone sang it, it knocked me off my block.

Warnes: Yeah.

Songfacts: But you talked about "Hallelujah" not being as cohesive as some of his others. Can you talk about one of his songs that you do find cohesive?

Warnes: Anything that's on the 20th Anniversary Edition of Famous Blue Raincoat I think is pretty good. I think those are really good songs. But cohesive, I don't know. Cohesive is a funny word to apply to Leonard Cohen. He doesn't write tight little ditties.

Songfacts: No. And you had to perform on these songs. What was that like?

Warnes: Well, it's singing on poetry. It's an elegant and wonderful event that I feel fortunate I could do year after year. He's a great, great writer.

Warnes duets with Cohen on his 1979 track "The Smokey Life," which she performed with him throughout his tour that year. One of those performances can be heard on the live album Field Commander Cohen.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about recording "The Smokey Life" with him, which you had a major role in recording and performing?

Warnes: Henry Lewy produced it. He was producing Joni Mitchell at the time [her album Mingus] as well as Leonard. Roscoe is playing bass. We did it at A&M, and Henry Lewy just said, "Sing whatever you want." Which is generally what Leonard always said. "Whatever you hear. Whatever you want."

And then I would sing for 10-20 passes and then I'd go home. What ended up on the record was whatever they liked.

Songfacts: How did you decide which songs to put on Famous Blue Raincoat?

Warnes: The ones that suited my voice, and they had to hang together. I wanted it to be a whole album.

Roscoe and I had been in Leonard's band for the Field Commander Cohen tour, so we knew the songs. It wasn't like we casually cherry-picked a few - we knew exactly which ones had to be and delivered a kind of musical payoff.

Leonard is not known for his great melodies, but he actually is a great melody writer. If you take the words off and just listen to the melodies, he's really, really good. It's just not known, because we're so distracted by the poetry.

Songfacts: Can you give an example of one of his songs that has a great melody?

Warnes: "Famous Blue Raincoat," which is in Leo Sayer's song also. [Sayer's "When I Need You" uses part of the melody from "Famous Blue Raincoat."]

Songfacts: When you are performing songs that somebody else has written, how do you go about it? I'm wondering if you try to come up with your own interpretation or if you can simply translate it.

Warnes: It's beyond thinking in the brain. It has to be a felt sense. You have to have a feeling that somewhere between you and the writer is a unity that you're both feeling the same thing. You know how you feel close to some artists? Well, singers feel close to writers, because they have to get inside of their thoughts. And if that's natural, usually the song just flows and you don't have to think much about what you do.

Songfacts: A song that is very different than what we've been talking about is "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," which means exactly what it says it means. Can you tell me about that?

Warnes: Did you see the NFL do it?

Songfacts: Oh, that was great, with Odell Beckham.

Warnes: It was great. What do you want to know about that song?

Songfacts: You've talked about how you like a song to either be dastardly complex or elegantly simple. I'm wondering if this is one of those elegantly simple songs.

Warnes: I think it was an accident that just blossomed. Nobody thought it would be this huge. It was just a surprise.

And we did our best, Bill and I. The movie was great - still popular and always will be. But I've thought about it and I wondered why the whole world loves it so much and I think the answer is because it's real joyful. If you take the joy out of that song, it's not a hit.

That's why the lift is so important, and that's why the guys in the NFL did the lift: because there's an unexplainable joy in the song. I don't know where you can pinpoint the actual moment, but if you take the joy out of that song, it's not that great. But the fun factor is so needed out in this world.

Songfacts: The big hit song that you had back in the '70s was "Right Time Of The Night." Can you talk about that song?

Warnes: No. [Laughing] No, I can't.

Songfacts: That's understandable. Did you sing on a Bob Dylan song?

Warnes: Yeah. "Every Grain of Sand."

Songfacts: How did that come about?

Warnes: Bob called. Said, "Come on down," and I did. That's it. He said, "You want to sing along?" I said, "Sure, I'll sing along." They recorded it, and it ended up on the Bootleg tapes.

Songfacts: Did he give you any kind of direction? I'm wondering what he was like in the studio.

Warnes: Bob? Nothing. He gave me no direction. He said, "I think you'll like this." He played it on the piano, and I said, "Oh, that's great. I'll take it home and learn it." And he said, "No, just sing along right here."

That's Bob. He didn't give me much of himself. He just wanted me to sing on the song.

Songfacts: You've also recorded songs by Randy Newman, which puts you in pretty elite territory when we're talking about different songwriting legends.

Warnes: Yeah.

Songfacts: You did "One More Hour," his song from the movie Ragtime. I'd love to hear what it's like doing one of his songs.

Warnes: Randy's difficult. His songwriting, Nilsson did it beautifully. But it's hard to get inside of Randy's lyrics, because there's a little intentional distance between his music and his lyric. It's like a comment that he makes in the distance between the pathos of the music and the colloquial things that he says inside of songs.

And it's so Randy that it can't really be bettered. You can't really redo a Randy Newman song, except for Joe Cocker, of course. Ragtime has a story, though. He just called and said, "Would you come down on Friday and sing on this song, it's just three notes. You'll learn it in a minute. Come on down and sing it."

I said, "Sure."

So I went down, and there were four grand pianos, six upright basses, and an entire 120-piece orchestra. I was just appalled. I didn't think I could pull it off. I said, "You're gonna have to conduct me, because I don't know where the tempo is. I don't know this song." He wanted me in an unthinking performance.

So I got in the booth and I sang it. Very easy. Very easy to do. I just followed his hand and I got it. And when they did the second take or the third take, I said, "OK, you can stop waving your hands about." He was so offended, because he was also conducting the orchestra. And that was very egotistical of me to say, "Stop waving your hands in the air."

But we laughed about that later. And he was right, that if an artist really knows a genre, they don't need to study. You want that first Japanese brush stroke. That's what you want on tape. That's what he wanted and it was really great. We got a nomination, I think. [They did. The winner was "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)."]

Songfacts: Is that first Japanese brush stroke usually the one that ends up on the album when you record?

Warnes: If you're smart it is. Yes. But it's often overthought. Often. Knowing when to stop is a really great talent.

Songfacts: When you were doing the Leonard Cohen material, was it often an early take that got printed?

Warnes: Almost always. With the Leonard Cohen album, I think everything was one time through and we got it. I'm not saying one take, but one date. One date per song was what's on Famous Blue Raincoat, and then there were vocal overdubs and background overdubs. We're very proud of that.

Songfacts: Well, the songs are so powerful, I think it would be very draining to have to revisit them.

Warnes: Grind them out.

Songfacts: Yeah. What would be left of you?

Warnes: Well, we had been in his band and on the road singing those songs for so long, it was really easy to just go and do it.

Songfacts: When the Leonard Cohen revival happened, you didn't jump on the bandwagon and do Famous Blue Raincoat II. Why not?

Warnes: I don't think he wanted me to. I think he felt that being covered by a number of people was wise, and that might have been a really good decision for him.

But there was a point at which we could have done Volume II and we could have formed an alliance that would have lasted a decade or two, artistically speaking, as well as personally, because I knew him since I was 20. But there was a real feeding frenzy.

Songfacts: Well, why didn't Volume II happen?

Warnes: He came out with I'm Your Man, and that was very well received. And the reason we made Famous Blue Raincoat was to bring attention to his work, which had been ignored. So mission accomplished.

He put out I'm Your Man, and then came I'm Your Fan [1991 tribute album], and it started to roll of its own accord. So we felt year by year that we had accomplished what we meant to do, which was to shine a little flashlight on a corner that had been overlooked. And it worked.

He thanked me in the year before he passed. He said that was really important for him that we did that.

Songfacts: What were your feelings when he did come into this massive popularity?

Warnes: What do you mean?

Songfacts: I'm wondering if it was a little bittersweet, because the secret was getting out. You were seeing a very niche artist become so popular.

Warnes: He wasn't a niche artist in Europe. I'm in that movie Bird On A Wire from 1972. He was like François Villon in France. He was a huge success all over Europe. It was just America that didn't get it.

So we felt vindicated. Justified. He's my friend - I didn't want to own his life, nor could you ever. It just so happened that the music industry was in a terrible state in the '90s. Famous Blue Raincoat came out in '87, so after "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," the music business started to disintegrate. The record stores were closing down and indies were being eaten up by majors. The most unpleasant qualities that you would ever want to see in a friend you saw in all your friends as they scrambled for solid ground.

I love my friends, but it was a terrible, terrible time, and we all suffered. So I don't have the illusion that I could have controlled anything anyway. I couldn't have. I was very grateful that the Leonard Cohen community found the record, because they gave it the life it has now. It's a classic record now and I'm very, very proud of it.

So there are a lot of scenarios that could have happened, I suppose. But it was more important to retain his friendship and see him be successful, which he was.

The night he won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Performance (for his contribution to the album Blues Explosion), Stevie Ray Vaughan went to the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles and recorded the guitar part for "First We Take Manhattan," one of the original songs Cohen wrote for Famous Blue Raincoat. He did it at the behest of Roscoe Beck, who knew him from their days in Austin, Texas. Vaughan wasn't performing on the show so he didn't bring his guitar - Beck lent him a Stratocaster.
Warnes with Stevie Ray Vaughan
photo: Karen Miller
Songfacts: There are a lot of people who enjoy the songs of Leonard Cohen, but don't necessarily like his voice and, in fact, can't listen to it. And you are the vessel for that. If I know somebody who can't stand that kind of voice, I will play them Famous Blue Raincoat to introduce them to Leonard Cohen. That's a pretty big deal.

Warnes: Thank you.

Songfacts: "Ain't No Cure For Love," is one of the songs that originally appeared on Famous Blue Raincoat. How did you go about interpreting that one, as it had not been done before?

Warnes: Like you do any song. You just try it in different tempos and keys and instrumentations. And that beat that's in "Ain't No Cure For Love" I owe to two people: Billy Payne and Van Dyke Parks. Billy Payne played the keys. He was in Little Feat, so he had that funky thing, that bouncy thing that was happening underneath the song, and it was perfect. It gave me the freedom to sing with more life than any of the other songs.

Songfacts: What did you think of the lyric?

Warnes: Well, Leonard wrote the lyric for the project. He wrote it during the HIV epidemic when it first hit the papers. We were both reading LA Weekly, and we took a walk around the block and I said, "People can't love each other anymore. It'll kill them. What are we going to do?" And he said, "There ain't no cure for love."

So he began to write that for this project, but it was around the horror of what was happening in the world.

Songfacts: The songs that you've written, are they generally like that, where they're based on some kind of current event, or are they more interpersonal? I'd just like to get a sense for how you write when you do write.

Warnes: When I do write, it's just something that pushed through the rest of my life, made enough noise into my psyche to have me write it down. I'm terrible about writing. I don't enjoy it, I'm not a natural at it, so I can't really say unless you wanted to pinpoint one particular song. I can't remember most.

Songfacts: How has your singing changed since you started in the business?

Warnes: I sang a bunch of crap when I was a kid. I sang a bunch of awful music. I started out in musical theater - I have operatic training. I came into the Gold Star group of people, the Wrecking Crew guys, and learned pop music from them. So I did trial and error for about a decade and a lot of that stuff is really bad. So I think that contributed to finally finding what I wanted to sing, which was a tone of voice that was like my mother's and my grandmother's and my aunt's, where it was musical and intimate and loving. I wanted to have that at my fingertips, so that took quite a while to get that.

And then, of course, being a woman in the music business will slow you down any day. It takes a long time to get your voice to do what you want it to do. It's a sacred thing with me, because I can't separate it from everything else. My voice is intimately connected to everything else that's going on in life, and there have been many, many, many sad events that have caused me to go silent. So I live with that. Sometimes I feel like I can really sing and sometimes I just can't. Roscoe understands completely, so that's how we're able to make records together.

Songfacts: Musical, intimate, and loving. What is one of the songs that really hits that mark for you?

Warnes: On the new album, "So Sad" and "Why Worry?"

"Why Worry?" is Mark Knopfler. And Mark Knopfler understands the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson and all the American music, maybe more than a lot of Americans know it. He wrote this lovely, gentle song that the Everlys did, and I loved it. Roscoe loved it too, and I just said, "I've got to sing that."

It's musical, it's intimate, it's loving. I think that's what I want from records most of the time. So that's what I like to give as well.

Songfacts: When you were talking about the joyfulness in "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," I was thinking about how it must have been lightning in a bottle with you and Bill Medley. But when you did "Up Where We Belong," it also happened. Is there an art form to being a great duet partner?

Warnes: Yes: really like the person you're working with. The spiritual connection or the heart connection that you have will get into the notes. Any great musician eventually learns that the hard way. If you feel it and you believe it and it's coming from your heart, it's going to get into the notes. When it gets into the notes, somebody else on the other end listening to it through a speaker is going to feel it too.

Songfacts: Were you in the same room when you recorded both "Up Where We Belong" and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life"?

Warnes: Yeah, like a few feet away.

Songfacts: And with Joe Cocker, I take it you had that same kind of chemistry connection?

Warnes: On stage, yes. Off stage, I never saw him. But on stage he understood exactly what we were doing. Beautiful. I miss that very much. I felt very alive being on stage with him, because it was always live and it was always free and open and caring. He wasn't going to step on my note and I wasn't going to step on his. We felt free to take chances. It was like being in Cirque du Soleil or something - a partner hoping they'll catch you. He always did and I always caught him. That's fun. That's the beauty of singing.

Songfacts: What are some of the live performances and the songs you used to do regularly that bring that out in you?

Warnes: You mean the ones you can see on YouTube?

Songfacts: Not necessarily. Anything. Even if we can't see it on YouTube.

Warnes: Well, Field Commander Cohen has a version of "Smokey Life" that's real sultry and pretty. There's a live performance of me and Joe in Belgium on the Internet that's really accurate. And singing with Harry Belafonte on the Smothers Brothers show was really great.

I don't have as many live performances as other people have, but when I did gather my energies and walk out on stage, I generally did it with intention.

Songfacts: What do you typically listen to?

Warnes: Silence. Hmm. I'm listening to some lectures about Qigong right now. And I listen to NPR. And I love birds, the sound of the bird song. I pulled out my vinyl the other day and edited it by half. Gave it to my nephew because I knew there were certain records I was never going to listen to again, but the ones I kept, I really do love.

In the middle of the night, if I'm twirling, I'll go on YouTube and type in some of my friends' names, and I'm always surprised at people I've known for most of my life, that they were doing things that I never knew about. So I'm catching up on people that I've known and loved over the years, certain decades of their lives that were caught on camera. We were all out on the road in the '70s and '80s, so there was lots of stuff going on. And we couldn't be there for each other, we had to be there for ourselves.

April 13, 2018
Further reading:
jenniferwarnes.com
Randy Newman interview
Bill Medley interview

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 10

  • Grahame from UkAnother Time, Another Place is an album of rare and intimate beauty. A joy to listen to. I enjoyed this interview.
  • George from Durham NcI missed those concerts in Canada in 2012, and the one in NY was cancelled due to snow. When is she going to perform live again? It's so rare.
  • Jon Hess from Phoenix, AzSo wonderful to have Jennifer releasing new music. This album is wonderful - I'm already in love with it. Thank you for this wonderful interview. Great probing questions and well researched!
  • Charlotte from Boise, IdahoThank you for this fine interview. I learned so much and appreciated hearing her speak about her process for singing and selecting her music. Even more thrilled to find out about the new album coming out on the 27th.
  • Trey from RichmondI love Jennifer and will be buying this cd. Her voice has such an intimate quality. Many fans discovered her via Leonard Cohen but many of us found her on the Smothers Brothers and HAIR. I do miss some of her country/pop songs like “Could it Be Love”, but appreciate her willingness to not compromise.
  • Larry Kronquist from Olympia, WaI've been a fan of Jennifer's for almost 50 years. Saw her on the Smothers Brothers show a couple of times and was struck by her beauty and her incredible voice. I bought a copy of "Jennifer", an LP that included a song by Jackson Browne --- "These Days" --- that I couldn't stop listening to. I was a big fan of Leonard Cohen back then, too, but I didn't realize how closely she was associated with Cohen until much later. A few years ago, I was very lucky to see her perform live in Portland (OR) in a relatively intimate setting. I don't normally seek autographs, but I did bring that old vinyl LP from the early 70's ("Jennifer") and she signed it for me, adding "With passionate memories" before her signature. She was generous with her time for those of us who had lingered after the show, so that was a very special night. I framed the album she signed for me, and it hangs next to my autographed program from a 1965 Pete Seeger concert in Seattle --- and that is the full extent of my autograph collection (LOL)! Thanks to Jennifer for doing this interview. I knew she had been dealing with some personal losses --- including Leonard, as well... However, I did not know until a few days ago about the loss of her boyfriend back in 1974, who was shot to death in South Central L.A. while driving a Yellow Cab. That's not in the interview, but she mentioned it on her web site recently, in a post thanking everyone who participated in the "March for Our Lives" event on March 24. Really looking forward to her new CD, I ordered several copies for friends as well.
  • Julie from UkI'm always a fan of Jennifer's unique voice and look forward to adding a new album to my Famous Blue Raincoat playlist.
  • Carl Haugland from St Monans Fife ScotlandI have loved Jennifer for years and cannot wait for "Another Time Another Place". I'm hoping it gets lots of airplay on BBC Radio Two here in Britain.
  • Rob Wood from Brooklyn Park, MinnesotaI am happy to have read this interview ... eager for Another Time, Another Place.
  • Piotr from Polandbest regards from Poland, dear Jennifer :-)
see more comments

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