A Chat with Marc Cohn, Singer/songwriter, Marc Cohn interview, Join the Parade

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It’s been nine years since the release of Marc Cohn’s last album, 1998’s Burning the Daze, but it seems like multiple lifetimes – not only has the record industry undergone an historic meltdown, but Cohn himself has been buffeted on personal winds both sweet (his marriage to ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas in 2002) and bitter (being shot in the head during a carjacking attempt after a Denver gig in 2005). On the eve of the release of his fourth album, Join the Parade, Cohn spoke with Bullz-Eye about where he’s been and where he’s headed.

Bullz-Eye: Nine years!

Marc Cohn: Nine years. Enough for four albums. (laughs)

BE: The last time we spoke was, in fact, nine years ago, and we talked about the five-year gap between your last two albums (1993’s The Rainy Season and 1998’s Burning the Daze). You mentioned wanting to get your fourth album out more quickly, and obviously that didn’t happen – what sustains you artistically over a layoff that long?

MC: I have to say that over those nine years, I did very little artistically. I wrote a little bit, not a lot, so that sustains me a bit. I wrote a few, I would say three or four, songs for movies. A couple people called and asked for songs for their records – Crosby & Nash used a song I had written and knew I wasn’t going to use – but I would say primarily, I toured. That was the thing that kept me going artistically. I can’t tell you how much, but it felt like on average, it was maybe 40 to 50 shows a year. That was very fulfilling, although I have to say I didn’t have a lot of new songs to play, so it was sometimes kind of a painful reminder of that. As of a couple of years ago, I finally started gathering together some new songs, until I finally had enough for a record. The focus of my life really wasn’t artistic for quite a long time.

BE: Did you always know there would be a fourth album?

MC: I didn’t. In fact, I would say just a couple years ago, I was saying to some of my closest friends that clearly the arc of my career wasn’t what I thought it would be when I started – and what the arc of most of the artists I’d grown up loving had been. I kind of assumed that once I got signed, and had a record that broke through like my first one did, I would just sort of put out a record every 16 to 17 months and then tour. And that was just never part of my particular cycle – and it just got stranger and stranger as I went along. Not by my design, that’s for sure.

BE: I spoke once with Michael McDonald about leaving Warner Bros., and he said that toward the end, he didn’t recognize anybody in the building. He had been there for quite awhile, obviously, but at what point did you realize it was over with Atlantic?

"Everybody that I knew when I signed on with Atlantic was gone, with the exception of Ahmet Ertegun, who wasn’t even there on a day-to-day basis."

MC: Well, for exactly the same reason he mentioned. By the time I departed Atlantic, both of my original A&R guys had left, and the head of the company was gone as well. Everybody that I knew when I signed on with Atlantic was gone, with the exception of Ahmet Ertegun, who wasn’t even there on a day-to-day basis. But you know, I couldn’t say that I blame them for wanting out of the contract, because I had no record, and it had been a very long time. And I felt like I didn’t even need a label, until I had an album even close to being ready. It felt completely natural.

BE: And along those lines, how did you end up at Decca? It seems, on the surface, like sort of a strange marriage.

MC: Out of all the people we approached, they were the ones who were really excited about the record. There were a couple other labels that were excited, but I wasn’t sure if they had what it really took to market it, and, you know, Decca is this very interesting combination of an old imprint with a wonderful legacy, and yet they’re almost like working with a new label. They’re just sort of restarting, and their sort of manifesto, I guess, is to get more adult-oriented artists exposed. It’s a new experiment for them, even though it’s this old label, and they’ve got all these fantastic people who have come from other labels to try to get that accomplished. I like them very much as people, and I like what they’re trying to do. I really believe that they understood this record, and that they were going to do whatever it took to get it heard. There were other labels that I knew better, and had rosters where I might have fit in better, but I just didn’t feel like the belief in my music was there. So far, I’m very happy.

BE: Did you give any thought to releasing this album on your own?

MC: I did, and in point of fact, I made the album independently – I licensed it to Decca, so it’s really still, in essence, my record.

BE: One of the things that’s struck me for awhile now about your albums is how brutally unsentimental you seem to be about your songs. A lot of them end up on the cutting room floor, and in the case of Join the Parade, a lot of them were fan favorites. Looking at this album’s liner notes, there’s a long list of musicians who played on songs that didn’t make the cut. How do you get past feeling like “Hell, if Paul Brady showed up to play on it, I have to keep it?”

MC: You know, that’s a very interesting question, and you’re right – I am unsentimental about them. I don’t know exactly how to articulate what makes me keep something or throw something else away, but in the end, it doesn’t matter to me who plays on a song or how many fans already fell in love with it. If it doesn’t work for me, for one reason or another – whether it’s the track or my vocal – a lot of times, it could be a lovely song, but it just doesn’t work for the record I’m trying to make, and that’s really the ultimate criteria. If it doesn’t fit somehow in the overall scheme of the album – and I really look at them as albums in this age of iPod shuffling – if it doesn’t work on the album, then it doesn’t make it.

BE: You’ve never shied away from talking about your own experiences in your songs, and in the period leading up to Join the Parade, you had an experience that happened to be in the news, which makes it easy to read into songs like “Life Goes On” or “Live Out the String” – which seems like it could be a pep talk to yourself.

 MC: Yeah, and it started in an e-mail from my friend Michael Silverstone, who was in my first band – we played coffee shops together, and he ended up becoming an elementary school teacher and I just happened to end up following my muse a little bit farther. In the end, it’s really one of the loveliest things that’s happened to me, to become this sort of inadvertent collaborator with him. He wrote me this beautiful e-mail shortly after I got shot, and it sounded like nothing but poetry to me, so I immediately started writing around the line from his e-mail that opens the song: “Maybe life is curious to see what you would do / With the gift of being alive.” I thought that sounded like a song to me, so in a couple of days I had a new song with my old friend.

BE: The first single from the album is “Listening to Levon,” which references the music of Levon Helm, whose daughter Amy makes an appearance on Join the Parade. Has he heard the song? Have you spoken with him about it?

MC: I’ve only met Levon a few times – I know Amy much better. She heard the song right around the time I wrote it. I don’t know if Levon’s heard it – I don’t think he has. We’ve only just now gotten copies of the record in our hands, so I’m going to send him one.

BE: I’m continually tempted to make it out to one of the weekly concerts at his farm (Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles take place every Friday near Woodstock, NY).

MC: Oh, me too. I can’t wait to see one of those. I hear they’re great.

BE: Levon’s obviously been an influence on you, along with a few other famous names, such as Van Morrison, Neil Young and James Taylor. With the release of your live album, Live 04-05, a couple of years ago, it became really apparent just how much you’ve been able to take those influences and incorporate them into your songs organically rather than overtly.

MC: Thank you – that means a lot. The whole artistic process is about becoming yourself somehow, and interestingly enough, one of the most prevalent ways for singer/songwriters to do that is for us to take on our heroes and incorporate them somehow. I’ve never been shy about borrowing from them, either as a singer or a writer, and I think the only way you really figure out who you are as an artist is to first figure out who you love, you know, who you really are moved by, and then to some extent incorporate them, but also let them go after awhile. There are ghosts in all of us, though, and there are some you’re never going to get out of your head.

BE: Your debut album had a number of songs that offered instant gratification, but over time, you’ve shown a tendency to craft albums that take some time to grow on the listener, and Join the Parade follows that trend. Were you at all nervous, coming back from all this time off, about releasing something that might not hit the listener right off the bat with big, obvious hooks?

MC: I don’t know how to do anything other than making the record that I need to make at the moment. You know, I have all kinds of preconceived notions too, and then I get in the studio, and the record just becomes what it’s meant to be. I guess I’ve learned more and more – and this album is probably the best example so far – to just go with it. Obviously, we had a game plan – we knew which musicians we wanted, and which songs we were going to try – but once you get a bunch of really creative musicians in a room together, part of your game plan is going to go out the window, and I’ve learned more and more to just let it happen. This is very close to the record I wanted to make, but it isn’t exactly the record I wanted to make. I heard something in my head, and this is about as close as I’ve gotten. You have to let the moment live. That’s why I don’t really believe in making demos – you learn way too much about the song. You want to find out what it is while everyone else is, too – and to me, that’s one of the best things about making a record, that process of discovery.

"But marccohn.org has been such an important factor for me – you’re right, I was just out of the business for so long."

BE: You mention not really believing in demos, but obviously, there are a few out there – thanks to the magic of the Internet, fans everywhere have their own private collections. Have you given any thought to releasing a collection of songs that didn’t make it onto previous albums?

MC: Yeah, I sort of put together a B-side collection for myself, thinking Decca was going to need a lot of extra stuff, and I have to say, I was surprised by how many of them there were. And how good they were.

BE: They are good!

MC: Well, I hope you don’t have all of it! (laughs) I will release it. I just don’t know if I’ll release it through Decca or on my own, and I didn’t want to make it my fourth record. I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

BE: And speaking of the Internet, you’ve got a faithful group of fans that’s been congregating at marccohn.org for some time now. If you were re-emerging from this kind of layoff 20 years ago, your promotional path would be really different – how did knowing about your “Web presence” affect the marketing plans for Join the Parade?

MC: Well, obviously, I’m aware of them, and very grateful to them. That site has been sitting there since…I don’t know, 1994, 1995? I’m not sure. It’s been around a long time. I think the fans are aware that I’ve started my own website now, marccohn.net, and we’re trying to move the forum over there, and I think everybody seems open to that possibility that everything’s going to be central to the (dot)net site. But marccohn.org has been such an important factor for me – you’re right, I was just out of the business for so long. But between that website, and the fact that I never stopped playing live, I kept one foot in the door, and marccohn.org really helped me do that, no doubt about it.

BE: You address Hurricane Katrina more than once on this album, but you don’t do it politically, which is a different approach than many of the other artists who have written about it have taken.

MC: It’s just not the way I write, for the most part. I’m very reticent to write about politics, because 99 percent of the time when I hear other writers doing it, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have anything against it, it’s just so hard to do and still make it a good, compelling song. Jackson Browne is one of the only people I can think of – there’s a list of maybe five or six people – who can do it. I’ve tried it a couple of times, and I’m not very good it. I allude to something political in “Dance Back from the Grave” – “Somebody better build that levee / It’s already Mardi Gras at Heaven’s gate” – and you know, that’s pretty much all I had to say about this not being just a natural disaster. I didn’t shy away from it because I didn’t want anyone to know what I thought about that – I think it’s pretty obvious; who didn’t think it was a political and social disaster? – I just didn’t feel it needed to be overtly political. It actually had some verses that were political, and they just didn’t work.

BE: You’re hitting the road with a full band soon, which isn’t something you’ve done for awhile.

MC: Yeah, a six-piece band – which is like the E Street Band for me. We’ve been doing some warm-up stuff here and there, and we’ll be doing some promotional things out in Los Angeles, then come back and do the same thing in New York for about a week. The full-scale tour begins October 30 in St. Paul.

BE: It’s great having you back. Best of luck with the tour and the new album.

MC: Thanks – hopefully we’ll talk again soon!

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