Movin’ real easy
In the most common telling of the Marc Cohn story, it was a Sunday-morning listening, over Cleveland’s WMMS, to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” that turned the adolescent Cohn into a rabid music fan. But Cohn, a serious student and fan of singer-songwriters, expands that early moment to include a host of the essential song-oriented albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”That was one of the records I heard that opened my eyes,” said the 45-year-old Cohn from his home on New York’s Upper West Side. “They were all these records that were played on Sunday mornings, on WMMS, and they would play an entire side: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira,’ Jackson Browne’s ‘Late for the Sky,’ [Van Morrison’s] ‘Moondance’ – the seminal singer-songwriter blueprints.”But as he’s reminiscing, a more distant thought occurs to Cohn. He recalls buying, at the age of 11, Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” And what strikes him most at the moment is not the pitch-perfect songs – “Southern Man,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” the iconic title track – but what came enclosed in the album. When Cohn ripped open his “After the Gold Rush” LP, out dropped a folded-up paper with the album’s lyrics. The words were written in Young’s own hand, with cross-outs, scribbles and notes. Looking back, Cohn thinks seeing the evidence of the effort behind Young’s creating “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was as significant as hearing Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue.””To me, that was really life-changing – to get my first peek at the fact that there was work behind this thing,” said Cohn, who makes his Aspen debut Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Wheeler Opera House, in a duo with his regular guitarist, Shane Fontayne. “And I really wanted to do that work.”
Cohn didn’t just memorize Young’s lyrics. He would count up the number of words in a Neil Young song, then write his own song using the same number of words.”I tried to crack the code by figuring out everything about him,” said the engaged, forthright Cohn. “And that was one of the hundreds of things I did to learn how to do this, to learn how to do it my way.” Another methodology Cohn used was to write out his own lyric sheets for albums that didn’t come so equipped. Anything to get closer to that magic beneath a great song.”I almost willed it to be,” said Cohn of his goal to be a songwriter. “I wanted to paint myself into that canvas. I did everything I could to make that happen. I listened to music nonstop growing up. I just inhaled it.”Writer at workThe lessons Cohn took from the “After the Gold Rush” lyrics – that writing songs involved grit, and that he was ready to put in the hours – has stuck with him. Cohn’s success as a singer-songwriter came fairly quickly: His 1991 eponymous debut yielded the hit “Walking in Memphis” and earned him a Grammy Award for best new artist. Moreover, the album, with one song as well-crafted as the next, did indeed put him in the company of the great songwriters. Cohn followed with “The Rainy Season” and “Burning the Daze,” two more albums that confirmed his combination of soulful baritone, catchy melodicism and, above all, meaningful lyrics was no fluke.But, as Neil Young’s notes promised, it has been work. After the debut album, it took Cohn two years to release the follow-up, “The Rainy Season.” That would prove to be a notably quick pace for Cohn. His third album, “Burning the Daze,” would be five years in the making. And his fans, who seem to have an unusually deep devotion – check out the website marccohn.org, home of the fan club Move Real Easy – are still awaiting the fourth album.Cohn points to a combination of factors for his limited output. He is married, and the father of three children – ages 13, 10 and 2 – and he has firmly put family above career. “To do that well,” he said of the family part of his life, “takes a lot of attention and care. I committed to being a good father a long time ago.”
But family aside, Cohn still might not be looking at a particularly prolific discography. He confesses to working very slowly; on the day I spoke with him, he had just listened to several songs he had recorded as demos some three years ago, considering them for inclusion on his next album. On top of that, he is demanding of himself and his songs.”I have to feel they comprise an integrated whole, and it takes a long time to get to that place,” said Cohn, who has contributed songs to films and TV shows, and written for other singers, including David Crosby & Graham Nash, between albums. “Just to get 12 songs that I like takes a long time. And if I don’t enjoy it, no one’s going to hear it.”The result of such patience is three albums crystalline in sound, and with every song distinct and having something to say. This is one of the reasons Cohn, from the beginning, has been able to attract heavyweight contributors to his recordings: James Taylor on the first; Crosby & Nash and Bonnie Raitt since then. The music can be so polished that it is easy to overlook the lyrics, which Cohn says is the foundation of his songs, and lump them in with the lesser pop music on the radio.”Hopefully the best pop music has a sort of veneer that makes it attractive to listen to,” he said. “And the best of the best has something underneath it that you can relate to. Some of the best Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne have so much underneath them. So I’m striving to do both.”Slow goingCohn has a relative bonanza on the way – though, as he notes, “One record in a year is a flurry for me.” He is in the mixing stage of his first live album, recorded at some 10 concerts last year that had Cohn backed by a three-piece band. That album is set for release this summer. Even more noteworthy is the next studio album, which has been, in its way, seven years in the making. Due for release, hopefully, by year’s end, the album has three or four songs completed, with another 10 written. In at least one respect, the album represents a new direction for Cohn. After working with John Leventhal as a co-producer on his last two recordings, for the latest he is using drummer Steve Jordan as producer.
“The beginning of what makes an album interesting is what the drummer is doing. Even a singer-songwriter album,” said Cohn, who plays keyboards and guitar. “So finding a really great producer who was also a drummer was a real bonus.”Cohn says that the favorite of his records, “The Rainy Season,” was also the one that was made the quickest, written and recorded over 10 months. The new album doesn’t figure to match that pace. But Cohn has become more accepting of his nonprolific nature.”It’s more OK now than it used to be,” said Cohn, who has at times put aside writing and touring for long stretches. “Each time I made a record, I did it with the idea of doing it quickly – getting a flurry of inspiration and casting the right people so it’s very in the moment. But each time I set out to do that, it hasn’t happened that way.”But slow and steady and exacting may not be such a bad fallback position. I mention two musicians who come to mind, Robbie Robertson and Steve Winwood, who can, like Cohn, take more than a half-decade between albums, yet always make the music worth the wait. While Cohn reflexively denies that he is in their league, he warms to the comparison.”It takes time, clearly, to make the kinds of records they make,” he said. “There’s a similarity to what they do and what I’m striving to do. They do make beautiful, artistic records. You listen to Robbie Robertson and you hear what took so long.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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