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Marc Cohn takes stage in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSinger-songwriter Marc Cohn performs Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – Marc Cohn isn’t a songwriter to jot down some words that seem to go together, put them to a melody, and lay a beat underneath it all. He needs to be pushed to the brink for a song to come out.

“It takes something – not cataclysmic, but that gets me to a place where I have to write,” the 50-year-old said from his home on New York’s Upper West Side. “That’s how I started in the beginning. I had things I had to write about – that seemed to be the blueprint, and it hasn’t stopped. I never sat down to be a writer; it has to come from some conflict.”

Not that Cohn ever would have asked for the double whammy that struck in August of 2005 – first a carjacking in Denver that ended with Cohn being shot in the head, then, three weeks later, Hurricane Katrina. But it was the sort of near-cataclysm that sent him to his writing desk. Within two years – sprinting speed by Cohn’s previous standards – he had released “Join the Parade,” an album about music, death and resurrection.

“I was feeling particularly vulnerable, having gone through my own crisis a few weeks earlier,” Cohn, who earned quick recognition in 1991, when “Walking in Memphis,” the first song from his first album, received a Grammy nomination for pop male vocalist, said. “I watched Katrina as a musician, in a way that was separate from just being a human being. But any musician had to ask, ‘My god, what’s going to happen to the culture of that fabulous city?’ And then I read that Fats Domino was missing, and that opened another level of horror. I was so raw that I didn’t have any choice but to work it through by writing.”

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No comparable catastrophes have ensued for Cohn (who was released from the hospital the day after the shooting), which leaves him in his usual position of waiting for urgent matters to arise and tickle his songwriting muscle. Complicating matters is that Cohn is a believer that, for a musician, the object of art is the full album, not the individual songs.

“I might write a lot of songs that, individually, I think are good,” Cohn, whose last studio album before 2007’s “Join the Parade” was “Burning the Daze,” which dates back to 1998. “But then I need to find 12 songs that make up a cohesive album, because that’s important to me.”

Despite the familiar deliberate writing process, Cohn has a new album tentatively scheduled for release in June. For the first time, he has turned to material written by others. “Listening Booth 1970” features Cohn’s takes on songs by Paul Simon, James Taylor, Van Morrison, John Fogerty and others. The record, nearly completed, has the requisite feel of an album; the uniting theme is that all of the tunes were released in 1970, and were written by Cohn’s heroes at the time.

It is a departure for Cohn, who has rarely recorded, or even performed, cover material before. But he was itching to get into the studio, and even hoping that reinterpreting the music of other writers would kick his own writing into a higher gear. So he started thinking about other albums of covers that were outside the usual mold of covers albums. He focused on “Raising Sand,” the album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant that featured takes on old traditional numbers; and Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time,” in which she enlisted other people to write songs for her.

Making an album of non-original songs, said Cohn, “didn’t have to be any less of making an original statement.” He added that his versions of the songs on “Listening Booth” – some of which he plans to play when he performs tonight, at the Wheeler Opera House – are far different from the familiar versions. “It’ll take people the first few lines to figure out what the song is.”

As for an album of Cohn’s original material – that will come in good time. “You know I always have the plan. But the muse doesn’t always care about my plan,” he said. “I just need a lot of time to absorb and live my life.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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