Respect. It’s not automatic, it’s not a given and it’s not just handed to you, especially in the music business. You have to earn it, often with a lot of hard work, and if you’re lucky, a batch of outstanding talent mixed in.
There was one moment near the beginning of his now 40ish-year career, when Marc Cohn realized, well, maybe even right out of the gate, he had earned that respect, and from some of his true musical mentors, all artists who would become his friends and collaborators over the years.
“I was opening for Crosby Stills Nash in 1992, and was doing a song near the end of my set,” the gracious Cohn told me. “And I turned around and who was standing there, singing background vocals on my song? David (Crosby) and Graham (Nash), but also Jackson (Browne) and Bonnie (Raitt). I was stunned and so honored, these are people I’ve idolized and would eventually work with and collaborate with, and there they were, singing with me on my song. I will never forget that. When to comes down to it, I’m a fan of these people. Loving so many artists that I am now friends with, loving what they’ve done and then to collaborate? It’s been amazing.”
Now, that’s respect. Some of music’s biggest legends all relegating themselves to backup singers for someone who they already admired only a year after his first record, and would soon regard as one of music’s most talented song crafters. Not to mention another collaboration that would come his way later on that ranks as one of his favorites — singing “The Weight” live and eventually writing music with Levon Helm.
Since winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1991 after his self-titled debut album rendered a monstrous single with “Walking in Memphis,” Cohn has had heralded success while also enduring dark moments, most notably being shot during a 2005 carjacking that nearly killed him. But all in all, he has stayed the course, at his own pace, becoming a powerful and admired musical presence wherever he would arise, onstage or in the studio. And of course he continues to collaborate with legends, most notably on a startling new record with the Blind Boys Of Alabama, Work To Do, which was just recently released to critical acclaim, and whose title video was directed by Cohn’s filmmaker daughter Emily.
Not to dwell on it, but what happens in life matters and Cohn still has some moments when that unexpected attack rears its head. But this masterful artist has for all intents and purposes bounced back with big beautiful flying colors, and nearly fifteen years later, has retained his widespread respect, continues to make memorable music, and seems more content than ever.
“I wouldn’t say I never have some issues with it, there are remnants,” Cohn said quietly. “Like I still can’t believe that would happen to me. But I have gotten through it, and years later, life is good, I am happy and back on the road, with a new record. What actually makes me happiest though, in life, is being at home with my kids.”
Cohn’s stunningly quick rise began right after the ’91 Grammy win, which was not only a huge career booster, but a deeply personal achievement given his longtime affection for the coveted annual music awards. “As a kid, I loved the Grammys. I used to make the whole house be quiet and watch them. There was no MTV or anything then, so either you went to a live show, or you watched the Grammys to see live music. Then, to walk up and win one was, well, beyond my wildest dreams.”
In the decades since his stunning debut, Cohn has had times when he simply didn’t make music — he has only released five studio records since his ’91 debut album — preferring to sit back and take life in, and then jumping back into the mix when he felt it was the right moment to do so. “There were long periods of time when I didn’t write or record. I don’t know, maybe it was a lack of inspiration, maybe it was my personal life. But at times I would just be absorbent rather than creative. I would soak things in, and then later, let them out.”
His latest collaboration with the legendary Blind Boys Of Alabama is one that stems from a past alliance between the two, and is an experience that brings Cohn nothing but joy, and it shows in the spirit of the record and beyond. “The Blind Boys of Alabama are so versatile, they don’t just sing gospel, they sing songs about their own experiences. And being onstage with them? I see pictures of us, and I look the happiest I’ve ever been.”
And as for his wonderful lasting voice, after 40 some years it still has that deep and lush resonance — “It’s luck,” he says, “I don’t smoke, and it’s about not singing in keys I can’t quite reach” — and Cohn still has that same magic musical touch with his timeless words and his effortless sounds, all while also enjoying the coveted freedom that a long, successful, hard-working career can muster.
“I love music. I don’t know what else I would do. And another part of it is that I haven’t been tied to a label, which is liberating. I can do what I want to when I want to.”
Marc Cohn performs Thursday October 17th @ 7:30pm at City Winery, 1350 Okie St NE, Washington DC 20002. For tickets, click here.