Marc Cohn didn’t stroll off into the sunset after ‘Walking In Memphis’

By Lee Zimmerman

Don’t refer to Marc Cohn as a one-hit wonder. Yes, his song “Walking in Memphis” immortalized him for radio listeners everywhere. Yes, it won him a Grammy. And, yes, the song established him as an artist of a certain standing, the kind who can be counted on to create great albums that play together as a whole. But Cohn has had a fruitful career that spans more than 20 years and much farther than the bounds of fame, fortune and a single hit.

Marc Cohn early promo photo

Marc Cohn says he was honored to play at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding in 1986 — five years before his debut album. He scored the gig because Carly Simon heard Cohn’s band was playing, she brought Kennedy along and urged her to hire the band.

Cohn’s life hasn’t been an easy one. He was orphaned at an early age, but overcame his hardship by teaching himself to play piano and guitar. In 2005, he was shot and nearly killed in a carjacking attempt after a concert in Denver, an incident that traumatized him and forced him to reassess his place in the world, both as an artist and as an individual. These days, however, he’s back to entertaining audiences with his songs and stories, plying his craft with the subtlety and sensitivity that’s become his stock in trade.

GOLDMINE: Give us an update on what you’re up to now. What’s new in the way of touring, recording and other activities?
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.

GM: You’re on that new Jackson Browne tribute album.  
MC: Yes, I’m on a track on that, and I’ve been singing with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. She sang with me during my show and I sang with them during her show. I did the Jackson record with a bunch of great people, which is a thrill and an honor, and I sang one of my favorite Jackson songs, “Too Many Angels.” And obviously, it’s always great to be in the company of [Bruce] Springsteen, [Don] Henley and that club. There’s a lot of good stuff going on.

GM: You started your career singing demos for some very famous songwriters like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Jimmy Webb. What kind of impact did that have on your songwriting trajectory?
MC: 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 who write great songs and make great records. Sometimes it’s hard to get both, but that’s what I learned from them.

GM: What made you want to pursue music and make that a career?
MC: I didn’t have any other choice. I just didn’t have a choice. This is 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, 3 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. It’s the thing that I was obsessed with for as long as I can remember — making records and writing songs.

Marc Cohn 1991 LP

The smash hit “Walking In Memphis” appeared on Marc Cohn’s eponymous 1991 album.

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

GM: 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?
MC: 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 wasn’t 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 “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.

GM: 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 rewriting the same song to keep the hits coming? Does it raise expectations?
MC: 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.

GM: You were shot 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?
MC: Well, it was a shocking situation and I had to go through some post traumatic stress for awhile. 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.

GM: Yet it must have had an incredible effect on your psyche.
MC: 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. Several months after this — not even,  maybe several weeks, and Hurricane Katrina 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.

Marc Cohn publicity photo courtesy MarcCohn.net

Marc Cohn cares more about musical integrity than chart hits. “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,” the singer-songwriter says. Publicity photo courtesy MarcCohn.net.

GM: There aren’t a lot of great songs that have the singer saying how cheery he feels. Heartbreak is kind of a necessary element.
MC: Exactly. That’s the great Neil Young quote. He was asked, “Why do your songs sound so somber most of the time?” He said, “Because when I’m in a great mood, I don’t want to ruin the moment and write a song.” He’s absolutely right.

GM: So what can we expect from a Marc Cohn concert nowadays?
MC: 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.

GM: So you’re planning a new album …
MC: Yes. It’s so funny. I’m just starting to write, and I’m already getting calls from some labels. The timing has been strange. So that’s what you want. But who knows? I might put it out myself. That’s what a lot of people are doing anyway. We’ll see. But just being back in the swing of writing is the most important part. It feels fantastic.

GM: Are you previewing any new material in your show?
MC: I am. I’m going to play one of the new songs on this tour. I put it right after “Walking in Memphis” in the set, so there’s a little bit of juxtaposition — the big hit and the new one back-to-back.

GM: Out of curiosity, has the city of Memphis ever recognized you in any way?
MC: They have. They were very sweet back in the day. I can’t remember if they gave me a key to the city or some kind of plaque after I played a show in a theater there, and since then, they’ve asked me to present in the rhythm and blues hall of fame there, and I think they even offered some kind of award, which I couldn’t attend because I think I was on the road. They’ve been fantastic. And I just played Memphis for the first time in a while with Bonnie Raitt, and that was one of the great nights of my career. David Porter was there, who wrote all those great hits for Isaac Hayes; Keb Mo got up and sat in with Bonnie and me … It was just a great, great night of music. And, of course, to be able to sing “Walking In Memphis” with that crowd is transcendent.

GM: When you’re honored in Memphis, you’re in some good company.
MC: I know. Those musicians and singers and players and writers are some of the best that have ever been. And David Porter: Talk about an unsung hero. He was responsible for so many great songs.

GM: Speaking of trivia: Didn’t you perform at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding?
MC: Well (laughs) … that was impressive. I love Caroline. She’s been really sweet to me over the years. Again, that was a gig I played way before I had a record deal. I had a band I was playing with in New York City, and Carly Simon came and heard the band, brought Caroline with her, and told her she should have me play at her wedding. And again, that was years before I got signed. Carly actually helped me get signed. She was touting my name around town and helped tremendously back then. And Caroline sent me one of the loveliest notes I received after that shooting. It was pretty incredible to get a note from her about that. I don’t see her very often, but playing that wedding was an honor. But musically, not quite as deep as playing with Bonnie Raitt … GM

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