Leonard Cohen's response came by proxy. He had only weeks left in this world, after all; his body failing and his mind on higher things, you'd imagine, than fan mail from Melbourne. But when he saw Anita Lester's Facebook post of September 2016, he told his messengers, he recognised an artist singing from "the same primal wound".
"I want to tell you something," she had written to him, tagging him in a post that also included her video cover of his then-new song, You Want It Darker. "When I was 10, my father passed away very suddenly. Shortly after he died, my mother gave me his favourite book. It was your Beautiful Losers." When Cohen's people reposted the video with his response a few days later, it went viral.
Lester, at 10, had been too young to understand the densely mystical, hypersexual prose of Cohen's second novel of 1966. The revelations came from his albums, also bequeathed by her father, which she played in an attic bedroom. "I fell hard," she wrote, "for the words you weave and the pictures you paint."
She wasn't alone there. The curious thing about Leonard Cohen devotees is that we all feel we've come to him alone, in an attic of some kind. We fall hard because he digs so deep. We feel no pain though. "You feel he has his arm around you," Nick Cave once remarked.
"Maybe for a man," Lester muses today, as she prepares to virtually stage the latest incarnation of Ladies Who Sing Leonard, a curated tribute for the Festival of Jewish Arts and Music. Deborah Conway, Kate Ceberano, Katie Noonan, Kylie Auldist, Melody Pool, Emily Lubitz and Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb are among the 16 singers.
"I feel like it's quite different for a woman," the singer-songwriter and poet says. "He lit me up in a different way as well. It may be an arm around you, but it was also quite romantic."
Quite. As ironically noted in an early album title, Death of A Ladies' Man, Cohen's romantic reputation loomed large in his life and work. "Because of a few songs/ Wherein I spoke of their mystery/ Women have been/ Exceptionally kind/ To my old age," he croaked seductively sometime around his 70th birthday.
"I definitely was aware of it," Lester says of the lusty appetite which may have been a tad unseemly in the mouth of a lesser septuagenarian. "Everyone has their things that they're attracted to. And I think a lot of young women who don't have father figures look for that in lots of different places. So it didn't deter me. Quite the opposite actually."
Sex had little to do with Deborah Conway's epiphany. She came to Cohen decades earlier; always liked his songs but like many, was repelled by the sound of his records. The "nasally voice" and "crazy busy" production of his middle period gave way to cheesy Casio tones from the late `80s onwards. She recalls the words of his label boss Walter Yetnikoff circa `84: "Look Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good."
She "fell head over heels" at last in January 2009, when she and her husband Willy Zygier took a slightly apprehensive trip to Rochford Winery in Coldstream to witness the opening night of what would snowball into several long and rapturous Australian tours.
"We get to the first song and literally, we're both in tears," she recalls. ''We spring to our feet, everyone's in tears, every song gets a standing ovation. Our hearts are breaking with the beauty of it. It is truly the finest concert that I've ever been to ... a lesson not only in how to be an incredible musician, but also how to be an incredible human being. A mensch.''
Looking back, it's almost as if Cohen had to wait until his mid-70s to find the songs himself, to free them from the younger man's famously arduous cycles of obsessive editing, studio spin, self-doubt, spiritual turmoil and depression and let their hard-won truths stand up and slow dance by themselves.
That said, Anita Lester never had a problem with the sound of Cohen's records. She tells a story about her friend Zach Rae, the American multi-instrumentalist who played on the last couple of them, who makes a half-joking analogy to the maestro's way with the ladies.
"He was saying, you know, Leonard wasn't this typically handsome guy. But at any age, he could romance the hell out of any woman and make them fall head over heels, regardless. He says it's the same with the music. It's like it removes itself from body and it just cuts to the core. It's something greater, you know?"
Even the sonic sceptics tend to agree that body and soul found perfect harmony in the wake of that miraculous globe-touring rebirth of 2008 onwards. Four late albums, including the posthumous Thanks For The Dance, found Cohen surrendering music and production to focus on recitation of pure, distilled, poetic wisdom in a voice of fathomless, coal-black gravity. "They're all magnificent," Conway affirms.
In the absence of a melody as such, Anita Lester had to imagine her own for her viral version of You Want It Darker. "I went on a trip to Paris with my mum for the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur," she explains. "We went into the synagogue where my grandparents were married, broke the fast there, and they do this prayer, which is called the Mourner's Kaddish.
"It was the most spiritual musical experience I'd ever had to that point. And then the next week, Leonard released that album, and I realised that the song You Want It Darker is that prayer, essentially. It's the same message, the same kind of language." "Hinene, hinene," Cohen intones, echoing Abraham's surrender when God asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in the book of Genesis: "Here I am, I'm ready."
"So I thought, you know what, I'll do it," Lester says. "I didn't even think about it. I sat on my roof in London, a friend filmed me and put it on the internet and I wrote this letter … and that started this whole little journey."
Despite her own solo projects in music and verse, she agrees it's potentially endless. "I feel a little bit reticent about being 'the Leonard girl'," she says, "but yeah, you could be worse things. He's definitely my mentor; my invisible mentor. I read him, I listen to him, and I also understand his foundation, which is a deep study of spiritual texts and poetry. There's a world underneath him."
Ladies Who Sing Leonard streams on Saturday, November 7, from 8.30pm. Book at fojam.com.