Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Marc Cohn shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
As a teenager, Marc Cohn was constantly inspired by songwriters. He admired artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Randy Newman and says the art of songwriting moved him so much that he willed himself to be a songwriter.
“I wanted to learn if it was possible for me to do the same thing and have been on that journey to find out ever since,” he tell Sounds Like Nashville over the phone during a recent tour stop.
Cohn wrote his first song as an early teen. “It was about a girl, of course,” he says with a laugh. It wasn’t until he was 29 years old that he signed with Atlantic Records and later released his first album. This year, he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his debut self-titled album which included his timeless single, “Walking In Memphis.”
While Cohn has seen much success as a songwriter, it was a long journey. He says there were many times he was close to giving up. In those dark hours, it was always someone in his life that encouraged him or an opportunity arose that convinced him not to throw in the towel.
“I had people in my life that believed in me more than I did and were really very loving and very supportive and encouraged me to try a little bit harder. That was important,” he shares. “The truth is, it’s a matter of luck and fate, too. It’s not just being good. There’s a lot of good songwriters that don’t get discovered. I was lucky.”
When he was in his early 20s, Cohn moved to New York and found work as a session singer where he sang demos for other songwriters. He eventually began writing for commercials and movie scores, which kept him going financially as he continued to pursue a songwriting career.
He credits his songwriting success to putting in the hours. Much of his time was spent eating, breathing and drinking music, whether he was writing on his own, jamming with friends or listening to records.
“I would spend any time I had at a piano or a guitar or with my legal pad writing lyrics,” he recalls. “Month after month, year after year, honing my craft and trying to find my voice. It took a long, long time. Longer than I hoped.”
Cohn says it’s important for songwriters to study the people that inspire them and perhaps even imitate them for a while. Sooner or later, what makes an artist’s music resonate is when he finds what is “essentially you and not someone else.” For Cohn, it was listening to the advice of a hero of his, James Taylor.
“He gave advice in this article to songwriters who were stuck for ideas. He said, ‘Go somewhere you’ve never been. Get in the car, get on a train, take a guitar, keyboard, whatever, and go some place you’ve never been,’” Cohn recalls. “He called it a geographic. Do a geographic. His advice was that if you get out of some familiar territory, you might come up with something you wouldn’t have thought of if you just stayed at home. Go places. Open up your sensibilities. That’s what I did. That’s why I went to Memphis. I was following James Taylor’s advice. It was great advice.”
Cohn admits he would have never written “Walking In Memphis” if he didn’t travel to Memphis. Writing the song was a big moment for Cohn. He wasn’t signed to a record label at that point, but he knew he turned a corner as far as finding his songwriting voice. As he explains, he felt that there was something about the song that was essentially him as he wasn’t imitating anyone else.
“It was a wonderful beginning to my songwriting and artistic journey, no doubt about it,” he says of writing “Walking In Memphis” when he was 25 years old. “It has opened up and continues to open up a lot of doors.”
Cohn said after traveling to Memphis for the first time in 1985 he knew he had a song. During his trip, he visited Al Green’s church and met an inspiring woman named Muriel Davis Wilkins who played piano at The Hollywood. All these experiences made their way into “Walking In Memphis.” While he took some poetic license, Cohn says the song is as close to a true travel log as they come.
“In the end, that song is about the transformational power of music itself, which is why over all these years, it’s still easy to sing, because that’s still true for me,” he explains. “It resonates the fact that music is really a healing thing.”
For more of my interview with Marc Cohn, visit Sounds Like Nashville.