Watch closely when Perla Batalla sings Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and you might notice something unusual: she’s smiling.
Cohen’s iconic song about a devastating love triangle—which features lines like “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life/And when she came back, she was nobody’s wife”—is famous for its moody melancholy. But Batalla thinks it’s rather misunderstood, as is Cohen himself.
“It’s also very positive, and it’s so funny,” she says of the song. “That’s one of the major misconceptions about Cohen, that he’s gloomy. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known in my life.”
And Batalla knew him well, beginning with her stint singing on his legendary 1988 European tour, during which he was riding high on the success of his comeback record I’m Your Man. On that tour, she was introduced to the lighter side of the man who had been defined in the public consciousness by his haunting vocals and intense lyrics.
“When he introduced ‘Chelsea Hotel,’ he was like a stand-up comic,” she remembers. “He got laugh after laugh. And it was always different—every time he told the story, it would be different.”
That’s why she wants House of Cohen—the project she’ll bring to Kuumbwa on Friday, Aug. 9—to do more than just keep the songs of her late friend alive.
“My mission is to get people to know this man, and how complex he was—including the qualities that you probably never heard about,” she says. “So I do try to share some of his stories, and some of the things that he found delight in, that just make me laugh whenever I think about them.”
The project’s name symbolizes that same intimacy. For many years, Batalla—who also performed on Cohen’s 1993 tour—lived near Cohen, and would drop by his house to sit and chat over a cup of coffee at his kitchen table.
“I started doing these concerts of Leonard Cohen songbook years before he passed, because I loved the work so much. And then after he passed away, I really felt a strong connection to being with him in his kitchen,” she says. “That’s when it all came to me. It was about being in his house. It’s almost like a church to me, the house of Leonard Cohen.”
Certain songs like “Take This Waltz” and “Anthem” are constants in her set because they relate directly to her relationship with Cohen in ways that she explains when she performs them live. Others cycle in and out depending on the tour, or even the particular night. But the most recent addition surprised even her.
“I didn’t even want to listen to his very last recordings, because I thought it would be too hard for me emotionally. I thought I couldn’t take it,” says Batalla. “But someone in Germany asked me if I would sing ‘You Want It Darker.’ So I was sort of forced to listen to it to see if it would resonate with me. And it’s incredible. The song is so amazing and deep and profound that I did it, and I have been singing it. It’s a very strong and healing experience.”
It seems especially fitting, considering that Batalla first worked with Cohen while he was releasing his mid-career songs like “I’m Your Man,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “The Future” and “Waiting for the Miracle,” all of which came from a middle-aged perspective that was in some ways very different from the sly-but-bold romanticism of his popular early songs like “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire.” You Want It Darker—his final album, released just three weeks before his death in 2016 at age 82—brought everything full circle.
“That last record is more like, ‘No, I’m not your man anymore,’” says Batalla. “He has a higher power. There’s a lot of God in that last one. There’s a lot of that higher whatever force that you’re about to face. It’s super intense.”
Just as she has tried to reveal a different side of Leonard Cohen to the world, so have his songs opened up a new perspective for her.
“What I’ve been experiencing with these concerts, very openly, is just the idea of what grief is and what it is to deal with and experience. That it’s not a bad thing,” says Batalla. “It’s a very complex thing. I’ve been taking grief and sort of recognizing it as a friend, as something that brings up memories that are very comforting to me. It’s seen as a negative thing so often, and I no longer see it that way.”
Perla Batalla performs at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/$40 gold circle. snazzyproductions.com.