If one word could be used to describe Marc Cohn’s career, it would be measured. His last album of original material was 2007’s Join the Parade—2010’s Listening Booth: 1970 was an all-covers affair of songs from that particular year.
And while the past decade has found him getting tapped by longtime friend/mentor John Leventhal to contribute material to projects by storied Stax/Volt artist William Bell (2017’s This Is Where I Live) and legendary outfit The Blind Boys of Alabama (2019’s Work To Do), a solo Cohn album shouldn’t be expected now or in the near future.
Instead, the Ohio native is embracing having the opportunity to return to live performing by hitting the road for a run of shows to start in 2024.
While the uncertainties of the pandemic led many artists to write, record or pursue other creative pursuits, Cohn didn’t go down that path. Apprehension and concern about Covid-19 instead consumed the thoughts of this resident of New York City’s Upper West Side.
“For most of the past two and a half years, I did no touring, very little writing and very little of anything except worrying, which as a New York City Jew, worrying was the most familiar thing,” he shared. “I tried to keep myself busy with various things and tried a lot to write. But the possibility that nobody knew for a period if we’d ever get back on stage and do live music again safely was unsettling to say the least. That’s my main gig—touring. To not have that for a couple of years was bad on every level.”
Cohn’s musical journey was rather unorthodox, starting with him picking up a guitar around the age of 10 or 11 before adding piano to his repertoire when he was an 18 year old attending Oberlin College. But before that, it was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (“That was transcendent,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was looking at. I just know that I loved it.”) and being exposed to classical music via famed composer/conductor George Szell, who was also Cohn’s neighbor when he was growing up in Cleveland.
“He lived next door to us, and he had a crush on my mother,” Cohn recalled. “As a result, he gave us his box seat at Severance Hall, where the orchestra played whenever they played in town. I would go with my mother—I don’t think my dad ever came. I think he knew about the crush. I would just listen to this unbelievable classical music that I had no background in or sense of reference. That’s one of my earliest memories—going to hear an orchestra when I was six or seven. Also, listening to him play.
“He would keep the windows open and practice certain things he was going to conduct on the piano. He would have the charts all laid out. I actually wrote a song about it called ‘Maestro’ that tells this whole story. I’d listen to him play through the window because my room was sort of parallel to his practice room,” he continued.
Cohn, 64, made an early mark in his own career when he won a 1992 Grammy for Best New Artist on the strength of his acclaimed 1991 self-titled debut album and its hit single, “Walking in Memphis.” But a key piece of advice he received a while before then from a music industry titan has served him well throughout his career.
“Before I got signed to Atlantic, I remember seeing Jerry Wexler sitting in the corner at a party, and nobody knew who he was,” Cohn recalled. “I was about 19 or 20, and I went up to him and basically kissed the ring. I asked if he would mind if I sent him a demo. He said no and said I could send it to him. I never thought he’d respond, but a month or two later, I did send him something and he got back to me.
“In his gruff, wonderful voice he said, ‘Do you want a piece of advice I heard from Ray Charles?’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’ He said, ‘Your songs are good—you need to work on them a lot more, and your singing is way over the top. Ray Charles told me to always sing like you’ve got a full cup of coffee and not one drop goes over the edge.’ I took that to heart, and I’ve been trying to sing with no drops going over the edge for the last few years. When I hear people that do sing over the top, to me, that’s the opposite of soul,” said Cohn.
For now, Cohn plans to limit his singing like he’s got a full cup of java to his performances in front of live audiences.
“I’ve always been slow to get to a full record concept,” he said. “I have no other plans to be in the studio. John [Leventhal] is producing another project that I’m trying to write some lyrics for, so I do a lot of that lately. I’m trying to write stuff for other people. Mainly when John calls, I answer. After that, it’s really just a matter of touring.”
Marc Cohn performs at 8pm, Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley. As of press time, this concert has sold out.