Joining the social media service at the behest of his kids, he was surprised at the enduring interest in his work with Madonna. That led to him playing a show at Joe's Pub in New York City in late 2017, and following the enthusiastic fan response to that concert, he began toying with the idea of recording reimagined versions of those classic hits.
Today, Leonard announced Bring the Circus Home, an album of new versions of many of the songs he co-wrote with Madonna. But it's not just Leonard returning to these songs: Many of the original studio personnel (Guy Pratt, Bruce Gaitsch and Michael Verdick) are teaming up with him to create new takes on these beloved classics.
Ahead of the announcement, Leonard hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss everything from his first meeting with Madonna to his hopes for this new project to why "Live to Tell" is like their own Beethoven's Fifth.
6/18 Update: In lieu of the originally announced Kickstarter campaign, Leonard confirmed to Billboard he's secured a private investor to fund the album.
So with Bring the Circus Home, you're reteaming with a number of the original musicians on these songs. And what would you call them – reworked versions?
They're reimaginings, new versions; full electronic productions. I'm working with Guy Pratt, who played bass on the Like a Prayer album; Bruce Gaitsch who played on Ray of Light and True Blue; Bill Bottrell, who engineered and mixed Like a Prayer; and Michael Verdick, who mixed True Blue.
Have you seen those guys over the years?
There was the occasional thing. Bill and I worked with Leonard Cohen, before he passed, together, and Guy Pratt, I was always in touch with him. But it's the first time we've done this since we did it 30 years ago
And what was the impetus for it?
It was a bit of a surprise, really. My friend John Lee put together a show at Joe's Pub in New York, directed at Madonna fans discovered via Instagram. I joined Instagram via a dare from my kids and discovered a whole world of Madonna fans. It opened my eyes to the loyalty people have to the music and those songs and subsequently, myself. From that, I thought of many ways of doing it. Right now we're engaged in the process and finding it's lovely to work with the material. It's really good material, and it's nice to have material the fans are familiar with for us to play with -- but to play with it in a way that feels new. It doesn't feel nostalgic at all to me. It's exciting to find a way to realize them in a way that's satisfying.
I'm surprised you didn’t realize the hunger for this material until you joined Instagram. These are such big hits, you really weren't aware?
No, not really. (Laughs) What I occurred to me, and I hadn't framed it this way, but the fans that were in their young teenage years when these records came out, those records were as important to them as records that came out in my teenage years. I don't why that hadn't occurred to me, but it hadn't.
I'm so pleased there's so many fans, I can't tell you. It's lovely to know when I finish this record, there's people who are excited to hear it. It's a luxurious position to be in. I don't have to write hits—I have 16 of them. It's an embarrassment of riches.
And it's material that's part of your life.
I realized at Joe's Pub, I'm not covering this music. It was apparent to me sitting at the piano playing "Live to Tell" that it's an authentic version of "Live to Tell." That hadn't occurred to me (before then).
Which songs are you working on – the hits mainly, or any deep cuts?
It bounces around. Madonna and I wrote 23 songs in total and 16 were hits; I'll choose from the 16, but songs that weren't necessarily hits but were really fun and cool to do, I'll play with them and see if they have a place. And I'm not necessarily doing full songs. Because I can do what I want – for a change – and I'm having fun experimenting. I'm seeing it as something that can be presented as a live show – from that standpoint, whatever music serves the moment I'll use.
You have complete control over this project. When you were working on these songs with Madonna, what was the studio situation? How much say did you ultimately have?
We collaborated well and I certainly have always held to the mutual respect we show each other. Like any collaboration, there are moments where somebody wants one thing and somebody wants another. But also, having been a studio pro as they say, it's ultimately the artist's record. That's where the final decision always rests and I would never push that envelope. But I don’t really remember too many things we disagreed on. We worked fast: I would start something in the studio, then we would work on it together, then by the end of the day or two at most, the song was done.
In past interviews you've said your tastes skew toward prog-rock – do you see any of that in these songs?
Revisiting these songs, as much as they were in the dance-pop market, I don't think I wrote any dance-pop songs. Look at "Live to Tell," "Oh Father," "Like a Prayer" -- these are not dance-pop songs, even though people dance to them. This record is a lot of years later, and I think in all fairness to progressive rock and its devotees, there hasn't been any new progressive rock that I've listened to or come across in 35 years. It's a root for me, but so was James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Cole Porter, and Gershwin -- they were all part of my background. The prog-rock thing, yeah, I'd rather see Pink Floyd than Red Hot Chili Peppers. If I'm gearing it toward a show, I'm gearing it toward a thread and concept that tells an emotional story. I find that more interesting than a collection of ten songs unrelated.
And what of taking to the stage – will it be all instrumental, or might you have guest vocalists?
Maybe occasionally, but there will be vocals – not a lot – but there will be vocals, and I'll leave it at that. Some human, some not.
Is Madonna aware of this project?
I don't know, I think she might be. I haven't been secretive about it but I don't know. I intend on reaching out to her and inviting her to participate if she'd like to, even if just to observe. Whatever role she takes is fine with me. I'm fascinated with how fun it is to play with these songs. That's where I am right now.
"Skin" is one of my favorites of your co-writes that's not a hit. Might that make the album?
We recently unearthed all the demos for Ray of Light, and I was listening to them, and "Skin" -- the melody, chord changes, that weird little guitar part -- was all there. And I'm fairly certain that one will be part of this.
When you worked with her on Ray of Light, there had been a bit of a gap in between collaborations. And certainly the songs on that one are more contemplative. Did you notice anything different with her around that time?
I wouldn't say I noticed anything one way or the other. We worked on, I don't know, four or five records and took all those years in between, and then we did that, and then there was a project called Hello Suckers [unfinished] from a decade ago we worked on together. When you do that much collaborating, you just fall right back into it. Wherever you are, you are. The one thing I noticed when we were doing Ray of Light was her singing. She was in a slightly different place singing-wise because of Evita, and I think that influenced some of this stuff for her. There had been a lot of focus on singing for her, and it changed things -- but not better or worst, just different.
Were you surprised to hear from her after the gap?
Finding the demos, I found a folder with all of our faxes (from then). The premise was, "this worked really well before, let's try it again." It was just that, it was kind of innocent. If it goes well, we'll do it, and if it doesn't, fine.
"Frozen" is certainly in the "Live to Tell" vein. Do you ever think "let's try to recapture something about that hit?"
When you're writing something, in my career, the word hit never comes into it. You just can't say that word. It's a bad word to say. I remember she asked me if I could write something that was somewhere between The English Patient and Nine Inch Nails, and that's what "Frozen" was.
Revisiting these songs, does it seem like so much time has passed, or are they still fairly familiar to you?
Yeah it's been an interesting thing looking at these songs, I wouldn't have looked at them again… but to be able to play the music for the fans is the main motivation for this. It took me some time, months, to see the music as raw material. The initial reaction to the music was verse-chorus-bridge, and I'm now seeing it as a chef's kitchen. It's a treasure trove of moments, and to select the moments and look at them individually is fun. I'm getting a kick out of this. I've never gone back to material like this. Some of them, "Live to Tell," I wrote 33 years ago. That's a long time ago, man.
Do you remember writing it, or is the memory muddy?
I remember the moment of sitting at the piano and playing the chords. I remember getting up and playing that at the piano and going, "oh that's cool," and writing it down and developing it. At the time I was developing it for a film. The rest of it… I remember recording a demo a little bit, it was a very simple process, and I remember recording with Michael Verdick, and there was something about that one that was special and different than the other ones. Thematically it's like our Beethoven's Fifth – you hear those three notes and you got it. It identifies itself the quickest. I'm looking for intense drama (on this reworking); I really want it to be dramatic. The record is going to be pretty electronic. I'm playing around with those things, playing around with "Cherish" a bit, looking for a way to do that.
So you aren't set on how many songs will be on this, or which songs will be included?
The record is called Bring the Circus Home and I've written a song called "Bring the Circus Home" that will help tell the story and appear a few different times in little versions. I'm doing this as a vinyl-length record, which means 36 minutes. That's when I realized I don't need to do full songs. You don't need an instrumental version of "Live to Tell" with four verses. We'll bend and twist our way through this stuff. It's early in the process and it may change considerably. But with "Oh Father" the musical sequence (on the new version) is different from the record and I expect the same of all of them. Some I might do a narrative version, one of the soft ballads like "Something to Remember," I'll probably stay true to that, that's one of my favorites. A song like that, you can make big, but you shouldn't mess with it too much. It's melodic and lyrical, and that should stay.
Do you see some of them appearing in medley form?
Not like a medley, more like a narrative. Also one of the ways I'm seeing this is like a live performance. So there's the songs, but what I'm hoping to achieve, is when you come to see it live, that's the experience -- it's not just a bunch of different songs. In a live situation, things can be expanded upon, but conceptually it's still the same flow. So that's what I'm working on now, the flow. And playing around with intensity -- how intense can this be? It's fun. (laughs)