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Leonard Cohen producer remembers his friend: 'A scholar of the heart'

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They met nearly a decade ago over tuna sandwiches in an L.A. strip mall, and what followed would turn out to be one of the most rewarding working relationships of producer Patrick Leonard’s life. “There’s so much that I wish I could say about this man,” he says of Leonard Cohen, the celebrated Canadian singer, songwriter, and eternal brother of mercy, who died last week at the age of 82. “One of the tremendous beauties about Leonard Cohen which I will never ever forget is that what you saw was what you got, 100 percent: dignified, generous, unbelievable.”

Leonard, 60, collaborated closely on Cohen’s final three albums — and spoke to EW last week about the many projects they were still working on at the time of Cohen’s death, including an R&B album and orchestral reworkings of some of Cohen’s most beloved anthems. While the Michigan native is probably best known for his long history with Madonna (from 1986’s True Blue through 1998’s Ray of Light) and his recordings with marquee artists including Fleetwood Mac, Roger Waters, Elton John, and Marianne Faithfull, his experience with Cohen, he says, was singular: “We joked about [our slogan] as a music company, the Leonards—‘140 years of studio time!’ Because between the two of us that’s about what we had,” Leonard recalls, laughing.

Despite his reputation as a lofty, often solitary figure, Cohen was warm and funny and continually opening his home to friends and loved ones, Leonard tells EW. Though it was also hard to miss the signs of his deep daily engagement with spirituality, which included an extended stint in a Buddhist monastery. “I was raised Catholic,” Leonard says, “and in his kitchen there was a Catholic shrine because his mother was Catholic, and then Friday night was for Shabbat, and we would sing the songs and he would say the prayers. So it was very much about embracing all of it, but none of it dogmatically — just what makes [religion] beautiful and how it can enhance your life.”

Continues Leonard, “He said a couple things to me in the last six months that I feel I will keep in my mind for the rest of my life, heavier than I would ever share with anyone. I think there are people who are seekers because they’re confused, there are seekers who want to be part of something, but whatever brings you to it, once you start to seek it’s hard to stop. He investigated every nook and cranny. I mean, why do you study music? Because you want to get to the bottom of it, so that whatever you do is pure. And I think with Leonard, [he understood that] this experience of being human is difficult and his point of view was that spirituality offers, I don’t know, some gentleness maybe? I think it was important for him to see if he believed in that gentleness, in that forgiveness or that grace… And you’d feel it in the lyrics. There were often Christian themes, but they’d be framed by a historical reference to something completely on the other side of the subject matter. And that was one of this tremendous gifts–that he could talk about asparagus and the Virgin Mother in the same sentence and it worked, I don’t know how. [Laughs]”

Aside from the rich recorded legacy the singer leaves behind, how would Leonard like his friend and mentor to be remembered? “I feel like a few days, a few weeks of press, isn’t enough,” he says, his voice full of emotion. “We should designate three years of honoring Leonard Cohen, minimum, because nothing will ever be the same, and we would not be the world we are without this man I promise. He was a scholar of the heart.”

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