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Songs of tribute to Leonard Cohen take Victoria singers across the nation

Pair of celebrated B.C. songwriters marks a decade of touring powerhouse poems and songs

The longevity of a Canadian icon anchors a decade-long project that two celebrated Greater Victoria performers take to stages across the province this summer.

When Glenna Garramone and Oliver Swain first took Tower of Song: a creative tribute to Leonard Cohen on the road, they used to say they were two of the biggest Cohen fans you’d ever meet.

It was part of the banter in the show.

The quip seemed harmless enough until they toured a bit and met superfans with lyrics tattooed on their bodies.

The seed of the show was planted in 2011 while Garramone lived in Vancouver. She fully figured the performance to “pay tribute to one of Canada’s most amazing poets and singers and songwriters” was a one-night deal.

Inspired by the the concept of a dialogue between artists, the show is rooted in the Tower of Song verse: “I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered yet; But I hear him coughing all night long; Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.”

That conversation transcends time and space. Every person has their own tower of inspiration, no matter their art from.

“You’re looking to them for this inspiration and you kind of overhear what they’re doing through the tower walls,” Garramone said.

That same inspiration likely led her to invite Swain – who she’d heard perform an impressive Cohen song before – and together, they were reminded of the power of harmony.

The tribute performance became an annual activity the next year, this time in Victoria.

“I see it as sacred ground. His poems and songs are loved by so many. There’s a bit of a risk,” Garramone admits. “It’s about bringing our own voices and our own interpretations to his material.”

Audiences responded and since then, they’ve performed it at festivals, theatres and folk clubs more than 200 times – from Victoria to Cohen’s homeland of Montreal.

“The project took on a life and a momentum of its own in the last 10 years,” she said.

Songs are added, removed, reinterpreted and even Cohen's spoken word built around music.

“It’s more a conversation between two people. Every song we’ve chosen to include in the show has its own kind of magic.”

Aside from the duo’s compelling vocal harmonies, Garramone brings piano, guitar and percussion to the show, while Swain adds standup base, banjo and guitar.

Tower of Song: a creative tribute to Leonard Cohen is back on the road with shows in Sidney, Harrison, Keremeos, Kelowna, Duncan and Salt Spring Island this summer.

It all starts Sunday at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre where fans will enjoy another local talent with the addition of Daniel Lapp. Mixing in other musical flavours creates some of Garramone’s favourite shows because they’re “bringing out these different sonic textures, different musical palettes.”

“(Lapp) can really paint with so many colours sonically and it’s really fun to work with someone who has such a diverse range of expression.”

Garramone remembers fondly being onstage in Kelowna for the project’s sold-out CD release 10 years ago and looks forward to the return on July 19 at Rotary Centre for the Arts.

The venues this summer run the gamut from The Grist Mill outdoors in Keremeos on July 18, to likely their largest audience in the Duncan’s Cowichan Performing Arts Centre on Sept. 21. They perform the day before at ArtSpring Theatre on Salt Spring Island.

Among the fun is the July 20 Harrison Festival of the Arts.

“Summer is festival time, so any time I get to participate in a festival whether it’s on stage or as an audience member I feel lucky,” Garramone said.

The Victoria singer anticipates it could be collaboration that continues as long as they have the energy. Cohen’s songs are durable and flexible, they withstand – and even hold up – as a work of art with their treatments, Garramone said.

“He didn’t release any duds, there’s a lifetime of songs to work with.”