So what do you do after winning a Grammy for Best New Artist (1991), having a mammoth hit single (Walking In Memphis) off your debut album (MARC COHN), seeing that album go platinum, and then coming back two years later with a superbly-realized set of introspective songs collected on another acclaimed work (THE RAINY SEASON)?
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Try taking four years off...
Which is not to suggest that Marc Cohn was living off the fat of his celebrity during his unplanned sabbatical. After the whirlwind odyssey that was the beginning of his career, Cohn found things unraveling on the homefront. And inside him. In the New Age parlance that he studiously avoids, he found he needed to do some work on himself. His marriage capsized. He had two young children who needed more attention than his music. And yet the music was demanding to come out.
This, after all, is one of the most personal, most introspective lyricists of his generation. To his (and our) great good fortune, he is also a craftsman par excellence, with a gift of melody and structure that hearkens back to the great American pop composers of yore and touches down in the lands of Jesse Winchester, Joni Mitchell, and Robbie Robertson as it moves along the road to today. And like his musical touchstones, he uses the song to find out who he is; and in rummaging around in his own life, he constructs a world that his listeners can recognize as their own in its moving, human qualities. Remember that his debut album was described in one account as a collection of well-observed meditations on dislocation, commitment, the quest for love, and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. Likewise, THE RAINY SEASON elicited this observation: His is a humanistic view of a world in which people find a degree of nobility in their flawed attempts to be better, to be more compassionate, to be willing to look at life with new eyes instead of falling back on old, destructive habits.
Recognize anyone familiar in there?
On BURNING THE DAZE, his third album, Cohn remains on the path he has been cutting since the opening notes of his first album. ... DAZE, though, represents his most self-revealing effort; moreover, its a statement imbued with a deep sense of spiritual longing. As the stories take shape whether it be in the funkified languor of the albums ironic opener, Already Home (ironic, because the ensuing storyline depicts a man much like Moses, allowed to view the Promised Land but forbidden from entering into it); in the dark, desperate ambiance of Lost You In The Canyon, all hard edges and scabrous guitar commentary; or in the confessions heard throughout the tender-hearted Healing Hands, with its deliberate piano chording and graceful, swelling strings underscoring the lyrics implied kinship between love and a spiritual state-of-grace we learn that Cohn is still decidedly at-large, seeking salvation, trying to understand the complex dimensions of love, struggling to know himself, sensing in his connection to the land beneath his feet and the stars above his head the moving hand of some greater force charting his souls rocky course.
Although its themes are often dark, BURNING THE DAZE represents Cohns most optimistic, uplifting work, charged throughout by the artists undaunted spirit. Ultimately, no matter how treacherous the terrain he navigates, Cohn sees a reason to believe, to go on. Its about living. Listen to the albums final track, Ellis Island. Ellis Island: where immigrants landed to begin a new life, their fears of the unknown tempered by the bright, shining opportunities they envisioned ahead. As the boat pulled off the shore/I could see the fog was liftin/And lights Id never seen before/Were shining down on Ellis Island, Cohn sings at songs end.
Those lights illuminate a new direction Cohn has charted for himself in the eleven songs on BURNING THE DAZE. Ellis Island may well close out the album, but it sounds for all the world like a new beginning.
In the following interview, Cohn discusses the making of BURNING THE DAZE (co-produced by the redoubtable John Leventhal), and the personal journey its songs represent.
This is a beginning-of-an-interview question but I'll pose it anyway: Its been four years... where have you been?
Where have I been? Well, in New York mostly, raising my kids. I hadn't been writing very much at all. I go through cycles of writing, which are usually followed by long periods of not writing, because I'm sort of digesting something about living. Its often thought of as a crime to do some living when you've got a record deal and you're supposed to be putting out product. So I took a chance... I took a chance that I would lose my audience. I wasn't intending to stop for four years. But I was going through what I was going through in my relationship and I didn't know where that was going to end up at the time. I knew it needed attention... and you cant give much attention to things like that when you're on a tour bus or in the recording studio. Basically, I would say it had to do with recognizing there was great imbalance in my life and I was trying to gain some balance.
I know you had a long-term relationship come to an end and, in your case, its complicated by the fact that there are children involved. What was on your mind as you were writing these songs? Were you trying to communicate with the other person?
It takes great courage to say something truthful to another person because there's a great risk and danger in actually getting to know them. Whether you're willing to take that risk is a question you have to ask yourself. And I believe that sometimes being willing to take that risk is dependent upon whether you feel the other person can really hear you, or can really know you. That's down to them, to some extent, too. What's their ability to take you in and know you?
After Walking In Memphis was a hit, you talked about how, as an artist, you dream about all these things your whole life, and when you finally get there, you find its really not all you thought it was going to be... because there're more important things in life. And suddenly you're on a different journey. Does this feel like a more satisfying part of the journey with this collection of songs?
I don't know yet. I don't think any collection of songs ever truly represents the fullness of what you're going through. You know, this record may have more to do with 1996 than 1997.
I can't tell yet exactly how I feel about who I am. I do feel a little more grounded. I don't feel that what I'm about is who else I can please or who else I can make happy with me. That used to be a pretty prevalent concern. And I feel that slipping a little bit, in a good way. So I do feel like I'm more apt to say something genuine, because I know just a little bit more about what's going on inside of me. This all starts to sound a bit New Agey, but screw it. I cant help it. With everything I've been through with this record, with my life, with my kids, now there's something more genuine and authentic emerging from me.
Was this record easier to make than the first? In the past, you've described the recording process in a way that makes it seem arduous, maybe painful.
I did want to make a record that was different than the other two. I know that, at my core, I'm another singer-songwriter, and yet I didn't want to make another singer-songwriter record. I wanted to expand that. Attempting to do that made this one hard. But I would say that this one was probably just as painstaking to get out... but maybe for different reasons.
We've spoken in the past about the artists that have influenced your music and writing, particularly Jesse Winchester. But I also hear things on this record that I don't believe I've heard on your other two albums. I wonder if you've been listening to other artists who might have affected the way you approach a song.
I think its an evolution. The evolution is more internal and maybe, as a consequence, I'm less shy about exploring other things. I would say Providence is probably a song I couldn't have written a few years ago. I think were constantly changing, and whether you choose to distract yourself from that or dive into those changes, one or the other of those things is going to come out in how you write. I don't think there's really been much that I feel is a new influence. I think I'm incorporating some of my older influences a little but more. I hear a lot more of The Band on this record. Saints Preserve Us in a way is a tribute to them musically. I knew from the moment I started writing that chord sequence that there was something very Band-like happening.
There's a great Dylan quote in that book of lyrics called My Life In A Stolen Moment. He's talking about growing up in Hibbing and he says, Open your ears and eyes and you're gonna be influenced, and there's nothing you can do about it. What you're hearing are those kinds of influences coming out more prominently. I don't think anybody new has changed me. Its more me that's changing.
I think a lot of what informs this record is the beginning of some kind of waking up. There were a lot of things going on in my life, from the time I was a kid until now, and I see that a lot of the turns I made and a lot of the decisions I made were done somewhat unconsciously. That's not news; that's the way it goes for most people. But when you look back on your life and realize you made some really big decisions that way, its a pretty frightening moment. I guess that some of this record is the beginning of expressing that... just the beginning. I don't know whether I'm going to run like hell from that realization or actually try to do something about it. I think I'm beginning to do something about it and maybe that's what the record says.
I hesitate to say this, but when I hear this record, it sounds to me like there's somebody in there who seems a little homeless. I realize that I really want to find a place within myself that feels restful. That's the idea of home I'm talking about. Its not really a physical place. Its hard to talk about, which is why interviews like this can be hard cause how do you put words to this stuff? For me, I guess the best thing is to write a song.
by David McGee
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