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Interview: Patrick Leonard Talks Madonna, Leonard Cohen, and Instagram Fame

One of the first adjectives people will often use when describing Patrick Leonard is “humble.” The veteran composer and producer has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Madonna, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. And yet he’s incredibly modest about his résumé, always shifting the focus back to the music.

A year ago, Leonard’s public profile grew when—at the urging of his son, who’d read an interview in which Madonna questioned whether her longtime collaborator was on Instagram—he joined the social media app. Fans of the Queen of Pop flocked to his account, and soon Leonard was performing a sold-out show at Joe’s Pub in New York, playing instrumental versions of the songs he wrote with Madonna for fans of his that he didn’t know existed a year earlier.

“For the first time ever I’m investigating my old work and seeing if I can bring something to the fans who are obviously very loyal to it,” Leonard told me over the phone during a break from recording in his Los Angeles studio. In October, Leonard took a hiatus from his newfound Instagram fame to start work on a new album, his first in over 20 years. The album, which he says will likely be released in two volumes, is composed of newly recorded versions of those famous Madonna songs, performed with some of the original musicians, including guitarist Bruce Gaitsch and bassist Guy Pratt. A Kickstarter campaign for the album will launch in the coming weeks.

I chatted with Leonard about the album, electronic music, the late Leonard Cohen, and, of course, his work with Madonna, including Ray of Light, which was released 20 years ago this week.

Was it a surprise to learn that you’re, at the very least, a beloved figure among Madonna fans?

It was a bit of a surprise. I certainly expected that people knew my name associated with her, but I didn’t realize that I was held in such high esteem by so many. A very pleasant surprise.

Looking back at Ray of Light, 20 years later, how do you think it holds up?

I think it holds up really well. I looked at the songs [from the album] I was gonna do at Joe’s [Pub] and felt the innovation of it and just how good [co-producer] William Orbit was at that time. It’s still apparent. Very innovative, and sonically very interesting.

One of my favorite songs you co-wrote for Ray of Light is the B-side “Has to Be,” which was included on the original tracklist for the album, but it was swapped out for another song last minute. It’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking, almost ambient ballad about self-love.

You know, I haven’t listened to the original demo of that one yet. I wish I could remember how it went. You mind if I YouTube it?

[Laughs] Not at all.

Oh, yeah, I remember now. I think I hear a Juno [Roland synthesizer]!

Tori Amos has covered several Madonna songs in concert, and her recent rendition of “Frozen” is really haunting and beautiful. Have you heard it?

I haven’t. I think Tori’s wonderful, but I don’t go looking for those things. It has to literally be put in front of me. This isn’t a comment on Tori, because again I haven’t heard it, but oftentimes when people do covers, they don’t know the center of it. Maybe they have their own sense of the center, but my sense of where the plumb line is—a single line and everything’s built around it—that knowledge and sense of where that line actually exists is different for [the songwriters] than anyone else. And so, usually when I hear other people’s versions, I’m flattered that they think it’s a good enough piece of music that they want to represent themselves with it. I’m honored at that level.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Madonna songs she’s chosen to cover—“Live to Tell,” “Like a Prayer,” and “Frozen”—are ones you co-wrote.

Yeah. This is an assumption, but Tori probably chose those songs because she’s a pianist and they were written on piano.

Oh, good point.

They’re all pianistic.

Another seminal Madonna album you worked on, Like a Prayer, turns 30 next year. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Spanish Eyes.” It’s so different tonally from the two previous Latin-influenced songs you wrote with Madonna, “La Isla Bonita” and “Who’s That Girl.” It’s darker and more mysterious.

The way we worked on Like a Prayer, and other records as well but particularly Like a Prayer—we wrote a song a day. I wrote this thing, at the piano again, and at the top of it, it says “tango.” She came in the morning [and] listened to it, [wrote] the lyric, put a guide vocal down, and went home. [laughs] What I always believed was good about our collaborations is that the spirit of the composition was always very closely reflected in the sentiment of the lyric, and the spirit of it as well. So if there was a darkness about [the music], that gave her an opportunity for the lyric to go there. And even something like “Till Death Do Us Part”—which had an uncomfortableness about it and yet it felt all bubbly and perky, but it wasn’t. And I always thought that was a great lyrical position, to have it be this really dark…not really dark, but you know—

It’s pretty dark!

Yeah, a tremendous amount of conflict. But you feel like you can skip rope to it.

Like a Prayer is easily her most organic album in terms of the live instrumentation, but “Till Death Do Us Part” is an exception. It’s a very synth-based track. What’s your relationship to electronic music? I know you’ve posted videos on Instagram where you’re experimenting with patching different modular synths and things like that.

I started playing piano really, really young. But I took jazz lessons, and I took classical lessons. And I started playing in rock bands when I was about 10 years old. So I have a really strange potpourri of a background. But I also, from the very beginning of my career as a keyboardist, had synthesizers. They’ve always been very present for me. I’m making this record now of Madonna songs and a lot of the gear I’m using is the same gear I used on [Madonna’s 1986 album] True Blue, and interfacing with new modular stuff. And what I like to do is—I like to then bring in players to play on top of it. Playing along with “machines” presents another challenge.

Madonna’s work with producer Nellee Hooper on her 1994 album Bedtime Stories is sometimes credited as a precursor to Ray Of Light, but “I’ll Remember” [co-written and produced by Leonard] is also quite electronic. The drum programming is so complex and expressive—almost pointillistic.

It’s also [drummer] Jonathan Moffett. [laughs]

Really? How do you create that sound?

Necessity’s the mother of invention, right? Like, this morning I’m working on a modular program version of [Madonna’s 1990 single] “Hanky Panky,” which is absolutely sick. There’s many layers to [creating that sound]. One is that the precision necessary to do it—when you force a human to that sort of precision, you get something vital. When you just do it and you chop it up on a computer, it sounds cool, but you don’t get that person sweating—

That’s the expressiveness I’m talking about.

Yeah. It forces somebody to the edge of their abilities, and in doing so, you get a human energy that I really enjoy. It’s not as accurate as it sounds; it’s not as pristine as the impression that it gives you. But part of that is that the sequence is running; your body’s taking in something that feels metronomic, it feels like a clock, while there’s things breathing inside of it.

These days Leonard Cohen is probably the artist you’re most closely associated with, since you worked on his three final albums. What was that songwriting process like?

Unlike with Madonna, he didn’t dabble in the music and I wasn’t gonna try to dabble in the lyrics. He would send me a lyric and I would work on the music. Some of them we worked on many, many, many versions, which also differs from Madonna. What Leonard was looking for was the perfect setting for the poem that didn’t interrupt the verse that he had written—because obviously that was king, and deserved to be. So those records were a bit of an exercise in staying out of the way.

I understand that your performance at Joe’s Pub last fall was a bit serendipitous for you.

It was just sweet that [Cohen] performed there and his poster was on the wall just above the stage. It hadn’t been that long since he had passed, so it was nice to see him hanging on the wall.

Watching over you.

Yeah.

What did you learn from him?

Oh, that’s a big question. A lot—as a person, and a tremendous amount as an artist. Methodology, process. How does a mere mortal get to a place where the lyrics are what his lyrics were, are, will always be. How do you get there? And his process is different than anyone else I’d seen, and anyone else I’d ever worked with. And I found it beautiful, and I incorporate it theoretically, in principle, all the time now. Once you see something like that you’re a fool not to see what you can do to learn from it. I’ll miss Leonard forever.

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