By Emily J. Weitz
Marc Cohn doesn’t always know when inspiration is going to hit, but the Grammy award winning singer-songwriter does his best to pay attention when it does. That’s how he ended up with songs that tell stories and that have the ability to form the soundtrack to our lives.
“I am a writer,” said Mr. Cohn. “That’s the main part of what I do. I’m a singer too, but self-expression, for me, is writing little chapters in my ongoing book, which happens to be made up songs.”
“The Things We’ve Handed Down” (1993) synthesizes a lifetime into a few short verses, a few simple chords. But if there was a simple formula to how it’s done, he’d do a lot more of it.
“It’s largely an unconscious process,” said Mr. Cohn. “You just have to be available to it, to have your antenna as finely tuned as possible and hope for an idea that resonates. It’s a matter of instinct.”
A great song, he says, is something that’s deeply personal but resonates universally. He recalls Paul Simon’s words, that “Bridge over Troubled Water” resonated like a gospel.
But as much as Mr. Cohn strives to be available to the moment when the gospel sounds in his mind, he’s a father of four and can’t always drop everything to capture the inspiration.
“I’ve probably missed out on some songs,” he said, “but there’s nothing more important than raising my kids. So I’ll take that tradeoff.”
Mr. Cohn’s most recent studio album, “Listening Booth: 1970,” came out in 2010. It was an inspired idea: to take a snapshot of a year and re-interpret ten songs that came out that year.
“I chose that year,” he said, “because I could name ten albums that came out that year that were not only huge for me when they came out, but are still some of my favorites of all time.”
The initial vision evolved, though. Some of his absolute favorites didn’t make it onto the album because he didn’t feel they lent themselves to being covered.
“We tried ‘Sweet Baby James’,” he said, “and ‘After the Gold Rush.’ But some things so belong to an artist that there’s no touching them. It was an interesting lesson.”
There were so many choices from 1970 that there was no problem finding a wide swath of favorites. They ended up with covers of The Grateful Dead, Cat Stevens, John Lennon, and Bread on the same album.
“The music you hear when you’re around 11 or 12 gets in pretty deep,” said Mr. Cohn. “That’s a big part of why these songs mean so much to me.”
At his shows these days, Mr. Cohn is including a few of these covers in his lineup. He just wrapped up a tour with Shawn Colvin, and they ended lots of the shows with Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Mystic.’
“It’s a great way to end a show,” he said.
But Mr. Cohn hasn’t let the covers take over his creative space. He’s writing a lot of original material now, too, working on other people’s projects. He recently wrote a song, “The Coldest Corner in the World,” which will be the end song of a documentary called “Tree Man,” which will be released soon. The only direction he had for the song was to do something that had to do with the holidays, something wintery. He didn’t watch the documentary prior to writing the song.
“The director didn’t give me too many parameters,” said Mr. Cohn. “What doesn’t work in a movie is if you’re dealing directly with a subject. You don’t want it to sound contrived.”
When I interviewed Mr. Cohn in advance of his upcoming show at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC), I had to tell him how deeply “The Things We’ve Handed Down” had nestled into my life. I sang it to my unborn child throughout my pregnancy, then to my grandmother at her 99th birthday celebration. It’s the kind of song that feels like the perfect song in so many different settings. The singer’s voice shook when he responded,
“That means so much to me,” he said, and agreed it was a favorite of his, as well. “It’s an unusual subject, an unusual idea. About the generations and generations, and what our kids carry come from some place that we can’t remember. It’s terrain most songwriters haven’t walked.”
Marc Cohn will play at WHBPAC on Saturday, August 1 at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit to www.whbpac.org or call (631) 288-1500.