In 1991 when “Walking in Memphis” was breaking nationally, it was getting airplay locally on WMMS. For singer/songwriter Marc Cohn, a Beachwood native, it was a victory that had been a long time coming, as he scored his first hit with the track, which eventually peaked at number 13 on the Billboard charts and it was certainly a thrill getting the airplay on the hometown radio station that had meant a lot in his formative years.
But it wasn’t Cohn’s first appearance on the ‘MMS airwaves — that had happened more than a decade earlier when he appeared in-studio in 1977 for a performance on the Coffee Break Concert shortly after his 18th birthday, from Beachwood High School. It was early in the hour-long set when Cohn told host Len “Boom” Goldberg during an interview segment, “If this hour is looking for hits, this would be the hit of the hour,” as he introduced his song “Closer To the End.”
Cohn explains how the performance on WMMS came about.
“I was an unrelenting pest to the program director for my entire senior year in high school,” Cohn recalls with a hearty laugh. “I wanted to be on that show so badly that I just think he gave in. I just kept calling and calling and sending demos. He finally just gave in and let an unsigned artist [do the show]. Frankly, when I listen to that show, I feel like I was completely undeserving of the airtime, but he was very generous about it and that was an incredible step for me.”
“Closer to the End” has such an impressive amount of depth that you might be surprised to learn that it came from the pen of such a young songwriter. Cohn is appreciative of the praise regarding some of the early material, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree.
“I have to say that I’m completely embarrassed by the fact that that thing is out there circulating. There’s just nothing redeeming about it when I listen to it,” he admits. “But I guess it’s also true that by the time I was that age, I had been through a lot and maybe some of that comes through.”
Cohn points to the early events in his life that led him down the musical path. “Cleveland is also a place where a lot of really sad, tragic things happened in my early life,” he says. “I lost my mom when I was two, I lost my dad when I was twelve, so yeah, those definitely were important events that led me to even want to be a songwriter, right? It starts with a need to get something figured out. I certainly had a lot to try and figure out. Songwriting was one way that I did that. I think that’s what really drew me to the songwriters that I loved. I knew what it was like to have something to get off my chest, really, you know, to try to express and I could tell that’s what was happening in those songs that I loved.”
He found a love for music and the stories and characters that lived within the songs. There was something for everyone to be found inside and all you had to do was listen.
“Sometimes, you didn’t even have to know what the story was — it didn’t have to be explicit, but you could tell that there was something really deep that was trying to be conveyed. Sometimes it was so personal that it ended up being quite universal and a lot of the singer/songwriters that I loved, that was true. But yeah, I had been through a lot for an 18-year-old, so probably to some extent, some of that came across that I had something I was trying to figure out. And I did — I had a lot that I was trying to figure out and songwriting has always been a way for me to do that.”
Cohn had started out on guitar, but by the time he went to school at Oberlin, he felt like he “had hit a wall as far as writing songs on guitar.” He was drawn in by the “80 or 90” practice rooms at the conservatory, each of which had a Steinway piano inside. He had never played piano before, but he saw a fresh opportunity. “I was just more interested in what I could do as a writer on a different instrument,” he says.
“I was aware of Jackson [Browne] especially and Joni [Mitchell], who each wrote amazing songs on either instrument. You know, they weren’t famous for which one they played — they were just famous for being incredible songwriters who could write on both instruments. So I found that very appealing and I was interested in whether that would open any doors for me, playing another instrument and it did. It really helped define my sound.”
By the time he released his self-titled debut album in 1991, he had been battling so long for a break that he went into the experience feeling fearless about his chances, even though he was putting out an album that stylistically, as a singer/songwriter writing emotional songs, might have made him a man out of time in the developing era of grunge.
“I was just so thrilled to have a record deal and to be in a recording studio with players trying to figure out how to make our songs into records,” he says. “I’m not even sure it went on my radar. I was just so happy that I had some sort of recording fund and that I could finally find out what this process was all about. It was something that had fascinated me for so long. Now that I was getting my chance to make a record, it just wasn’t on my radar. All I was aware of at the time was that the deal said that if you sell 50,000 records, we’ll let you make a second one. That’s all I cared about.”
More than two decades later, Cohn continues to come home periodically to Cleveland to play shows and says it’s always a lot of fun to see familiar faces. He’ll be back in town this week for a show at the Music Box Supper Club, part of a few one-off shows that he describes as “a way for me to get back out there and stay in shape” as he gears up for a larger amount of touring next year.
He’s also working steadily on material for a new album, although those plans have gotten sidetracked a little bit — his longtime friend and associate, producer John Leventhal, recently enlisted his services to write songs for an album that he’s been working on with soul singer William Bell, well-known for writing songs like “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” and “Born Under A Bad Sign.” Cohn welcomes the diversion, explaining that Bell “embodies so much of the music that I grew up loving but haven’t really explored in my own music as much as I would like.”
He calls the collaboration a “perfect fit” and says that in the long run, working with Bell might finally help him to cross that bridge in his own career, “to make sort of a singer/songwriter record that has more emphasis on groove and vibe.”
Fans will have to wait a little while to hear the results of where Cohn’s heading — he says “I’m still writing, but I’m not even close to being finished.”
Marc Cohn, Rachel Brown, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $38 ADV, $42 DOS, musicboxcle.com.