Neema: "Leonard Cohen is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met"

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Born With The Gift Of A G
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Neema: "Leonard Cohen is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met"

Postby Born With The Gift Of A G » Fri Apr 14, 2017 6:38 pm

Neema: ‘Leonard Cohen is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met’

The Canadian singer talks about her mentor and meditation buddy

Ed Potton
The Times
14th April 2017


As well as being a musical mentor to Nadine Neema, Leonard Cohen was something of a spiritual one. Neema, a Canadian singer-songwriter who has toured with Elton John and duetted with Cyndi Lauper, joined Cohen, who was also an ordained Buddhist monk, on several meditation retreats in Los Angeles. They would don robes, ring Tibetan bells and drift off into nirvana.

At least that was the idea. Meditation, Neema explains, is all about emptying your mind, which is easier said than done when you’re sharing a mat with one of the giants of modern music. “I’d be sitting here and he’d be sitting over there and we’d be meditating. But every once in a while it’s, like, ah, Leonard Cohen’s over there!” she says, guffawing.

It’s not the only time Neema laughs remembering him, as we talk in the house near Regent’s Park where she is staying after playing a gig in London. Much has been said about how the arch-miserabilist gave vent to his laconic, playful side in his later years. “He’s probably the funniest person I’ve ever met,” says Neema, 43, who is animated and beautiful, with cascading dark hair. “Playful. I’ve probably never had that much fun with someone. It was like being a child.”

She remembers talking to him on video chat, shortly after her sister had died. “He asked if dancing might make me feel better. Then he got up and just started dancing in front of the camera. It was hilarious, this seventysomething-year-old man standing in his living room dancing.”

Cohen, who died, aged 82, after a fall in November last year, helped Neema to develop the striking lyrical palette that she combines with her gorgeous, wafting voice and folk and world instrumentation on her new album, Painting My Wall Gold, which she recorded while pregnant with her son, Jules. Its opening song, For You, a duet with the country singer Emmylou Harris, is her version of a metta, a Buddhist meditation of goodwill, and was nominated this year for an International Acoustic award.

Neema had first bumped into Cohen — literally — in the mid-Noughties, on the main street of Montreal, their mutual home city. “I was walking, on my phone, bumped into somebody and looked up. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Neema,’ and he said, ‘I’m Leonard,’ and I said, ‘I know!’ ”

They chatted for a few minutes; he had to go, but said he would like to talk more. They began speaking regularly, in person and via email and video chat. You can see why Cohen found Neema interesting. A French-Canadian single mother of Lebanese and Egyptian heritage (she records under her Lebanese surname), she speaks French, Arabic, Spanish and Italian, studied at McGill University, Cohen’s alma mater, and has lived in Egypt, Australia and America. She also spent three years managing the affairs of an indigenous tribe in the far north of Canada, not an assignment for the meek or bland (“They didn’t like the idea of a white person coming in to manage them, and I was the first woman to do that job”).

One thing she and Cohen didn’t talk about, at least at first, was music, even though she had been writing and singing since she was a child and had learnt to play the guitar in Australia. They had been friends for several months before she plucked up the courage to send him her debut album, Masì Cho. His response was encouraging and honest. “He said, ‘Your voice was very moving. The songs are OK, but I feel you could write from a more personal place.’ ” Cohen acted as a kind of remote producer on her next album, Watching You Think; she would email him songs and he would give daily feedback.

Sometimes it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She remembers showing him one song, Bone to Pick with Time. “He said, ‘I think you should start over, it’s much too general.’ I was almost mad at him, didn’t want to share anything with him any more,” she says. “And then I realised the amazing opportunity, a lesson from a master.” She started over, and the final version was, she says, immeasurably better.

The most important thing she learnt from Cohen was to “go a bit deeper. What did I really think about something? He was so in the present, he put his attention to whatever is at hand. I’m incredibly scattered and hyper compared to him.”

She doesn’t like being referred to as his protégée, although she says that’s not, as one reviewer claimed, because it might lead to an inferiority complex. “I would take it as a compliment. [But] he didn’t particularly care for [the word protégée] either, and that’s where my feeling about it comes from.”

Mentee, protégée: however you describe her relationship with Cohen, it was a profound one. He was a loyal supporter, introducing her to a live agent who booked her to open for Elton John, Jeff Beck and Joe Cocker on a string of European shows. What was Elton John like? “Ah, he was a character,” she says, diplomatically. “He was napping while I was getting ready for my set, so I had to be quiet.”

Then there was Lauper, whom she supported in the south of France. “I was told she was [assumes sotto voce] a bitch. Not with me. She is amazing.” Neema ended up joining her on stage for a duet of Time After Time.
It’s clear, though, that none of that lot holds a candle to Cohen as far as Neema is concerned. She loved him for his wit, his attentiveness and his resolute un-starriness. “He loved shopping at the dollar store,” she says. “And he made the best popcorn, smoothies and ramen soup.”

They were last in touch by email a week before Cohen died in LA. He had been suffering from cancer for some time. “It was fall [autumn] and I sent him a photograph of the beautiful leaves in Montreal, and he said he wished he was there. He was in pain, but he was generally in good spirits. He said his body was failing, but his mood was quite good.”

Then, a week later, “my phone exploded — text, text, text”. A news channel called, wanting to interview her about Cohen’s death. She was put on hold and sat there, stunned, but then said she couldn’t do it.
A few days after that she found herself crying and dancing to Cohen’s song Take This Waltz with her two-year-old son. “Leonard was someone who meant so much to me, and my son didn’t really understand, but there was something so beautiful about it.” What does she miss most about him? “Knowing that he was there,” she says. “When I needed him he’d always be there.”

Painting My Wall Gold is out now
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Re: Neema: "Leonard Cohen is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met"

Postby MarieM » Sat Apr 15, 2017 12:08 am

Thanks so much for posting the whole article. I could not access it without signing up.
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Re: Neema: "Leonard Cohen is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met"

Postby RainDog1980 » Fri Apr 28, 2017 4:58 pm

What is very notable is that feeling she describes, "just knowing he was there."

Obviously, it's not the same, but it is a hard feeling to shake when hearing his music now. I would sign into the forum periodically to see what was going on, and usually would see something from Jarkko on behalf of Leonard.

Just a strange feeling. Especially for someone I never knew.

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