Toasting Cohen with Tower of Song

Concert celebrates the music and influence of Leonard Cohen, June 10 at Oak Bay United Church

Tower of Song fills Oak Bay United with music of the iconic musician June 10.

Hear the songs of Leonard Cohen like you’ve never heard them before this Friday (June 10) at Oak Bay United Church.

While plenty of people have covered Leonard Cohen over the years, nobody’s done it quite like this.

A West Coast take on the music of the Montreal icon, Tower of Song is the creation of local artists Oliver Swain and Glenna Garramone.

The sound is minimalist modern roots, with Swain’s delicate, fractured tenor and Garramone’s sultry, slightly Basia Bulat-like mezzo soprano spinning stirring harmonies over understated arrangements.

“It was inspired by a verse in the song Tower of Song when Cohen calls out to Hank Williams,” says Garramone, who was intrigued by the idea of a dialogue between artists in different times and places.

Garramone first conceived of Tower of Song after organizing a sold-out Cohen tribute at Vancouver’s Media Club in 2011. She and Swain, who grew up in Oak Bay, rekindled an old musical relationship that began with a 2005 jam session and continued with both artists participating with each other’s solo projects.

Initially intended as a one-time concert, the popularity of Tower of Song drew Swain and Garramone to take it to a broader audience. “It was really well-received,” she says.

Highlights include Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, which features down-home banjo and gentle harmonies reminiscent of a Be Good Tanyas arrangement, Everybody Knows, driven by grass-roots cabaret-style piano and Garramone’s jazzy vocals, and True Love Leaves no Traces, an airy, percussive cover that’s a far cry from the fully orchestrated original.

Not a traditional “tribute,” this is a re-imagining of Cohen’s work – some are closer to the original, some are more of a departure, Garramone says, noting listeners appreciate the harmonies and nuances they bring to the performance.

“We don’t want to sound like Cohen because he already does it perfectly.”

In addition to the new arrangements of Cohen’s songs, other offerings are hybrids of his work and theirs, says Garramone, a life-long fan of Cohen’s work who appreciates Cohen’s willingness to sometimes delve into darker issues other artists won’t. “His music has been part of the landscape for as long as I can remember.”

The artists also assert their own place in the tower of song – Cohen’s metaphor for the unconscious dialogue between songwriters – by each including an original composition in the project.

Since that initial event, the two have performed about 80 shows across the country and released an album, In City and In Forest, augmented by Victoria’s Quinn Bachand on guitar, go-to roots violinist Richard Moody on violin and viola, and Grammy-calibre producer Joby Baker on percussion.

The nature of the interpretation means audience members needn’t be die-hard Cohen fans to enjoy the show. “We have a little saying,” Garramone says with a smile, “If you like Cohen, you’ll love us and if you don’t like Cohen, you’ll love us.”

Tickets for Tower of Song are $25 at the door or $20 in advance, available at Larsen Music, Lyle’s Place, Ivy’s Bookshop and online through eventbrite.ca.

Learn more at towerofsongmusic.com.