Charley Webb: Life with Leonard live

Charley Webb, one of The Webb Sisters (along with sister Hattie) has been "living a dream", touring with Leonard Cohen for the last two years.

"It is exhilarating - constantly. Every single show is amazing," she tells me proudly.

The Webb Sisters have their own career - click here to hear a song/see a video - but that has taken a backseat of sorts since hooking up with this "dream job". A new album, Savages, is due from the Webbs this month - but Charley is happy to talk about the experience/s of working with Leonard, simply stating that they are pleased to be able to do their own shows around work with Cohen; shows that "are small, but we have a nice audience that supports us, enjoys our music".

Charley and Hattie had worked with Sharon Robinson on a project. Robinson has sung with Leonard, co-writing songs with Cohen for the past decade and longer.

"We were working on a new album with Peter Asher in L.A. It was 2008 and Sharon Robinson called and we got together and worked on some material as a three-piece. The blend of our voices seemed right. Hattie and I have our own thing we do with our voices and instruments, but working with Sharon was great. She knew how to fit in and how to make us fit in with her. It was great. So it really just came from there."

Charley and Hattie were fans of Cohen's before working with him. But, Charley explains, "it really was rather overwhelming, quite deeply emotional and overpowering almost, to meet this man and to be on stage with him singing these songs; arriving of course after they are famous. We are now, in some small way, part of these songs - and so many of these songs are older than us! It's really quite amazing, surreal in a way, and just really special."

So what was the very first show like, working with an icon, a legend?

"Well it was just such an honour and we were so moved by it - and clearly the audience is moved and what we noticed straight away and hope the audience notices is that Leonard is moved; he is absolutely sincere and so very much moved by the response."

Webb says the songs are the stars of the night in a band of great players who have all become friends. That, she believes, is the secret to the tour's appeal.

"Cohen's songs are so emotional - they are stories that have gone out into the world and the fans have real connections with these songs. So when we're singing Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye there are any number of people in the audience who are waiting for that song in particular or, say, Famous Blue Raincoat - there are people we play to every night who treat that as 'their song' and that's something that you do not get at every concert with every artist. But we get to be part of it every night. And it's something that touches us - all of us - every single time. I mean we are just so thrilled to be able to be involved in bringing these songs to people - songs that have lived longer than I have, it's really amazing. It really doesn't get better than this."

Full of admiration for the other musicians in the touring band, Charley says that they all travel together - including Cohen - and though "Leonard spends time on his own, as we all do," Webb says it has been as much of a pleasure getting to know the man offstage as it has been working with his songs on stage.

"Leonard is just a true gent and he is so gracious - in many ways he is exactly as you see him on stage, humble, sincere and he has a great sense of humour. We have a great backstage ritual where we all get together before the show, in the 15 minutes or so before we go to the stage. Leonard will share some essential oils with the band, offer some words, often he will make us laugh. But he likes to create a calm and happy environment and then we take that love and energy to the stage."

Thrilled to be heading back to New Zealand less than two years after the stunning shows of early 2009, Webb says she fell in love, in particular, with Wellington.

"We had a few days there last time - between shows. We got to rehearse and we had some time off so I got to see some of the culture of the place. We got to know our way around it - it's a beautiful city, riding the cable car, taking the ferry out to Eastbourne; just gorgeous. We have some friends out there that work for Weta so we got to see and experience a lot of the art and culture of the city and, I tell you now, it is absolutely a place I could live. I am very much looking forward to playing there again - and to having some more time in the city. I'd like to live there for six months or more. My parents think I might never come back! I don't say that about many of the places we visit, though I do enjoy going to most places, learning about them. But Wellington was special. I totally fell in love with it."

The other highlight of touring, beyond the group of friends and the places visited, is that the music is constantly inspiring. The show is constantly evolving.

"The show is different - it is in fact never quite the same way twice. There are obviously a lot of songs that people are expecting and we play them - because these songs are so important, they are the backbone, but Leonard really feeds off the audience. We all do. And the crowd really influences the set-list."

What more can you squeeze into a show that already runs close to three hours?

"Well, this is the thing," Webb says, almost incredulous in her tone, "the show is still stretching - I mean, lately, it's actually getting out more towards four hours." She adds a chuckle and clarifies, "it's still absolutely thrilling but it is a really long show - real value, I reckon. I mean, to us, it just flies by, it feels like 90 minutes or two hours but it is getting close to four hours."

So what has been added?

"Well as you know, as any fan of Leonard's music knows, there are just so many songs - and, well, people have been asking for their favourites. So Leonard has been gathering the suggestions and adding them to the sets. He has been juggling the order and increasing the length of the show. Dipping back to the albums and adding more songs. And we're finding that it's a real joy to add in some new 'old' songs. He is also writing for a new album, we've been fortunate to be in the studio in some of the downtime between shows, between working on our own material also. I'm not sure where it is at for now, it's mostly just demo-stages but he has been including one or two brand new songs in some of the shows."

Webb is very clear that, two years on, this "dream gig" still has her feeling like "a fan with one of the best seats in the house". She says that "on any given night, at any show, a lyric of Leonard's will just sneak up on me, still, and pretty much knock me out. I mean these are weighty songs, just gorgeous, beautiful songs. We are moved by the response, we are moved by the players in our fine band and how they treat these songs and we are moved - still - by these words. It's just amazing to be hit by these songs. And I mean really hit by them - it's like a thunderclap, really."

Speaking briefly again of The Webb Sisters' career, Charley says, "our own career is short - this is obviously the greatest thing we will ever do, working with Leonard Cohen, I mean, it's just above and beyond what we ever expected. And it has meant that some of his fans have become fans of our work. Our own shows are small and we have recognised people from Cohen shows, or they have come and told us after that they saw one of Leonard's gigs with us. And again Hattie and I are just so thankful for Leonard's generosity. I mean, they sell our CDs at his shows - which is just a wonderful gesture and something he is so supportive of. So that means the world to us both."

The two Wellington shows have sold out - not a surprise after last year's sold-out performance. I assume many are returning again, as well as the many that missed out last time.

But there are still tickets for the Auckland and Christchurch shows: see here for details.

And finally, here's Charley and Hattie Webb singing If It Be Your Will as part of a Leonard Cohen set. Charley referred to this, "a huge honour, to be so essentially trusted with this - it's one of many career highlights that's come from working with this great man".


I quite enjoyed the Leonard Cohen gig from January, 2009.

» Join Blog on the Tracks on Facebook