Mark Cohn. Photo by Myriam Santos Kayda.
Singer/songwriter Marc Cohn was nominated for an American Music Award in 1991. That same year he received a Grammy for Best New Artist. In 1992, he was back at the Grammy Awards nominated for Pop Male Vocalist with his song “Walking in Memphis.” He didn’t get the Grammy, but he did meet Bonnie Raitt, an artist who was to become a friend and mentor. That year they toured the southern hemisphere together and now they’re back with a U.S. tour that features songs from Cohn’s new album. Listening Booth 1970 is a collection of that year’s popular songs ranging from J. J. Cale’s “After Midnight” to “No Matter What” by the Brit rock band Badfinger. I spoke with Marc by telephone from his home in New York City, where he lives with his wife and two younger children. I began by asking what it was about the year 1970 that inspired him above all of the other fifty-two years of his life…
MC: In 1970, I was living in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and going to junior high school. I was eleven years old, and [radio station] WMMS was a big part of how I found out about new records. On Saturday and Sunday mornings they played full sides of albums that weren’t usually part of the playlist. That’s where I first heard The Band, Van Morisson, Joanie Mitchell, Jackson Browne and all the people who ultimately set me on the path I’ve been following my whole life as a singer/songwriter.
SD: I noticed you listed your membership in the Beachwood High School Gallery of Success with your Grammy Awards. Does that kind of achievement put pressure on you to top yourself?
MC: I have to say I’ve never looked at it that way. I’m exploring what grabs me in any particular moment and what I feel I need to write. I never really try to top myself, but I may be trying to be as good as the people I grew up loving. I always aspire to that level of expression.
SD: When did you leave Ohio?
MC: In 1977. I went to Oberlin College for a few years before moving to L.A., and I’ve been in New York City about 25 years.
SD: You have made a point of saying your new album, Listening Booth 1970, isn’t a cover album even though you didn’t write the songs.
MC: I suppose in the strictest sense it is a cover album because I didn’t write them. But I just knew that a blatant album of songs that didn’t have much to do with each other, besides the fact that the singer likes them, wasn’t going to interest me. Even singers I love who do classics don’t really interest me. In the end, it isn’t something I want to spend months in the studio doing. There was a great album, Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, that was a great artistic statement and a good album to listen to. But they didn’t write all the songs. The same goes for some of Bonnie Raitt’s great albums. She’s one of my favorite all-time artists and she has written some fantastic songs and interpreted some fantastic songs. The songs she didn’t write work because she infuses them with her voice, her soul and her intelligence.
SD: What holds your new album together?
MC: I had to find something besides my voice that could unify and make a record of songs that I didn’t write interesting. When I was thinking about this, there were a lot of articles being published about 1969 – it had been forty years, and people were exploring the culture of the time, the politics and definitely the music. It got me thinking how interesting it would be to explore the culture of a single year. There have been records where people have covered “Songs of the ’70s” or “Love Songs of the ’80s.” But I thought I would focus on one year and try to do a record that reinterprets those songs so listeners could experience them again for the first time. For me, it was like taking a snapshot of a specific point in time.
SD: Having made that decision, how did you settle on 1970 as your focus?
MC: I knew immediately that 1970 was the year for me. Four or five of my favorite albums of all time came out that year.To this day, they’re still important to me.
on the road with Bonnie Raitt. You mentioned her as an influence in your career. How long have you known her?
on touring and creating a great
experience with Bonnie.
at 7 p.m. in Whitney Hall. Tickets can be purchased online at kentuckycenter.org,
or by calling 800.584.7777.
SD: What are those desert island albums?
MC: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel), Moon Dance by Van Morrison, Sweet Baby James by James Taylor and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. That’s the quartet, but there’s also Let It Be, which was the end of the Beatles and the beginning of them as solo artists. Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival came out in 1970. That year also saw the first Leon Russell records, the first Elton John record, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. Joni Mitchell’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon, came out; Randy Newman’s first record was that year. All the people who ultimately defined singers/songwriters were active that year.
SD: People talk about the technologically driven changes in the music industry that started a decade ago, but music itself made a huge transition as the ’60s became the ’70s.
MC: You’re right. David Browne wrote a book, Fire and Rain, that came out almost the same time as the album. It’s the story of 1970, and it was interesting to me because, aside from all the political upheaval, we had the idealism of the mid-to-late ’60s vanishing and everybody needed a moment of quiet and self-reflection. That’s what a lot of the music that moved me provided. Now besides that, there was some really great pop music. It wasn’t particularly deep, but it was really well crafted. I explored the range with songs like “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison, one of the most poetic rock songs ever written – soulful and deep and beautiful. Then we do Bread’s “I Want to Make It With You.” I just love the idea of looking at a track list of an album that includes those two songs. I think it’s my voice and the concept of the album itself that holds them together.
SD: You obviously conceived this as an entire album. Do you usually approach a project that way? Are you trying to create your own Dark Side of the Moon?
MC: That’s a good question. The album is just the format I always think in when I begin a project. It’s the art form I grew up loving. To me, some of the best albums don’t have an explicit theme or concept. But there is something implicit that makes you know there is a reason those songs are in that sequence and a reason the artist put them together. Sometimes there is another story being told below the surface – even if it’s something you can’t articulate. The best ones for me are the albums you can get lost in from beginning to end.
SD: Yeah, they hang together.
MC: They hang together. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark or some of Stevie Wonder’s greatest records from the ’70s, and they all have some sort of inner cohesion – whether it’s in the lyrics, or the production or the singing. There’s something that just makes them a great piece of work rather than a collection of songs.
SD: Tell me about the production of Listening Booth 1970.
MC: I did this one with an old friend and amazing producer, John Levinthal. I think he’s one of the most underrated musicians and producers around. He’s done incredible albums with his wife, Rosanne Cash, and with Shawn Colvin. He’s been involved with me from the beginning. He’s a brilliant musician and a great conceptual producer. He loves doing this kind of record and was definitely part of how we arrived at this album. It was fun! We looked at a list of all the songs that came out that year, and the two of us sat in the studio for several hours a day doing very basic demos of these songs. John deserves the credit for initially finding the way into each song and reinventing it. He’s got an incredible talent for taking a song you already know and changing it in interesting ways. I followed his lead where that was concerned. After that, it was a matter of making sure the arrangement and the key – the song itself – made sense when I sang it.
SD: Now you’re out of the studio and
MC: We met exactly twenty years ago and toured Australia and New Zealand together. My first record had just come out, and Bonnie had just won a slew of Grammys. It was an amazing experience, and we immediately connected as people and as musicians. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had on the road. I’m thrilled I get to do it again with such a great friend, mentor and artist.
SD: The week before you come to Louisville, you will be playing the original home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville. Have you played there before?
MC: Never have. I’m so excited!
SD: I bet. What an incredible experience.
MC: A lot of tradition, a lot of amazing people on that stage. I just played Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks ago for the second or third time. That’s kind of the same thing. It’s known for a different tradition, but there are so many brilliant ghosts.
SD: You have a family. Is it hard for you being on the road?
MC: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for anybody who has to travel for work. The advantage for me is that when I’m home, I’m really home. I can do the school pickups and the doctor appointments and be there when most dads are “at the office.” Then when I have to go away for weeks at a time, it’s a struggle…it’s difficult for everybody. I have to say that this run I’m doing with Bonnie is the most I’ve done in a row in years. My usual rule is two, maybe three weeks at a time. I’m out with Bonnie for four and a half weeks. I work around my family, so I don’t do it unless the timing is right and the length and duration is doable for everyone.
SD: There are some constraints on you as the opening act. How do you choose your set for a given performance?
MC: It’s very flexible. I have an arc, and I know before I go on stage where I’m going to start and where I’m going to end. I know about what point I’ll switch from guitar to piano. There are certain benchmarks, but within that prearranged framework I can switch it up. That’s the only thing that makes a tour tolerable. The band doesn’t like it when every night’s the same; I don’t like it – the audience can tell. So I’m always putting in a couple of new things – new songs or a change-up in the arrangement.
SD: When do you make those decisions?
MC: It usually happens at sound check. Somebody will say, “Hey, we haven’t played this one in a while.” So we do. I’m not only up for that; I need it. This tour is a little different because it’s the first time I’ve been a “special guest.” So it’s a shorter set, and I feel like I have to get to the heart of the matter real quick. It’s a matter of picking a good representation of my records over the years and making the set itself hang together the way you want an album to.
SD: You’re playing a lot of different types of venues on this tour: Ryman Auditorium is short and tall; the Pageant in St. Louis is a big club; and Whitney Hall is a 2,500-seat proscenium. How does that affect your performance?
MC: My favorite space, still, is a packed 600-seat club with everybody right up against the stage and with a nice sound system. But there’s nowhere that I don’t like to play. You definitely do a different show in a theatre, but I can connect with the audience and that’s going to make it a good show for everyone.
SD: What are you working on now?
MC: I’ve been singing a lot on other people’s records, which has been really fun. I just did a vocal on a Jimmy Webb record. I’m on what sounds like a great album by Jerry Douglas, with lots of guest vocalists. I’ve also been asked to participate in a Broadway musical. I’m not sure how or when that’s going to take place. There are a lot of things on the back burner, but right now I’m just focused
The Kentucky Center will present Bonnie Raitt and special guest Marc Cohn for one performance only on Sunday, May 13,