Trusting the Force:
Into the Heart of Blue Alert
An Interview with Anjani Thomas
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Blue Alert is a beguiling disc. Sometimes itís like a Rubikís cube that just has to find the right combination, an appropriate spinning of colors and lining up of tones, to reveal itself to the listener. Other times, itís more like a Chinese puzzle box where each subsequent layer, once penetrated and peeled away, tells a story that previously had eluded the ear. During one experience, the disc sounded like roses cast off and carefully preserved as a kindness from composer to singer, a passing of the torch, a map written in Hieroglyphs from word to sound, a marrying of lyric and melody to create something else. Blue Alert is an enigma. Deceptively smooth on the surface, one can imagine Anjani in a ballroom, a lounge, a place where important people go to hear music. At these moments, Blue Alert is genteel and polished, popular art in a tuxedo. Then, it is none of those things. It is the harp seducing the ear at the gates of Hell, a siren song luring sailors off their sextant-charted courses to ruination. Then a word, a phrase, a complementary tone, an invocation calls the path of song back from the darkness to somewhere in between midnight and dawn. Closing time. The end of the evening, as all of the patrons file out of the dance hall, with only a few stragglers, reflectively patient, left with nowhere else to go. At that moment, freed from expectation, the singer finally can relax. The singer finally can open her soul. It is here, in this mood, that Blue Alert finds its mettle, and its gifts, at long last, can become manifest.
It takes a hell of a lot of skill and resolve to make music that is this profound sound so effortless. Again, itís deceptive. A quick tour of the local record stores finds Blue Alert filed in different corners. It is labeled "adult contemporary" in one and dubbed "easy listening" in another. Adult, it is, and contemporary it may be, at least in this precise moment, but time probably will prove it to be ageless. Easy listening it is not. No more than Pergolesiís Stabat Mater or a Mozart aria can be considered easy listening. Blue Alert is calm and controlled at one level ó Diana Krall with better lyrics ó but it bristles and prods and flays underneath. Play Blue Alert over and over; it is a different record every time. Try and find the center of Blue Alert, and itís not there ó at least not for any complete or regularly scheduled viewing on demand. It is light and ephemeral. It is relaxing. Anjani offers the lyrics with the voice of an angel, and they threaten to subside in the background. The sound experience could stay there ó the perfect accompaniment to a dinner party ó then a phrase, a suggestion threatens and cajoles. Dinner stops. Everyone listens, remembering something unspoken. Anjani is seer and interpreter of the insistent shapes beyond the words.
Blue Alert is a gift in a different way than any of the other interpretations or albums of cover versions of Leonard Cohenís songs have been. Anjani is no Jennifer Warnes. Warnes made the songs accessible, vital, and important for a new generation when she released Famous Blue Raincoat, nearly 20 years ago. She dressed the songs in a new way and sang them beautifully, but nothing in her approach pulled the listener deeper into Cohenís world. The private dramas, inner doors, and final four-in-the-morning resolutions were decorated rather than eviscerated. No bitter frost scraped away. No flowers planted in the soil of pain and disappointment.
Anjani, the original voice of Hallelujah, has done something no one else has managed to do with Cohenís words. She has elevated his whole canon. And, itís not just because she can sing so beautifully. It is, rather, that she "gets Leonard," and she is not afraid to inhabit and feel all of the songs she has hewn out of the skeletons of lyrics found in his various workbooks. Anjani does not back away from either the garbage or the flowers insinuated in the poetry; she never uses her own vocal beauty as a veil or an obstruction. These are naked songs. No tricks. No unnecessary adornment. The beauty of the voice and melodies are the only shelter.
Blue Alert is a slow simmer. At first, the simplicity of the arrangements can be a little off-putting. The listener wants strings, an orchestra, a familiar structure to bail him out. In the early stages of recording this project, Anjani may have agreed. "I thought we were going to put more on it," she said. "We had orchestras in there. We tried all kinds of things out and then stripped them away. Iíve learned to simplify my sound. I used to worry a lot more about complicated arrangements, and now, Iím more interested in finding the right melody to get to the marrying of the music with the lyric. From Leonard, Iíve learned to take away and take away."
It is precisely this marrying of Cohenís minimalist tendencies with Anjaniís musicality that is responsible for the success of this unparalleled collection of songs. Blue Alert is a truly collaborative effort. Anjaniís persistence and her intuitive sense of a good lyric clearly have pushed Cohen to complete work that may have continued to languish in scrapbooks in his closet. Referring to her re-envisioning of The Mist, a lyric from 45 years ago that tentatively was recorded with Phil Spector on Death of a Ladyís Man, Cohen admits that Anjani coaxed out a melody to transform the song, stating, "It is as though I'd never heard that lyric before. Or, more precisely, it is where I'd always heard it, somewhere, but had never been able to locate."
Indeed, Cohen has never had the ship of his muse steered so sympathetically. Even though he does not appear on the disc, his presence is felt all over it. He looms, not unlike Obi Wan Kenobi in the crucial scene of the original Star Wars when he reminds Luke Skywalker to trust the Force as he approaches the Death Star. Like Luke, Anjani dives right into these lyrics, allowing the stark beauty of her voice to cut to the essence of what needs to be said. Throughout the course of these songs, Anjani never over-sings. There are times when one can imagine her cutting loose, but she always stays the course, never veers, as she white-knuckles her way through some interesting and profound psychic territory to reach the innermost door that resides at the heart of every one of these compositions.
The imagery and emotional landscape covered in Blue Alert are familiar to Cohen fans. These are songs cut from the cloth of love, loss, and redemption. Like Ten New Songs and Dear Heather, Cohenís own most recent studio releases, the power of these compositions surfaces slowly. The poetic voice informing the singer breathes unselfconsciously into Anjaniís vocals. Rather than being distracted by the loveliness of her voice, as has been the case when others have sung Cohenís lyrics, the beauty becomes a way, a safe passage, in.
Anjani laughs when she thinks of the early days of her professional relationship with Cohen. "I think I was about 10-years-old when I first went on tour with him!" she explains. "In those days, I was just so in awe of everything and all of the places where we got to play. It was overwhelming. In those days, I wanted to be a jazz singer or a jazz artist, and I think that I may have overplayed and over-sang a bit. Leonard showed me an alternative to that."
After doing a few tours with Cohen, Anjani left the music business for a few years in the 1990s and returned to her home in Hawaii. She returned to music after her sabbatical with "a fresher perspective," and she recorded two albums of her own before returning to work with Cohen on Dear Heather in 2004.
When asked how her relationship with Cohen has changed since they first met in 1985, Anjani confesses with a laugh, "He listens to me now!" Then she quickly counters, "Actually, heís always been generous to a fault."
As Cohenís own recent financial disasters attest, this may be true in all aspects of his life. In a creative sense, the give and take is obvious. Nightingale, a song that first appeared on Dear Heather, is given a second reading on Anjaniís new disc. "Nightingale, as it is on Blue Alert, is how I originally conceived it," she explains. "I played it for Leonard that way, and he said Ďitís nice,í but he wanted a bluegrass/country feel on it. So, I got to re-record it the way I envisioned it."
When asked whether fans will have the chance to hear Anjani interpret any of these songs in a live format, she replies enthusiastically, "Everyone has been asking us about going on the road again. Iím doing a mini-tour in April, playing some big cities in Canada and the US, and Iíll be in Europe this summer. If you saw us in 1985 on The Various Positions tour, I called each show Ďthe three-hour tour.í Imagine a Leonard Cohen concert now: some fans want to hear his older songs, and some havenít even heard his newer work. And, think of how many albums he has made since í85, and you could play all night. He is planning on touring, itís just a matter of creating the right situation that heís comfortable with."
Anjani concedes that sheís looking even farther into the future when she wants to return to writing and recording some of her own compositions. Until then, she sighs and laughs, "There are boxes and boxes of stuff in Leonardís closet that I havenít even looked at. Iíll just have to continue living this deliciously luxurious life, surrounded by brilliant ideas, great art, and wonderful songs to conceive."
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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box