I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.'Cohen first recorded the song at Quadrasonic Sound, New York in June 1984, working with producer John Lissauer. The next recording of this song by Leonard Cohen was captured live in Austin, Texas on October 31, 1988 with production by Leanne Ungar and Bob Metzger.
In 1994, Cohen released a substantially different version on the 1994 live album Cohen Live, retaining only the final verse from the original recording. In this version, the lyrics became more sexual, and the song's structure was slightly reworked. Since his original studio album version, live performances by Leonard Cohen almost invariably include the final song verses not performed by Cale and many others. Many cover artists mix lyrics from both versions, and occasionally make direct lyric changes such as Rufus Wainwright singing "holy dark" and Allison Crowe singing "Holy Ghost" rather than "holy dove". Although individual words do change among various versions, apart from such examples of clear revision by interpreters, any variation may be due to selection from Cohen's complete lyrics rather than alterations by the cover artist.
Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale recorded a notable cover version of "Hallelujah", which appeared on the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan and, again, on Cale's 1992 live album Fragments of a Rainy Season. Cale's version featured vocals, piano, and new lyrics. In a 2001 interview with The Observer, John Cale said:
Cale says he "went through and just picked out the cheeky verses." His version was featured in the 1996 film Basquiat as well as the 2001 animated film Shrek. Rufus Wainwright covered the song as well, and his version appears on that film's soundtrack album rather than Cale's.
American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley recorded one of the best-known covers of "Hallelujah" for his 1994 studio album, Grace. Buckley, not wholly satisfied with any one take, recorded the song more than twenty times. Grammy Award-winning music studio engineer Andy Wallace took three of these recordings to create a single track. The result is a sparse-sounding production of vocals and electric guitar, influenced by Cale's version.
Reflecting a broadening populist appreciation of the song, reaching mass numbers since its inclusion in the 2001 animated film Shrek, in recent years "Hallelujah" has been performed by a large number, and broad range, of artists, both, on recordings, and, in concert.
The song has even been given tribute in a very different way: as well as recording a cover of the original version, in February 2007 Alistair Griffin rewrote the lyrics to reference the soccer player Mark Viduka. Leonard Cohen gave permission for this to be released as a charity download in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.
Soon after American Idol contestant Jason Castro's 2008 performance of "Hallelujah" in Season 7 of that US tv program, Jeff Buckley's Grace version became the most downloaded track on iTunes. This renewed interest in the song coincided with the induction of Leonard Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Subsequently, on the Billboard charts dated March 22, 2008, Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" debuted at #1 on the Hot Digital Songs chart. The song was certified Gold and Platinum as a single on April 22, 2008.
In 2006, four Norwegian artists, Alejandro Fuentes, Askil Holm, Espen Lind and Kurt Nilsen (winner of Norwegian Idols season 1), all under the same management, joined forces and went on tour in March as what was known by the media as "The New Guitar Buddies". They released a CD with this song on it called Halleluja-live!
The song has frequently been used in television shows and movies during scenes involving death or heartbreak. It has been featured in movies as diverse as Basquiat, The Edukators (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei), Shrek (covered by John Cale in the movie and by Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack), St. Ralph, Deliver Us from Evil, Kissed by Winter,Feast of Love, Barfuss, Lord of War, When Night is Falling and TV series such as Holby City, House, Falcon Beach, The L Word, The O.C. (twice by Jeff Buckley, once by Imogen Heap), Hollyoaks, The West Wing, Scrubs, Without a Trace, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, ER, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Crossing Jordan, Drama and Nicole, Rescue Me, LAX, Roswell, Ugly Betty, Numb3rs, Nearly Famous and One Tree Hill.
In an editorial context, the song has been used in the Third Watch and Without a Trace episodes dealing with the 9/11 events. "Hallelujah" was played at the closing of NBC's Dateline on April 17, 2007, covering the Virginia Tech massacre. During the playing of the song, a montage of photographs regarding the events of the tragedy was displayed. Additionally, Cale's cover was used for the closing of the Stuff, a short film about John Frusciante in 1994 by Johnny Depp and Gibby Haynes. After the shooting massacre at NIU, the song was covered during a montage of YouTube users' responses to the massacre. The song, as covered on YouTube by "Christina Marie, could be heard at the end of the montage on Fox News Tonight with Shepherd Smith.