Yaron Hallis chats about the other Leonard Cohen

Yaron Hallis Brook Mitchell
Yarn Hallis, King of Camelot. Photo: Brook Mitchell.

Scouting a car-boot sale an 11-year-old Yaron Hallis found an LP by someone with his father’s name: Leonard Cohen. Highly amused, he bought it, beginning a life-long love affair that has seen Hallis’s band, Monsieur Camembert, play an annual tribute to this other Leonard Cohen since 2005. The 2017 event carries particular poignancy, being the first since Cohen’s death.

The younger Hallis didn’t need to grasp the weighty lyrics to be spellbound by what he heard. “He probably could have been singing in another language and I would have responded to it equally,” he says. “Because he was the consummate poet everyone always comments on the power and brilliance of his lyrics, but fewer people have spoken about what an unbelievably fine writer of melodies he was. I think his rather one-dimensional vocal delivery has distracted people from the brilliance of his melody writing and music writing.”

Monsieur Camembert’s tributes include lesser-known songs, Cohen’s poetry and material from interviews and song introductions. The band’s unique take saw it invited to the 2008 International Leonard Cohen Festival in Canada.

“It was frightening,” recalls Hallis, “because we were playing this body of material to the most diehard fans who knew every word and note backwards. And of course a lot of the Monsieur Camembert versions of the tunes take the material where it’s never been before – unashamedly! So it was a bit nerve-wracking to see whether they would respond to it.”

Indeed they did, the reaction exceeding Hallis’s wildest hopes.

This year’s guest singers are Deborah Conway, Abby Dobson, Diana Rouvas and Susie Bishop, while the band remains a who’s who of Sydney finest. “I love nothing more than to be able to step back and have the enormous thrill of letting the brilliance and virtuosity of the people around me shine,” Hallis says.

A singer, band-leader, arranger, songwriter, guitarist, venue owner, sound-engineer and compulsive collector, he grew up in South Africa and moved from Perth to Sydney in 1997. He formed Monsieur Camembert to pursue a dream that high-calibre music could also have broad appeal, especially across age groups. His breakthrough was discovering the Gypsy swing of the fabled Django Reinhardt, opening up the wider world of Gypsy music and the potential to revisit the Jewish music of his youth. Indeed Hallis was a key spark in igniting the explosion of interest in this music here.

In 2005 he opened Qirkz, a venue skirting the edges of the law during Sydney’s live music Great Repression era. Buried in a Marrickville industrial wasteland it was a warehouse wonderland of collectibles and surreal decor, hosting artists ranging from Boy and Bear to Lulo Reinhardt. Its compulsory closure by Marrickville Council in 2009 not only generated a public outcry, it necessitated Hallis, now in partnership with pizza-maker Tony Hecimovic, quickly opening elsewhere to fulfil existing bookings.

Enter Camelot Lounge, the steep flight of stairs to which seemed to emphasise its above-ground legality, which posed its own problem. “It’s a real leap to legitimise an underground space,” says Hallis, “and still keep that feeling. The fact that Qirkz was covert and naughty obviously held some of its appeal.”

But Camelot (with the more intimate Django Bar nestled downstairs) became a camel-themed wonderland of its own, Hallis explaining his curatorial philosophy as being about “putting together unlikely, interesting and entertaining things – whether that’s people, objects or musical strands – that, when combined in a novel way, create something fresh, interesting and moving”.

It works.

Monsieur Camembert’s Leonard Cohen Show, City Recital Hall, August 26; Camelot Lounge September 20.