In 1991, Marc Cohn’s self-titled debut album blew up the charts on the strength of a single, “Walking in Memphis,” that became an instant classic. With that kind of an introduction, what is there left to do? For Cohn, the answer has been to continue writing beautiful, memorable pop songs and to keep making glorious records, of which there have now been four. The latest, Join The Parade, which came out in October 2007 on Decca, has gotten ecstatic reviews from such noted critics as Thom Jurek of allmusic.com, who wrote that “Join The Parade . . . is the strongest record [Cohn] has cut.”
While on tour with Suzanne Vega in 2005, Cohn was carjacked in Denver and took a bullet to the head. The direction of Cohn’s music today-a slightly grittier, less refined take on soul and gospel-could be seen as reflecting that experience, as well as the ostensible subject of several of his latest songs, which is the disaster in New Orleans, one of Cohn’s favorite places. The all-star cast of musicians on Join The Parade (Benmont Tench, Charlie Sexton) is supplemented by an equally illustrious group of guest vocalists, including Shelby Lynne and the Holmes brothers. It’s a great new record and ought to be the basis for a fantastic show at the Lobero Theatre when Cohn arrives on Sunday, June 15. I spoke with him recently by phone.
What kind of band are you bringing? I’ve got a quartet, with Shane Fontayne on guitar. I think this is the best band I’ve ever had. For a long time, I used to work as a duo, and with that format I would be hesitant to come out rocking, because that can be hard for two people to sustain. But with a band, it’s different, and I can experiment.
How long have you been playing together? The first tour with this group started when the record came out in October 2007 and lasted until February 2008. All told, we played more than 60 gigs. It has really brought us together.
Do you still write every day? Now that I have children, songwriting has become less a part of my daily life. It’s more cyclical at this point, where I go on for a few days and then off again. It has actually forced me to take it more seriously, and I have learned to be a better editor of my own stuff. Before, to write a song as good as what I was hearing in my head, I wrote a lot, and some of what I came up with was meaningless and inane. Now, I don’t start until I know what frame I want to put that particular picture in. I wait until an idea just invades my consciousness to the point that I can’t avoid it.
Do you get ideas from current events? Sure, although it’s maybe more subtle than that. It’s been a heavy few years, now, for all of us-Americans and Earth dwellers generally. Things are flying by every day, and if I’m alert enough to catch them, I usually know right away if I am going to be able to do something with them. When I hear some piece of a conversation, and there’s a phrase that’s sort of musical, I get a feeling that not only is this a song, but it is one that I can write. That’s the real benefit of getting older and having more experience-knowing which ideas are the ideas that will work for you.
How do you relate to your own audience and to the larger market for pop music? My struggle with the marketplace has always been one of identity. Earlier today an interviewer asked me, “How does it feel to always be the guy who wrote ‘Walking in Memphis’ and got shot in the head?” What a question! I am proud of “Memphis.” It’s my calling card. And I am happy that the new record has received such positive reviews. But honestly, at the moment, my highest priority is to play great live shows, and the most important achievement to me right now is when the shows are well-received. I try hard to read the audience, and I will even ask if they want more new songs or if they want to hear the old ones, because that should be easy for them, to connect and to hear what they came for, whatever that is.
What’s going on with the music industry, from your point of view? The music industry is changing so rapidly that I don’t think anyone has the answers anymore. The one rule that still seems to hold is that you have to play live, and you have to be good!
Are you fundamentally a soul singer? I do identify with the soul tradition very much so. Sam Cooke is at the top of my pantheon. I even name-check a lot of singers who have influenced me in my songs. Levon Helm, Elvis, Sam Cooke-they are in there.
Jacalyn Kane Productions presents Marc Cohn at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 15. For more information or tickets, visit lobero.com or call 963-0761.