Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Marc Cohn tells PopMatters 20 Questions how Ray Charles (channeled through his producer, Jerry Wexler) taught him almost everything he needed to know about singing. It’s a (not so simple) trick involving a full cup of coffee. You can hear the effect that advice has had on Cohn on his latest, Listening Booth: 1970.
Collaborating with longtime producer-arranger-multi-instrumentalist and fellow Grammy Award winner John Leventhal, Cohn transforms songs from such artists as Cat Stevens, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and even Bread into tracks that are warm, soulful, more than a little sexy and full of easy-going charm.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
WALL-E. I went to see it with my then five-year-old son Zachary, and at some point he looked over and saw that I was crying. It was a poignant moment, because I immediately realized that I wasn’t worried about him seeing my tears, my vulnerability. Someone told me a long time ago that your kids aren’t really listening to you, they’re watching you. Best thing anyone ever said to me about being a parent.
If I’m being honest though, its pop songs and commercials that make me cry. That spot that Folgers runs every Christmas where the college kid comes home and surprises his mom for the holidays is a killer. Gets me every time.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Any of those Philip Roth characters obsessed with sex and death.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Really? You expect me to answer that one? There is no such thing as the best album ever… especially since we’ll never get to hear what Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, or John Lennon would have recorded in their 50s or 60s.
But in a pinch…The Birth of Soul by Ray Charles. Or Al Green’s Greatest Hits. Or Moondance by Van Morrison. Or Night Beat by Sam Cooke. Or Paradise and Lunch by Ry Cooder. Or Sticky Fingers, Pet Sounds, Harvest, Born to Run, The Band, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Revolver, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Court and Spark, JT, I Never Loved A Man, Sail Away, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. All of them are the best album, ever.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
“Star Star” by The Rolling Stones. Although… I’d love to hear William Shatner sing it. That would be amazing. Check out his version of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. It’s on ITunes. Then listen to the Stones tune. I’m onto something, here.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Books. James Salter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, W.S, Merwin, Alice Miller… they’ve all given me ideas for lyrics. It might be a line or a word, but reading something that is beautifully written makes me want to write. Hearing a great song used to make me want to write… now it just makes me want to become a pharmacist.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proudest of helping to raise four relatively compassionate, funny, talented and tuned-in children. Because growing up in New York City, they could have all become entitled A-holes.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
See # 6. And for trying to put a little beauty and soul in the world.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The Holy Trinity; Brother Ray, Reverend Al, and Sister Mavis. Oh, and Mel Brooks.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
“Moon River” by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini or “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb, While I’m at it I’ll take Porgy and Bess, East of Eden and the Lennon-McCartney songbook.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Making the bed. I’m world class. Really. Tuna melts. Ask my kids. Roger Federer wishes he had my forehand. My imitation of King Julian from Madagascar is second to none.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
I met Jerry Wexler—the man who produced Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and too many more icons to mention—at a party when I first came to New York City in the early ‘80s. He was sitting in the corner of the room all by himself, unrecognized by everyone except me.
We started talking and he generously offered to listen to an early demo tape of my songs. He got back to me a few weeks later and basically broke my heart. He said my songs weren’t there yet and my singing was soulful but “overwrought”. I was shattered.
Then he told me something Ray Charles had told him about his own approach to singing. Ray said that when he sang, he pictured a full cup of coffee without one drop ever going over the edge. That taught me almost everything I ever needed to know about singing.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My wife. I stole her from a long line of suitors in the greater New York metropolitan area. Sorry dudes.
Photo by © Jennifer Tzar
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Don’t really love either of those choices. Hey John Varvatos, give me my discount back!
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Helen Mirren and Monica Belluci… but only if they understand in advance that we’re not going up to my room after dinner.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Cleveland, Ohio, 1962, to say a proper goodbye to my mother.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Talisker on the rocks.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
My wife, my children, music, books, dark chocolate with almonds, and Talisker on the rocks.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
My home for the last 25 years: New York City.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
This too shall pass.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’ve been hard at work on my upcoming holiday CD, A Jew For You At Christmas.