Marc Cohn’s career takes long walk to Los Angeles
As he assembles playlists both for live gigs and new recordings in 2016, singer-songwriter Marc Cohn will look to his past. And why shouldn’t he? Cohn’s musical past is proving to be extremely fertile ground.
February marks the 25th anniversary of Cohn’s self-titled debut album, and the New York-based artist plans to spend the upcoming year celebrating the milestone. During his live performances, starting in late March, he will be playing the entire “Marc Cohn” album front to back, as well as releasing bonus tracks from the 1991 album that won Cohn a Grammy for Best New Artist. “Marc Cohn” contained such songs as “Silver Thunderbird,” “True Companion,” “Ghost Train” and the much-covered autobiographical hit, “Walking in Memphis.”
“I’m focusing on how to make the most of an album that I’m very proud of,” Cohn said. “It seems to have stood the test of time, so I want to take a little time to celebrate that.”
Prior to these silver anniversary celebration concerts, Cohnheads — as his fans are known — can catch the singer during his West Coast swing, including a Jan. 16 stop at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theatre. For these early 2016 shows, Cohn will be breaking out a number of songs that didn’t make the “Marc Cohn” cut. The artist wrote more than 15 songs before he signed his first deal with Atlantic Records, and upon rediscovering them recently, Cohn found the songs were of surprisingly high quality — possibly even worthy of a future album.
“I had completely forgotten about them,” Cohn said. “We went back and took a stroll down memory lane. These songs are all clearly the beginnings of me finding my songwriting voice. They’re literally lost songs and that’s probably what I’m going to call the album. Part of what I’ll be doing on the West Coast is playing songs that I’ve never played before, songs that no one has ever heard.”
Cohn’s longtime producer, John Leventhal, who played on a couple of those tracks, said he is as excited as Cohn’s fans to hear them anew.
“Marc was clearly in a fantastic zone at the time, and he was very self-critical of what he thought was worth releasing,” Leventhal recalled. “He was a phenomenal singer who could really accompany himself well. He had a really deep and refined lyric sensibility, and, of course, that voice. It’s a pretty powerful combination.”
One of the lost tracks is “Careful What You Dream.” When Cohn went through his archives and gave that song a fresh listen, he discovered he had used some of the verses for a song titled “My Great Escape” that he wrote for the 1995 movie “The Cure.”
As he recited the lyrics during an interview, Cohn reflected on what he was thinking about back in his late 20s. Although not a parent at the time, Cohn, now 56, said the lyrics now feel like words of advice from a parent to a child:
Traveling down the road tonight / Once I dreamed I was a singer / And when I woke up, I was right. / I’m most times in the darkness, / But I’m headed for the light / So dream yourself a dream, boy, / Out on the road tonight.
“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, but an ironic one, because obviously the best thing you can do is have your dream come true,” said Cohn, now a father of four. “But sometimes there’s a price.”
Having released four subsequent albums since his debut and covered a lot of miles on the road, Cohn remembers having that dream. He attended Oberlin and UCLA and played in clubs and coffee houses throughout Los Angeles before moving to New York, where he ultimately inked his first recording contract. Cohn still has many friends in Southern California, and his SoCal and New York gigs are the ones where a celebrated guest might drop in or briefly take the stage to share a number.
“I’m not saying this is going to happen when I’m there this time, but I can’t tell you how many times Jackson Browne has sat in, or David Crosby and Graham Nash. Bonnie Raitt has dropped by,” Cohn said. “They’re not only my heroes. They’re my friends, and being able to share a stage with them is remarkable.”
The West Coast tour even will include a stop at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, an engagement listed on Cohn’s website that the singer had not realized had been booked.
“I’m playing a Jewish Community Center?” Cohn said upon discovering this stop of the tour. “Wow, that’s great! I don’t think that I’ve played a Jewish Community Center since I was 15 and playing with my high school band.”
Both of Cohn’s parents were observant Jews, and his mother headed the women’s organization at The Temple-Tifereth Israel near Cleveland, Ohio, where Cohn was raised. Cohn was confirmed, but did not have a bar mitzvah.
“One of my regrets with all my kids was that I haven’t kept up the traditions that my father had us practice in our house in terms of seder dinners and going to High Holiday services,” Cohn said. “But culturally, I’m as proud as can be that I’m a Jew. My kids know that, and I would say it’s a very important part of who I am, and an important part of my work.”
He cites the climactic line of “Walking in Memphis” when the gospel singer Muriel asks him, “ ‘Are you a Christian child?’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight.’ ”
The lyric is much misinterpreted by fans who still ask if Cohn became a born-again Christian during his experience in Memphis.
“It means that every other night, I’m something else, and that is a Jew,” Cohn said. “And I actually felt really good about that.”