MARC COHN  -  THE STORY IN THE SONG

Listening to singer/songwriter Marc Cohn’s music is easy: You’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller. From his self-titled, GRAMMY-winning 1991 debut—which featured the hit “Walking in Memphis”—to 2010’s Listening Booth: 1970, a collection of covers ranging from Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” to the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” Cohn’s distinctive voice and nuanced delivery capture and hold your attention until the last note fades away.

But for the teller of the tales, the process is a little more demanding.

“I feel like I’m constantly in the process of trying to start a new record,” Cohn says. “It really involves a lot of patience and absorption. Often I’m just waiting for the right frame to put a certain picture in. And I never know how or when that’s going to happen.”
The goal, he says, is to make a detailed, deliberate process seem spontaneous. “It has to come from something organic. If I sit and try to consciously write a song about something, it always sounds contrived. And what I’m looking for is just the opposite of that.”

“MUSIC WAS LIFESAVING FOR ME. I WAS SO MOVED BY CERTAIN SINGERS AND SONGWRITERS, I ESSENTIALLY WILLED MYSELF INTO THAT WORLD.”

And for better or worse, some of the best songs come from times of emotional upheaval. “The kind of stream-of-consciousness thing that sounds most authentic is often inspired by some sort of crisis,” he says. “It’s like that Neil Young quote: When someone asked why some of his songs are so sad, he said, ‘Because when I’m happy, the last thing I want to do is interrupt the moment and write a song.’”

Cohn grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in one of pop music’s greatest eras, listening to legends like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Jackson Browne. “There’s a certain age where you’re most moved by art,” he says. “And the music I heard as a kid is still the music I love most—but I would also argue that it’s some of the best music ever made.”

marcHe recalls feeling especially moved by songs like Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” as performed by Glen Campbell, or Chip Taylor’s “Angel of the Morning,” sung by Merilee Rush.

“I had no idea what they were quote-unquote ‘about,’” he says. “It didn’t matter. It was only 30 years later that I listened back to ‘Angel of the Morning’ and realized it was about a woman walking home after a one-night stand. At seven years old, I definitely wasn’t processing that. I thought it was a song about my mother, who had just died. Music was lifesaving for me. The records I heard when I was a kid provided an escape and a destination point. I was so moved by certain singers and songwriters, I essentially willed myself into that world.”

Fortunately, Marc had the talent as well as the will. He started picking out songs on guitar at age eight and soon began writing his own music. “I already could sing,” he adds. “By the time I was 10, I had sort of a distinctive sound. And I just followed my own path.”

After teaching himself piano at Oberlin College, Cohn’s songwriting skills blossomed alongside his vocal chops. He moved to NewYork and began singing on a variety of projects—including song demos for musical heroes like Jimmy Webb and songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Meanwhile, he kept writing his own songs, eventually signing a deal with Atlantic.

The success of his first album, propelled by the hit single “Walking in Memphis,” took everybody by surprise. “I wasn’t prepared for it all,” Marc recalls. “It didn’t sound like anything else, which I think helped. There was a lot of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston on the radio at that time. So this fragile little piano-based narrative was just very different. All I care about is that it touches someone else on a personal level. I think the best songs do that. They start out as a very personal statement, and for reasons you really can’t identify, they resonate.”

These days, Marc often turns to his Yamaha U1 Silent Piano (MIDI Piano) in search of new stories to tell. “The regular acoustic piano sound is very warm, with a little bit of brightness to it, and the touch and action are really nice,” he says. “And living in NewYork City, it’s fantastic to be able to plug in a pair of headphones and play. It switches to a digital piano sound, so I can play it at four in the morning if I want to, but it still feels like my piano.”

Cohn also tours frequently, often sharing the bill with such notable singer/songwriters as Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, and Jackson Browne. “It’s an incredible thing to have an early hero become a mentor and then a friend,” he says. “I’ve gotten to meet so many great artists and befriend them. I did 60 to 90 shows with Bonnie on her last tour, and each one was a master class. And someone like Jackson Browne—he’s not only been a fantastic mentor, but there’s something about his particular style that really resonates. The focus of what he does is really the poetry of it.”

And it’s the same for Marc’s own music. “What’s the story? Where’s the poetry in this? To me, that’s always the motivating factor in songwriting,” he says. “Then trying to find music that’s simple enough, but compelling enough to go along with those words. It’s a very organic, non-academic approach. And it’s never really changed.”