Tomorrow night at the Earl, Jeffrey Bützer will join actress and vocalist Emily Marie Palmer to perform their own interpretations of the songs of Leonard Cohen. It will be the third time in a decade that the Atlanta mainstay has taken on the music of the iconic singer-songwriter, an artist whose work, he declares, has influenced him more than any other writer. Cohen worship is not exactly an uncommon phenomenon, but the reverence that Bützer maintains is strong and runs deep. As such, if you decide to attend the show, don’t expect exact replicas from the master. (“We are reinterpreting his music more so than covering it,” Bützer says.) After all, how can you improve upon perfection? Even if that perfection is, more often than not, messy, dark, and conflicting.
The evening is titled “Beautiful Losers,” and will also feature a performance from folk-rock act Book Club, who will tackle the work of Neil Young. Ahead of the show, we spoke with Bützer about his history with Leonard Cohen, what we can expect from tomorrow night’s show, and the status of his upcoming LP with longtime band, the Bicycle Eaters.
Immersive Atlanta: When and how did you first discover Leonard Cohen?
Jeffrey Bützer: I first heard Cohen when I was 15. I think it was The Future. I thought it sounded like a cross between two artist I liked at the time, Ace of Base and Nick Cave.
IA: What do you think makes him such an extraordinary songwriter?
JB: To me his melodies feel like they are a thousand years old and brand new. His lyrical world is like its own religion. There is an economy with notes and words that is unmatched. I read once that he worked on one song for ten years once. I can relate.
IA: Would you consider yourself a perfectionist when it comes to your own songwriting?
JB: I think I used to be. I have relaxed over the years. After reading about how Cohen slaves over songs I thought that is how I must work when I was younger. But my other hero Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Frank Black) tends to write very quickly… I am somewhere in between these days.
IA: How did you get together with Emily Marie Palmer?
JB: We met on the internet a few years ago and have talked about doing a project on and off. She is really busy acting. She has a film she wrote in the works and is in a PBS series. She in tremendously talented in an endless list of things. Including juggling. That isn’t a joke.
IA: Was this an idea that you came up with together or did one of you approach the other?
JB: She is a tad younger than I am and is fairly new to Cohen. This will be my third time playing Cohen tunes in 10 years. I can’t remember whose idea it was. We both love his music. Although I am not sure if she has heard Jazz Police yet. You have to survive that to be a true Cohen nut.
IA: What led you to choose Leonard Cohen? Did you discuss covering other songwriters?
JB: He is one of my favorite people ever. His words and music have influenced me more than any other writer. The only discussion was what other Canadian we were going to ask Book Club to cover. Neil beat out Gordon Lightfoot by a long shot.
IA: Is there a particular period of Cohen’s work that you are focusing on for this show?
JB: My favorite albums are the first one and the underrated New Skin for the Old Ceremony, so we are doing many of those. We are hitting the spectrum from his biggest hit to a rare B side.
IA: Cohen’s catalog is so extensive, it can be daunting for a newcomer. If someone wanted to start exploring his music, where would you recommend they start?
JB: I would go in order of how they were released. The first record is nearly perfect. The recent live albums are great “Best Ofs” too.
IA: How are you approaching the set? Is it going to be just the two of you or will you have a full band involved?
JB: The band consists of Emily on vocals, and I am playing looped guitar, bells, and melodica. George Wallace plays pedal steel and banjo, and Sonny Harding on drums. We are reinterpreting his music more so than covering it.
IA: By reinterpretations do you mean subtle changes or have you reworked a lot of his songs?
JB: We have changed the feel to some, rearranged others. The instrumentation is all our own. The songs are not unrecognizable. We just tried to play them in a way that felt fresh and natural to us. We made a last minute addition of his most well known song this time. You know the one. I managed to have never played it live.
IA: How long have you been preparing for this show?
JB: For a few months. Emily and I worked for a while alone, then brought in the band and edited where needed.
IA: Tell me about the new Bicycle Eaters record you’re working on?
JB: I am really excited about it. We held off until the songs had been on stage a few months and all of the kinks have been worked out. We tracked it at the “Watermelon Compound,” a.k.a. Cassi Costoulas’ house that is an old grocery store converted into a home. This is the first official record by us. I am really happy with it. Those gals and guys are so talented. It is In French and English and is the first time lyrics I wrote have appeared on anything. I am putting out a limited amount of lyric and photo book with a download for the record. They are lyrics from the album and many more that will be songs on future albums.
IA: Wow, that seems almost impossible that none of your lyrics have appeared on anything. Why the hesitation?
JB: I primarily wrote instrumental music until recently. I have always written songs with words, just never any that fit in with Bicycle Eaters.
IA: Aesthetically, what kind of record will this be? What sounds were you pushing for?
JB: I dont think we were aiming for any one sound. We have definitely gone more poppy than anything in the past. (I would say pop as in Pixies). It is more of a consistent sound than the previous three full lengths.
Also, the last one we wrote the music, then added words. On this one, most of the songs I wrote words for I wrote lyrics and music together.
IA: When can we expect a release? Do you have any plans to support the record?
We are hoping to have them ready for the Charlie Brown Xmas shows in December
IA: Tell me about the book you are writing.
There are two. One is a collection of photos, lyrics, and poems that go along with the album, and the one I wrote with Emily. The other is titled Becoming a Cat Burglar and Other Stories. It is a collection of comedy short stories. That one will not see the light of day for a while. I have too many things to release first. But I am extremely proud of it.
IA: Will there be any additional Leonard Cohen performances or is this it?
Nothing is scheduled, but I am sure we will do it sometime in the future.
Jeffrey Bützer and Emily Marie Palmer will perform the songs of Leonard Cohen tomorrow night, September 3, at the Earl. They will be supported by Book Club who will perform songs by Neil Young. Waiting for UFO’s (feat. Bill Taft) will open the show. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $8.