Marc Cohn: "I've Had a Very Specific and Odd Path"

Don't refer to Marc Cohn as a one-hit wonder. Although his song "Walking in Memphis" may have immortalized him for radio listeners everywhere and won him a Grammy in the process, it also established him as an artist of a certain standing, the kind that can be counted on to create great albums that play together as a whole. Indeed, with a career that spans well over 20 years, Cohn's achievements go well beyond the bounds of a single hit and fleeting fame and fortune.

Still, it's been several years since Cohn's last album, and his is not a life that's necessarily been easy. He was orphaned at an early age but overcame his hardship by teaching himself to play piano and guitar. All seemed to be going well until he was shot and nearly killed in a carjacking attempt after a concert in Denver, Colorado, in 2005, a traumatic incident that forced him to reassess his place in the world, both as an artist and individual. These days, however, he's back doing what he does best: entertaining audiences with intimate songs and stories and plying his craft with the subtlety and sensitivity that's become his stock and trade. We recently caught up with him prior to the launch of his latest tour.

New Times: Give us an update on what you're up to now. What's new in the way of touring, recording, and other activity?

Marc Cohn: I toured more in the last year than I think I have in my entire career. I think I did close to a hundred shows last year. I opened some shows for Bonnie Raitt, which is a gift of a lifetime. She's one of my favorite artists. And I did a bunch of shows on my own as well. I just started a record, and I've been talking to record companies, so things feel like they're in a really good place. I'm happy with the new songs I've written, one of which is for a documentary that comes out next year, and it will be on my record too. So, yeah. It's been a good year.

You had some involvement with an Andrew Lloyd Weber soundtrack early on, did you not?

[laughs] Where did you find that?

Hey, I do my research! I like to probe below the surface.

That was probably six years before I even had a record deal, so that was going back to the late '80s, when I was doing session work in New York City when I first moved up. I was lucky enough to be asked to sing demos for Jimmy Webb and Leiber and Stoller, some of my all-time songwriting heroes. And occasionally, I'd be asked to do a recording date, and they were doing a session for Starlight Express, and they didn't want it to be the cast. They wanted it to be either session singers or people that had some sort of pop profile. I was a complete unknown at the time, so for me it was just a job. It was a long, long time ago.

It must have been really rewarding to do those demos for your songwriting heroes. What kind of impact did that have on your songwriting trajectory?

Listen, Jimmy Webb and Leiber and Stoller were in my pantheon of all-time great songwriters anyway, so I had studied their music and their lyrics a long, long time at that point. To be able to work with them and watch how they operated in the studio -- they're all amazing musicians and producers too -- just deepened my appreciation and expanded my knowledge of what it takes to turn a song into a record. I'd already studied the songwriting, so this was the beginning of learning what it took to make a record. They happen to be among the few out there that write great songs and make great records. Sometimes it's hard to get both, but that's what I learned from them.

What made you want to pursue music and make it a career?

I didn't have any other choice. I just didn't have a choice. This is was what connected with me from the time I was 7 or 8 years old, when I first heard the Beatles and the Stones, and Van Morrison and the Band... It wasn't just that I liked it. I was obsessed with it. And I had an older brother who played piano and had a band that practiced in our basement, so I got to hear what Motown sounded like and what Burt Bacharach sounded like three feet away. My brother had a great ear, and he got most of the chords right, and it was just an obsession from the very beginning. And it was also an escape. And I had some ability. I could always sing, and I found I could write some words too. It was just to be, I guess. I wouldn't know what the hell else I'd do.

Well, it was clearly enough to get you where you are today.

I've had a very specific and odd path. When "Walking in Memphis" first came out, there were some reviewers who called me the new piano man. I shuddered because I don't consider myself a piano man like Elton John or Billy Joel. I consider myself more like Jackson Browne, who's a fantastic musician, but he's not a piano man either. He can write on piano or guitar. That's how I see myself too.

Speaking of the song "Walking in Memphis" -- it was such a huge hit for you. Did you have any idea how big it would become?

No. I wrote the song several years before it came out. I wrote it several years even before I was a signed artist. It was impossible to think it would be a hit, because like I said, I wasn't even a signed artist yet. It was a turning point for me when I wrote it. I knew when I wrote it I had found the closest thing yet to my songwriting voice I'd ever gotten to.

I had been writing songs since I was 12, and "Walking in Memphis" and "Silver Thunderbird," which I wrote the same month, were the beginning of me finding my voice. That to me was huge. That to me was everything. Because up to that point, I'd been looking for a record deal, I'd been trying to make it in the business, and if I was really honest with myself, there was nothing particularly original about the songs I'd been writing. They were OK, but "Memphis" and my song "Thunderbird" were the beginning of me thinking that maybe I'd turned the corner, and sure enough, those were the songs that got me signed.

When you have a hit as huge as that, obviously it's a blessing. But is it also an albatross? Does the record company want you to keep on rewriting the same song to keep the hits coming? Does it raise expectations?

I guess. I think I had that worry and that pressure for about six months. When it was time to make my second record, I could sort of tell that the record company would have enjoyed a "Walking in Memphis" II. The only problem is, it's impossible. I mean, it's impossible to write any song again, whether it's a hit or not. It may not be impossible, but it just doesn't interest me. For me, having a song like that that's endured for 23 years, that keeps getting covered and keeps getting played, and I still love playing it live, it's all blessing. The curse I don't even relate to at all.

I felt a little odd with my record company making my second record, but after that, I was really happy I had a radio hit, but that was never the plan or intention. I want to make albums that mean something, that people will listen to and be moved by the way I was by my favorite records. I didn't care if Van Morrison had a hit on the radio or not. I loved his albums. So for me, I'm still doing what I always wanted to do, Having a hit on the radio was phenomenal, but it's not the only way to have a career. If I felt like, all these years later, I had this one radio hit and the rest of my work was relatively insignificant to my audience, it would bother me. But the truth is, my audience knows of my music, and much of it is more important to them than the hit.

It's clear to me when I do shows now, if I don't do a song like "True Companion" or "The Things We Handed Down" or a handful of others, those are the songs my audience comes to hear, and none of them were hits. Obviously "Walking in Memphis" provides a fantastic moment in the arc of the show because it's so well-known. And I feel blessed that I had that hit and that I still have an audience that knows the breadth and depth of what I've done for the last 20 years, and most of it hasn't been on the radio.

You were shot and nearly killed in Denver in 2005. It was a tragic incident and attracted worldwide attention. What was the impact of that? Did it change you emotionally in any way?

Well, it was a shocking situation, and I had to go through some post-traumatic stress for a while. It was not the kind of thing you expect to happen after a show. I felt very unsafe in the world for quite awhile. I had a lot of panic attacks. Even though I was so lucky not to be physically harmed -- I should have been dead -- the bullet stopped just short of my skull. It went all the way through my soft tissue, but it didn't penetrate my skull. I guess because I'm incredibly hard-headed.

Was it a holdup attempt?

It was an attempt to get our car, a carjacking. We were coming back from the venue, going back to our hotel, the band and I, and this man was high on crystal meth, and he had a gun, and the police were already following him. So he needed to escape, and when he got to our car, he aimed for the driver but shot me instead, and the bullet penetrated right above my left temple, and it was a matter of centimeters. I could have been blind or dead.

Aside from the fact that I was incredibly lucky, and felt so grateful to be alive. It was definitely a process of emotional healing that I had to go through. Ultimately, the oddest part of it is, I had been struggling with writer's block for a while and not performing all that much, and several months after this -- not even -- maybe several weeks and Hurricane Katrina, which happened right after that, I couldn't stop myself from writing a lot, and ultimately I made a record that dealt a lot with mortality and fate and chance and the random nature of things, and that record was called Join the Parade. It wasn't just about me but more about New Orleans and just life and death and how closely related they are every day for all of us.

So what can we expect from a Marc Cohn concert now?

It's a really intimate night. I tell stories about the songs, and I perform them in a very intimate fashion. It's just me and a great keyboard player and singer that I love named Glenn Patscha, who played with Levon Helm for years and Marianne Faithfull, and he started a band called Ollabelle, so Glenn is kind of my partner on the road these days. So sometimes I'm a trio and other times it's just Glenn and me.

It's a very loose evening. You'll basically hear the songs the way they sounded when they were written. I'm constantly changing the arrangements of things and taking requests from the audience. And because it's not a big band or a big production, I can kind of go with the flow of any particular night. That to me is what a live show is all about. That's what I want to go see. It feels like something that's in the moment, and that's what my shows typically are.

Marc Cohn performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 20, at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center of the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $30 to $85. Call 954-462-0222, or visit browardcenter.org.

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