February 4, 2020 Interview – Marc Cohn
Back in 1991, the world was introduced to “Waking in Memphis,” a song that many consider a bold stamp within the Great American Songbook. A Top 40 Hit, it earned a Grammy nomination for song of the year in 1992 while bringing home talented Singer-Songwriter Marc Cohn a Grammy for Best New Artist. Tremendous accomplishments, however, the story does not begin and end there for Cohn. In fact, he is a musician with a deep history whom has collaborated with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tracy Chapman, Patty Griffin, among others through the years.
Always looking for a new challenge as a songwriter and continuing to write inspiring, soulful new music, Cohn’s career continues as he hits the road in 2020 for extensive touring. A run of concerts that will fill his calendar well into the summer, Cohn also has aspirations to put out a new album of original songs for the first time in years. An exciting time for the songwriter, he recently sat down to talk about his growth, making music that connects with people, plus a lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been in music professionally well over three decades now. You have had a great deal of success as a performing musician, songwriter, and attained chart-topping singles. How would you describe your journey in music to this point?
Marc Cohn – That is a big question to start with. (Laughs) Careers in music are interesting things. It’s everything I wanted my career to be and everything I could never expected or dreamed of. It’s been a lot of careful planning, good luck, and good timing. But mostly the thing I think defines any career in music is a lot of hard work. I think it always feels like people come out of nowhere overnight, but usually what’s the case is a new artist comes around after a lot of paying dues, studying, and practicing at their craft. I’m no different, and as a result I’ve had some ups and downs like anybody else.
Cryptic Rock – Right, and it always takes a lot of hard work. You collaborated with many prior to putting out your own material. What have you learned from these collaborations?
Marc Cohn – I think the main thing you learn is that everybody that is worth their salt has also worked really hard. The legends that I’ve been lucky enough to know and work with, there are a couple of common threads with everybody – number 1, the most talented people I’ve met are the nicest and humblest, and they’ve worked their asses off. The people that are where they are got there for a reason. Bruce Springsteen is a great example of a brilliant songwriter, a fantastic singer, a great band leader, but what may be most impressive about him, and the results are obvious, is he works harder than anybody else. Not only is he incredibly gifted, but his work ethic is remarkable. That’s the thing I’ve learned most of all watching the people I really admire is how how hard they’ve worked for what they have.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, anything worth having takes a lot of hard work, there is no way around it.
Marc Cohn – I don’t think so. I don’t think there is an easy way around it. I don’t think things last too long unless you put in that work. The thing I’m proudest of in my whole career is I keep trying new things, new collaborations, and I’m always trying to find a new arrangement for a song that isn’t quite right that I want to include in the set on a particular night. I’m trying to keep myself curious.
Cryptic Rock – That is good, it is good to always keep challenging yourself. Your music tells a story. Inspiration changes, but what is some of your inspiration as far as the context of your music?
Marc Cohn – Some of the songs are narratives, you are right – they have a beginning, middle, end, and are almost cinematic in a way. Other songs are a little more abstract. As far as inspiration, there is no one place, no one well that I know I can go to and find something. Often it’s something I’ve read, I find reading really leads to writing. Some sentence that appears to me or a phrase; I’ve written songs after reading articles in magazines or profiles of interesting people. Very often it just comes from trying to tell my own story, figure out my own journey. A lot of the songs are very personal, but you are always trying to write them in such a way that hopefully resonates and becomes universal. I’ve been lucky enough to have that experience with a few of my songs. It makes it all incredibly meaningful, the songs are not just for me, they’re for other people to find their own meaning in it.
Cryptic Rock – That is the power of music, it connects with people. People have different emotions for each piece of music. Sometimes you write a song, it goes out into the universe and whatever people relate to it, they relate to it.
Marc Cohn – Exactly. People are always very curious to know, “what is that song about?” I’m always hesitant to delve too deep to what it’s about because it may mean something completely different for the listener. That’s exactly as it should be. You want to write songs that “you know” what they mean. Listen, sometimes I don’t even know what they mean. I’ve written a couple of songs that woke me up out of dreams and they are completely inexplicable. (Laughs) Somehow they work. It’s sort of a fascinating aspect to songwriting, people want to know what the song is about, but all that matters is, does it make you feel something?
Cryptic Rock – Agreed completely. You put out a new album in 2019 with Blind Boys of Alabama. This album has a mix of newer and older tracks. What was it like putting the album together?
Marc Cohn – I’ve been a huge fan of Gospel music for a long time; obviously talk about Gospel in the air in “Walking in Memphis.” I love R&B and Gospel music. I loved being able to collaborate with the Blind Boys which are a legendary Gospel group, it was one of the high points of my career. I was asked to write a few songs for them several years ago and one of those songs got nominated for a Grammy. From there we went on the road, did several dozen shows together, and that led us to making this collaborative record. The record is a few new songs I wrote for us to sing and some live tracks from my older tunes with their stamp on it. I think it holds together really well.
Cryptic Rock – It certainly does. Do you have any music in the works?
Marc Cohn – I’m writing songs, I’ve written a few songs I like. I’m hoping this year, with all the touring I’m doing, I can find the time to finish up writing because it’s been a long time since I’ve had a record of all original, new songs. Aside from a lot of touring, that’s my top priority for the coming year.
To give you a scoop, I haven’t talked much about it, we’re hoping it’s going to work out, but I’m doing a bunch of touring toward the end of the year, a songwriters in the round with me, David Crosby, and Shawn Colvin singing together. I’ve got a lot of exciting collaborations coming up and also the strong urge to put out a new album.
Cryptic Rock – That sounds very exciting. You spoke about touring, you are touring extensively through 2020.
Marc Cohn – I think I have shows booked through the summer. I’m going overseas, I’m doing some gigs with the Blind Boys, we’re opening up for Van Morrison once or twice. I’ve got stuff booked almost through the end of the year, it just hasn’t all been announced yet.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, it is a very busy year for you. Tell us about the New York City show coming up on Valentine’s Day.
Marc Cohn – The New York show is special because it’s a continuation of a tradition I’ve sort of been a part of for the last 10-11 years where I do a Valentine’s Day show at City Winery. This year, since the new City Winery isn’t quite open yet, we are doing it on New York Society for Ethical Culture on the upper west side of Manhattan. That will be a special night, sometimes I have guests, hopefully people will show up for that.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like a wonderful show. What can those coming out expect from this upcoming tour?
Marc Cohn – We change it up from day to day. I just got back from 4-5 shows on the east coast and we had a new keyboard player, so we went over some new arrangements. Any time you work with a new musician it makes you want to change things up to suite how they play or what their strengths are. We played a couple of songs I haven’t played in years and it was really great, they were really good shows. Sometimes it depends on who’s in the band. That is constantly changing too, which keeps me interested, engaged, and trying to find new ways to play the old songs as well as the new ones.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like the shows will be very diverse. You also have the charity show at Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 12th. How did you become involved with this show?
Marc Cohn – It’s called Love Rocks and all the money goes to God’s Love We Deliver, which is an amazing organization I’ve been involved with for several years now. They bring food to people who are too sick to cook for themselves, but aren’t hospitalized. They bring food not only to the sick person, but to the family that is too taken up with care to really make a decent meal. I think they deliver millions of meals a month, it’s absolutely remarkable what they do.
This concert is the 4th annual concert to raise money for God’s Love We Deliver and I’m proud to be part of it. This year, as every year, has an amazing lineup. This year includes Dave Matthews. Everyone is doing 1-2 songs and I’m proud to be part of it.
Cryptic Rock – Yes! Some of the artist who will be there is Chris & Rich Robinson of Black Crowes, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges, etc etc. Most of all, it’s for a good cause. You briefly mentioned the song “Walking in Memphis,” which was a major success back in 1991. You obviously do not write a song with the mindset this is going to be a big hit, but did you have the inclination to think it had the ability to do what it has done?
Marc Cohn – When I wrote it, which was years before I got signed, I wrote it maybe 1986, and my first record didn’t come out to 1991, all I knew when I wrote it is I turned the corner as a songwriter. I felt after years of time I was beginning to find my songwriter’s voice, I knew there was something original and soulful about that song. That’s all I knew, that it was good. Then, when I started to really look for a record deal, it became clear, especially when Atlantic Records signed me, they loved that song.
I have to say nobody knew when we released it that it was going to resonate like it did almost within weeks and is still resonating to this day. In fact, I remember as hard as Atlantic Records worked, they thought it would be a popular song down south and that was the only place anybody would really care about it. But it’s not really a song about Memphis, it’s about the transformation of how I write music and that’s why that song has resonated with people over the years. It is something I’m very proud of.
Cryptic Rock – As you should be, the song has a lasting legacy. Last question. Beyond music, we cover films, particular Horror and Sci-Fi. If you are a fan of those, do you have any favorites?
Marc Cohn – I watch very little Horror movies if any, and very little Science Fiction. My taste in films seems to be more along The Graduate (1967), Fargo (1996), The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) , movies like that. There are some films I can watch 20-30 times and still get something out it. Obviously the great music in The Graduate helps too.