Skinny Pelembe & Beth Orton – “Who By Fire” (Leonard Cohen Cover)
People will never, ever get sick of covering the songs of the late Leonard Cohen. The deluge of Leonard Cohen covers simply never slows down. Last year, we got Here It Is the latest in a long line of all-star Cohen tribute compilations. Last week, Naima Bock released her take on Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne.” Now, Beth Orton and Skinny Pelembe have offered their take on the Cohen classic “Who By Fire.”
Beth Orton, the veteran UK singer-songwriter, remains a force of nature; she released her excellent LP Weather Alive last year. Skinny Pelembe is a psychedelic soul artist who was born in South Africa and who grew up in the UK; he released his own album Hardly The Same Snake earlier this year. Orton and Pelembe are labelmates; they’re both signed to Partisan Records. Earlier this year, they met when they played the same stage at Glastonbury. And now they’ve gotten together to release their take on “Who By Fire,” the same 1974 Leonard Cohen song that PJ Harvey just covered last year.
In a press release, Skinny Pelembe says:
When I signed to Partisan, I remember having a conversation with Tim, who founded the label, as to whether Partisan was named after the Leonard Cohen song “The Partisan.” He told me it was. I’d just recently been in the studio with the Heliocentrics’ Malcolm Catto and had a few great breaks left over from the album that I’d not used. So I had Leonard on the mind and Malcolm’s beat swimming round my subconscious.
It all came together this summer when I asked Beth if she’d be up for singing on it too. She sent me a tonne of amazing vocal takes, all of them brilliant, so I kept them all. She’s got such a distinctive, raw, timeless voice. It’s almost weirdly medieval, I love it.
Beth Orton is no stranger to Leonard Cohen’s music. When she played at Carnegie Hall in 2016, shortly after Cohen’s passing, she covered “Sisters Of Mercy.” Here’s what Orton says about the “Who By Fire” cover:
I have always felt connected to the work of Leonard Cohen. I toured “I’m Your Man” with an amazing cast of people, and every night I was intrigued by the mystery of “Who By Fire.” I was never totally satisfied I understood the song. When Doya sent me his version, I was immediately taken by the Serge Gainsbourg quality of the drums and the overall feel, and I loved the cheek and punk-like spirit of this version, and seeing as I was in a studio in Paris, I didn’t give a second thought to throwing myself into Doya’s re-interpretation.
Climbing inside the words this way brought the meaning of the song into new focus, the passion and heart-breaking inevitability of human nature that Leonard Cohen writes of like no other came alive to me finally.
Below, listen to Beth Orton and Skinny Pelembe’s hazy, percussive take on “Who By Fire,” as well as Leonard Cohen’s still-peerless original.
Beth Orton and Skinny Pelembe’s “Who By Fire” cover is out now on Partisan.