Listening Booth 1970: A Conversation With Marc Cohn

07/30/2010 12:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


A Conversation With Marc Cohn

Mike Ragogna: Listening Booth: 1970 is a concept album that compiles your favorite--and many would feel greatest--songs from that year.

Marc Cohn: That's basically it. It's a record of my favorite songs from 1970, and exactly 40 years ago, all these songs came out.

MR: And every one of these songs is seminal.

MC: My producer John Leventhal and I sat in the studio and went through all these amazing tunes. It became clear to me that these were great songs, but it was really the beginning of when I decided I wanted to be a musician. Because for me, not for everyone, but definitely for me, 1970 was the beginning of the Golden Age of the album. Especially when it came to singer-songwriters, and it was still the golden age of the single. There was so much range to the music that year. There were these deeply soulful records like Moondance from Van Morrison, Sweet Baby James by James Taylor, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel...I mean the list goes on and on and on. Tea For The Tillerman by Cat Stevens...lot's of great singles like "Tears Of A Clown" by Smokey Robinson.

MR: And if you look back at that year purely from the classics introduced that have stayed in the culture, it's obvious 1970 was musically an important year.

MC: The most interesting and compelling thing that I realized was that 1970 was the year that The Beatles broke up. Yet, that year, John, Paul, and George each essentially put out solo records and became solo singer-songwriters. So, this was just a fascinating transitional time in a way, but also for me being about 11 years old and completely predisposed to music. It was the beginning of me really falling in love with records and albums and becoming obsessed as a fan. I was a little kid dreaming to find a way to make that a career, and that was the music that started me on that path.

MR: What went into choosing the songs for this new album?

MC: Well, once we decided to choose the songs from this great year, 1970, which was hugely influential for me and a lot of other people, mostly centered around a quartet of records. Moondance by Van Morrison, After The Gold Rush by Neil Young, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, Sweet Baby James by James Taylor, and a whole slew of other albums and singles. My producer and I went into the studio and started playing down a bunch of these songs and we had really two main criteria. One, we thought we could bring something fresh to the tune, something that was unusual and a different approach. And second, that nobody had covered it in a while so that it would not have been something that had been done or redone recently. Those were the two main things and once we had those criteria we went until we had 12 to 14 songs that we thought would make an interesting record.

MR: A lot of people remember the original mid-tempo version of "Wild World" by Cat Stevens, but you've rearranged it as a shuffle, and you've changed the tempos of and approaches to almost all of these songs.

MC: Well, the other thing I was really sort of going for on this record--besides finding these songs from 1970--was that I felt we could do something interesting with them. I was influenced by a lot of records by people like Sam Cooke. He came out with a record called Night Beat which a lot of people don't know. It has this very cool, laid back, late night, unforced kind of feel. I was really trying to go for that as well. I was really trying to let this record sound good on a Sunday morning or a Saturday night, but a relaxing Saturday night; (laughs) one where you could really just sit back and listen to the whole thing without feeling intruded upon. It would sort of draw you in. I really like records that can set a mood like that. So, that was part of what we were going for too. Once we found that the laid back approach was working on certain tunes, we by-and-large kept it on almost all the tracks except for one or two.

MR: Do you have any revealing stories about any of the songs on this album?

MC: You know, I think "The Letter" was a very pivotal track for me. We only cheated chronologically on this great song because the original version of it was done by The Box Tops, a great pop band from the '60s. Alex Chilton was the lead singer of that group who later went on to sing in Big Star. A great Memphis musician, in fact, who recently just passed away. But that original version came out in '67. Then another enormous version came out in '70 by Joe Cocker, and my producer and I loved that song so much. We felt like that laid back approach would really work on this tune. So, we made a little bit of an exception.

The original version wasn't from 1970, but one of the biggest covers is. It just felt great while we were cutting it. We found out that Alex Chilton passed away, so it was kind of a bittersweet experience recording it. But I'm really happy it's on the record even though '67 is the original version, it's a great song written by a guy named Wayne Carson Thompson. I think the only other hit that guy had was "Always On My Mind," but those are like two huge towering songs. I really dig our version a lot; it has that feel, and I think it really works well with that song.

MR: Wayne was a part of that American Recording crew.

MC: I don't know as much about him as I know about Alex the singer of the tune, but I think you're right.

MR: And now it's time we get to your mega-hit "Walking In Memphis." What's the story behind it?

MC: That came about in a strange way. It was the late '80's when I wrote it, and I was a struggling songwriter at the time. I was trying to get a record deal and living in New York at the time. I happened to come across this interview with James Taylor, and they were talking about what he did to circumvent writers block when he experienced it. He was one of my all time early heroes, and he said take a train, or a plane, or get in your car, or go somewhere you've never been before. Sometimes, not always, your sensibilities may be shaken-up enough by the unfamiliarity of the place that you may start writing a tune that you never would have written before.

I thought that was a pretty interesting suggestion, and the first place I booked myself a ticket to was--because so many of my musical heroes came from there--Memphis. It turns out I didn't have to take the other trips I planned because that trip turned out so well (laughs).

It was an amazing experience going there, and I think the centerpieces of that song are just verbatim recounting of what I did there. An example is in the bridge where I say, "Reverend Green be glad to see you if you haven't got a prayer." Reverend Green, in the tune, is Reverend Al Green, the great soul r&b legend. He has a church in Memphis, and almost any Sunday morning he is not on tour, you can go listen to him sing and preach. I'm a Jewish kid, but man, when I went to hear him sing in that church, I almost felt converted. Tears were streaming down my face, and it was an incredibly moving experience.

The other thing that happened was I went to this roadside shack called The Hollywood Cafe just outside of Memphis. I heard the woman I talk about in the third verse--Muriel, a real lady who was about 65 years old--playing these incredible gospel songs and standards. I ended up going onstage and singing with her and she changed my life. I went back home and those few days I spent in Memphis turned into that song. Really, it's just a travel log of everything I had done while I was there.

MR: I remember playing that song to my godson who, at the time, was 9 years old. He listened to it, and afterward, he went to his room. I didn't know if he was upset or not because it was a slow song or something. When he came out of his room, it turned out he had written a song. It was a really sweet thing to watch, your song inspiring a kid to go his room and write a song after hearing "Walking In Memphis."

MC: Man, that's one of the best stories I've ever heard about somebody being impacted by that song because that just reminds me of me. You know, I'm doing this record and we are talking about songs from Listening Booth: 1970 based on the impact of music that I heard when I was 10 or 11. The fact that music you hear when you're at that age cuts you the deepest and stays with you the longest was true for me, and that sounds like it was true for the little guy you played my tune for. I mean, that's what made me want to be a musician, having that impact that the deepest music has on you when you're young. That's a beautiful story, I can completely relate to it.

MR: Thanks. So, John Leventhal basically produced this latest project with you?

MC: He produced this new record that's about to come out, and he was involved as a musician from the very start with my first record. He played bass on "Walking In Memphis," and guitar on the rest of that record, but I immediately knew that he was more than a hired hand. He has a brilliant musical mind, and he ended up co-producing The Rainy Season and co-produced my third record, Burning The Days, but I didn't work with him on Join The Parade. I did that with another great musician named Charlie Sexton in 2007, but we came back together to do this record. Listening Booth... is as much John Leventhal's record as it is mine. He's playing almost every instrument except for the drums on almost every track. He is really a remarkable guy. He's married to Roseanne Cash who he also produces. And he won a Grammy for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for co-writing and producing "Sunny Came Home" with Shawn Colvin. So, he's a great musician who's sort of the best kept secret in the music industry. If everything was just, he would be one of the greatest names in record production because he is truly, truly brilliant and I'm proud to have a partnership with him.

MR: When you were recording these tracks, were you ever worried about reinterpreting songs a little too much since we all have the original versions ingrained in us?

MC: Yes. To me as a listener, I only want to hear a cover or a new interpretation if it's remarkably different. For me, it's like what's the use of doing something that was initially brilliant and well known if you don't have anything to bring to it. So, that was really my attitude about that as a listener. With two of the tunes, I really had this struggle with myself, songs like "Into The Mystic" and "The Only Living Boy In New York." Those two songs are huge for me and so important in my development as a musician and a music fan. I really was worried about approaching those songs in particular. But when we were done with "The Only Living Boy In New York," I thought our version was so different and still very relevant and it brought out another angle in the tune. I felt very good about that version.

"Into The Mystic" was a little more difficult because, to me, it comes from one of the best albums of all time, Moondance. "Into The Mystic," as a track, is just transcendent. I listen to that and it's miraculous. I've been singing that live on and off for 20 years because I love it so much, and I think we came up with a different approach that I thought was interesting.

MR: You bravely make a couple of offbeat song choices such as The Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie." That was very clever.

MC: Thank you. The thing to me that was fun about making this record--and I think the thing that will be fun for the listener whether they really tapped into 1970 or not--is the range. If I saw a record with a bunch of tunes that go from Simon & Garfunkel to Cat Stevens to Paul McCartney to Bread to The Grateful Dead, I would buy the thing because it sounds like utter folly. But I think the way we approached these tunes and the fact that I'm the singer on all of them, there's the thread that runs through it that makes them all hang together. I think it's also a fun record to listen to because of all of that range of music put side by side.

MR: What is your advice to new or young singer-songwriters?

MC: Somebody said to me a long time ago make sure it's something you have to do because there are so many talented people that are not only talented, but motivated and driven. That's the one thing that's been clear to me as I've had my own career and I have watched other people. Some are my heroes and some people are younger then me. There's a book that just came out that has something to do with talent being overrated. Basically, it's just saying that the people that really make it, they have talent, but they mostly have a lot of drive. And I've been watching Springsteen my whole life and people like Neil Young and younger guys like Thom Yorke. These are geniuses in terms of their musical ability, but they work harder than anybody else, and I think you just have to be prepared to work really, really hard. There's a lot of fun in having a career in music, but you have to have a certain amount of drive, and that's what separates the boys from the men in the end.

MR: Recently, I had a conversation with Adam Levine from Maroon 5 who said the same thing: "Be prepared to work your butt off."

MC: It's good advice, it really is. I think now with the Internet, we're a culture based on success and getting the fruits of success. I think a lot of kids miss the part of getting the fruits from labor. Maybe you get lucky and you have a year in the spotlight, but if you've been around for 5 years, you're working, trying to figure out how to do this. So yeah, that's really what it's about, and being good is important but there is a lot more to it.

(transcribed by Theo Shier)

1. Wild World
2. Look At Me
3. Maybe I'm Amazed
4. Make It With You - with india.arie
5. The Letter
6. The Only Living Boy In New York
7. After Midnight
8. The Tears Of A Clown - with Kristina Train
9. No Matter What - with Aimee Mann
10. New Speedway Boogie - with Jim Lauderdale
11. Into The Mystic
12. Long As I Can See The Light

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