By Mike Greenblatt
Singer/songwriter Marc Cohn, who won a Grammy Award in 1991 as “Best New Artist,” and has remained consistently artistic throughout the seven CDs since, has uncovered some rare demos and bare-bones sketches of his most popular material to comprise the elegantly packaged double-disc “Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs And Rarities” (Becoming Gold Music). Cohn recently checked in with Goldmine about the state of his art and the 25th anniversary of his self-titled 1991 debut, an album that touches exposed nerves and has stood the test of time to be in my Top 10 all-time singer-songwriter debuts.
Goldmine:What gave you the idea to peruse the vault and come up with this naked format?
Marc Cohn: I do from 80 to 100 shows a year. Last year, I was somewhere singing songs from my first record, trying to figure out how old they were (when I wrote them). I happened to say to the audience, “Maybe I’ll tour and do that whole record.” The response was so enthusiastic, as was the response from other crowds, that it motivated me to get that kind of a tour together — which I’ve done. It’s been a blast. In fact, I’m doing another one with a full band, of every song from that album, with The Blind Boys of Alabama (as the opening act), too.
So I looked through the vault for the original demos of the more well-known songs like “Walking In Memphis” and “True Companion.” Remembering I had an old cassette tape of me playing those songs only days after I wrote them, I dug even deeper and, with the help of Ben Wisch who co-produced that first record, found them all. That comprises the second disc, “Evolution Of A Record.” It showed how that debut ended up sounding. But the main thrust of this “new” release are songs that are about 30 years old. I found 20 and went with 13, I had completely forgotten about them! I thought maybe I’d redo them but then figured no. This is an interesting document that shows the songwriting process, and how I found my voice.
GM: What is it about Memphis that conjures up some great imagery and lends itself so righteously to being the subject of songs like your “Walking In Memphis,” John Hiatt’s “Memphis In The Meantime,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and others.
MC: Memphis has a mysterious mojo. It’s an inspiring, haunting town: Elvis, Sam Phillips, Al Green, Ann Peebles, all that gospel music, man...
GM: New Orleans?
MC: Absolutely. But for me, the things I went and did in Memphis ended up being the central thrust of the song. I went there looking for inspiration, which usually means you ain’t gonna find it. But this was a rare exception. Listening to Al Green preach at his own church, then hearing this wonderful woman sing gospel songs in a room that used to house slaves, my trip was filled with magic.
GM: I must ask you about your 10-year sabbatical. Your two 1990s follow-up CDs were so damn good (1993’s “The Rainy Season” and 1998’s “Burning The Daze”) and then ... nothing. Your next all-new studio CD wasn’t until 2007’s “Join The Parade.” That’s a stretch.
MC: I was out of ideas so I simply walked away from everything. Even now, looking back, I do not think I can articulate to you the reasons why I walked away for so long. It was a mixture of anxiety and a need to stay close to my family. I had a marriage that was falling apart. I had taken long sabbaticals before, just not that long. I’m not the type of artist who can go from one great career move to the next. In fact, when you think about it, I’ve done everything in my power to lose my audience ... without that being my intention, of course. I was just trying to be present in my own life. I didn’t feel connected to my career. I told friends, “Maybe this is done for me.” Not everybody’s art and journey is the same. Just because Joni and Jackson and James and Crosby and all my other heroes went one way, maybe that’s not going to happen for me. I had no ideas and no desire to play.
GM: But you went back out on the road, almost as if to prove something to yourself.
MC: Promoters were like, “Man, it’s a long time but we’ll take a chance and book you.” So I went out on a tour with Suzanne Vega.
GM: But then you got shot and almost killed.
MC: It was in Denver, and I was coming back from a show to the hotel. There was a guy high on crystal meth trying to carjack the van. In an attempt to kill the driver, he missed. The bullet went into my left temple, right above the eyebrow, and lodged itself in the soft tissue between the face and skull. There it sat. I was conscious through the whole thing as I watched them take the bullet out. The doctor said, “You’re the luckiest unlucky bastard we ever met.” I should have been at the very least blind.
GM: So your life as a touring artist turned into an episode of “Breaking Bad.”
MC: I had to get through my post-traumatic stress by seeing a therapist. I felt totally unsafe. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and, for some reason, I could not stop writing again. Almost everything I felt, heard, read or dreamed turned into a song. So oddly enough, this harrowing, strange random event where I almost lost my life, coupled with the horror of what the people in New Orleans were going through, pushed me kicking and screaming back into my career.