Soul Man

Marc Cohen has blended genres during his 30-year career

Early in his career, Grammy Award-winning artist Marc Cohn reached listeners around the world with his hit song “Walking in Memphis.” His drive to keep creating meaningful music, with other musicians who inspire him, continues to motivate him decades later. 

Cohn will perform his R&B-, blues- and gospel-inspired style of music at the Canyon at the Rose on Thursday, April 16. He will even take requests from the audience and share stories about the songs he’s singing.

“It’s usually a very intimate, very off-the-c-uff show that involves a lot of storytelling and songwriting,” Cohn says.

Even then he’s a bit coy. He tries to still leave his songs open for interpretation because he has found that audience members respond to them in different ways.

“I’m often hesitant to say too much because what’s really important is what does it say to them?” Cohn says. “That’s why I don’t say too much about what it’s about. I just like to tell stories about how the first spark of inspiration comes.”

During live shows, he and his band change up the music to keep older songs, such as “Walking in Memphis,” fresh for him and the audience.

“I don’t play my songs exactly as they are on the record. It doesn’t interest me to do that. Those arrangements of old songs are constantly evolving. That’s what keeps me engaged and I hope the audience engaged,” Cohn says.

Concerts also allow him to play some of his more obscure songs.

“That’s a big part of what motivates me to tour. I think I have an interesting catalog of songs, so I’m always anxious to play those, along with the ones that everybody comes to hear,” Cohn says.

Starting out in his career, Cohn produced a number of albums in the 1990s before taking a break from recording from 1998 to 2007.

He came back with “Join the Parade,” an album which featured a song called “Parade,” which was inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina and his near-fatal shooting during a carjacking in 2005.

In 2016, during the 25th anniversary of his self-titled platinum album, Cohn released “Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities,” a collection of unreleased material from before he was signed.

In recent years, he has been writing for, working with and touring with musical greats such as Bonnie Raitt, Patty Griffin, Graham Nash, William Bell, Michael McDonald and David Crosby.

For his most recent album, “Work to Do,” Cohn collaborated with the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. The album, which he describes as a “pop record infused with gospel quartet sound,” contains live recordings with him and the group, new songs from Cohn and an old gospel song he reworked to fit his own sound.

The Blind Boys of Alabama is a group that he grew up listening to and admiring.

“It’s the best part of what I do. I’ve had collaborations with some of my biggest heroes, and they are among them,” Cohn says.

He is in the early process of writing songs for his next record and will occasionally throw those tracks in his set.

As a musician, Cohn is best known for his piano, but he started out as a guitar player with his first band in junior high. He says from an early age, he was inspired by music on the radio and found he had a natural ability to write music.

“I had a certain skill set even when I was young, and I followed my passion,” Cohn says. 

He now has a regular lineup of musicians that he has performed with for five years or more.

Playing with an established lineup allows him to change up the arrangements and to continue to evolve as a musician.

“Every time you step on stage, you have a chance to learn something new, and I do about 100 shows a year,” Cohn says. “By the end of those 100 shows, I’ve learned something about my own musicianship, my relationship with the band, my songs, what works and what doesn’t work, how to make a good show, what the arc of it should be, how do I improve that, how do I take care of my voice.”

Cohn doesn’t try to stick to one genre. Instead, he writes and performs songs with something meaningful to say.

“I’m drawn to something that sounds real and authentic. Whatever category that is in is irrelevant to me. Artists like Bon Von Wheelie, Jackson Browne and James Taylor that are making records that sound as good today as they were 50 years ago because they are such authentically honest writers and performers, that’s the music I’m talking about, whether it’s from a rock band, a pop star, a singer-songwriter or an old blues man,” Cohn says.

Many of Cohn’s fans are longtime listeners who know most of his music, including some of his lesser-known material. Cohn tries to reach his dedicated fans as well as new listeners during his concerts.

“The best thing for me is to see people bringing their kids along. They’ve grown up with the music. It’s spanning generations now, which is a wonderful thing,” Cohn says.

As a family man with two grown children and two teens, Cohn has a busy life. He continues to tour regularly, with breaks in between, because of his continued passion for writing and performing music.

“It’s a gift to do what you love, and that’s what I do,” Cohn says.