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Sublime Introspection: An Interview With Chris Cohen

Chris Cohen pic by Ebru Yildiz
23 June 2019

Photo by Ebru Yildiz
Chris Cohen’s songs initially sound easy. They’re each tiny jewels that unfurl at a leisurely pace, but dig a little deeper and you’ll reach a melancholy core. His previous two albums (both on Captured Tracks), 2012’s Overgrown Path, and 2016’s As If Apart were built from lush, blurry tracks that embedded themselves in your subconscious, like they’d always been there.
 
Chris Cohen, his third solo album for Captured Tracks, was written and recorded in his Lincoln Heights studio and at Tropico Beauties in Glendale, California over the course of the last two years. Cohen would sing melodies into his phone, fleshing them out on piano, then constructing songs around the melodies, and later, adding lyrics and other instrumentation with the help of Katy Davidson (Dear Nora), Luke Csehak (Happy Jawbone Family Band), Zach Phillips, and saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, among others. It is his most straightforward album yet, but it is also the conclusion of an unofficial cycle that began with Overgrown Path.
 
Though the album is undeniably part of the framework that made up his previous two records, Chris Cohen is also a thoughtful, accomplished meditation on life and family, backed by dusky instrumentation influenced by the late evening beauty of Pat Metheny Group’s Falcon and the Snowman soundtrack (EMI America, 1985), and Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age of Wireless (Venice In Peril Records, 1982). It’s beautiful, but it’s also unflinching in its depiction of emotional turmoil.
 
On “Edit Out,” written in the wake of his parents’ divorce, Cohen examines his relationship with his father through devastatingly straightforward lyrics: “We were loved from afar / Everyone kept in the dark.” Though it’s a gorgeous song, the emotional weight is immense. A line like “people want a lot” carries a substantial amount of power, even if the initial intention of the lyric is not immediately clear.
 
But Chris Cohen is not a confessional record in the traditional sense. Instead of picking at open wounds, the album looks forward by embracing the past. Cohen’s father worked in the music industry, which exposed him as a child to not just the practical realities of a career in music; from a young age he saw plenty of recording studios and heard stories about musicians from his parents but, the more creative as well.
 
On album opener, “Song They Play,” Cohen revisits his childhood, and his attempts to get his father’s attention. None of these songs are abrasive or even aggressive. The soft drum fills on “Song They Play” comfort, and the guitar virtually glitters. Chris Cohen is a beautiful album about pain and loss but it’s also about accepting loss. Chris Cohen is not so much autobiographical as it is multi-generational.

Special thanks to Patrick Tilley at Pitch Perfect PR for the coordination.

James Broscheid: Congrats on the release of your latest LP – I love it! For me it is a ray of light for us fans of Cardinal and The Pernice Brothers with more intricate/delicate orchestral pop as opposed to the psych-pop your music has been tagged with. The complexities are more subtle. It may sound like simple song structures but, you really have to listen for the layers in your music. The opening “Song They Play” and the following (my favorite) “Edit Out” are cases in point. Synth, piano, brass, electric and acoustic guitars, etc. Is that a fair assessment? How long does it take you to write your songs and do you hear the instrumentation in your music before it is recorded?

Chris Cohen: What you say about simple vs complex is a fair assessment. I like things to sound easy even if I’ve really labored over them. With each record I’ve tried to write something simpler at least in terms of form. Still I hope that it leaves a lingering kind of uncertainty, so a listener will keep coming back.

JB: I caught your tour-opening show in Tucson (thank you!) this past spring and thought your live performance was as great as it is on record. Is it difficult to replicate your recorded sound to a live setting? Is your live band the same players for this tour or different from past tours?

CC: This new record has been the hardest to translate into the live band. There’s a lot of acoustic guitars and percussion that we would need a fifth person for, and I can’t afford that. Davin Givhan (bass, vocals) has been with me since 2013. Jay Israelson (keyboards) joined during 2016 and Ben Varian (drums) just joined. Tucson was his first ever show with us!

JB: I read a recent article that discussed this new LP’s inspiration came from the dissolution of your folks’ marriage and addiction issues. Are you at liberty to discuss those aspects of your life? Was the process of writing and recording this LP more difficult than your previous work? Therapeutic either way I am sure.

CC: It was a way to work some things out in my life. But also its just music, I don’t use music as therapy, or at least not more than anyone else uses their work that way. Writing lyrics was a place where my thoughts could come out, but then they also have to sound good and fit with the melody. So there’s lots of restrictions.
I’m happy to talk about whatever from life. As you say, I watched my family continue to fall apart from denial and addiction. That’s been going on for a long time, (I first found out about my dad in 2006, then things reached a breaking point when he got into heroin and money ran out). The process of writing for this record actually wasn’t any harder than past albums. I always take a long time and go deep into deep obsession mode.

JB: With biting lyrics like “Weigh the world on a scale/tell any story to suit you / like Jonah swallowed the whale,” from “Heavy Weather Sailing”, I understand you worked with lyricists Luke Csehak, Katy Davidson and Zach Phillips for this record. Can you discuss the decision to work with them and how that process went? Did they help/hinder conveying what you wanted to say on this album? Have you always worked with lyricists to convey thoughts/emotions?

CC: The decision to work with other lyricists was based on the heavy subject matter of the songs I’d already written. I thought the recorded needed some balancing and I’m a big fan of these three songwriters. For their songs, I only gave minimal prompts if any, maybe just the title or in the case of Luke and “Sweet William” I didnt give him anything lyrically. But I do write all the melodies very precisely so their lyrics follow my musical logic, (I wrote those particular lyrics you’re quoting by the way!).

JB: You allow plenty of time/space between each of your releases. Can you talk about your approach to writing and recording? Has it been different with each one of your three records thus far?

CC: Some of it was dictated by life circumstances. Honestly, I was dealing with family drama during the making of “As If Apart” and that really slowed me down, not to mention that I moved cross country during that time and had to work a lot at day jobs which took time away. I take time between releases because that’s how long it takes me to write and record – about 3 or 4 months per song. Also, there is so much music out there, I don’t think we need a new release from me every year! I don’t try to fit into the music business’s flow.

JB: Do your influences change with each record or are there some you go back to for inspiration? What artists (not necessarily limited to music), have had a profound impact on you over the years?

CC: Some influences are new some are old; this time I was really into Thomas Dolby’s first album, Eduardo Mateo, the first Chrome record, (1976’s The Visitation on Siren Records). I always go back to the basics; Burt Bacharach, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, The Rolling Stones.

CC by JB
Photo by James Broscheid
JB: “House Carpenter” is another stand-out for me on this album because it is incredibly unique melodically. I understand that track has a connection to Doc Watson and The Watson Family’s 1963 LP (self-titled album on Folkways Records). Can you explain the connection?

CC: Yeah, I learned it from that record. I always loved that melody and wanted to write something like that myself; with no chord changes. “Needle and Thread” on my last record was me trying to write “House Carpenter.” My other songs have lots of chords and lots of meter changes, i just wanted something opposite. Annie Watson’s version is such a beautiful melody. It’s very different from other versions of this song, which I actually don’t care for that much.

JB: Have you found it any easier to discuss private topics like your family and associated feelings? My wife and I lost a child almost ten years ago which still feels raw and recent. Despite that, I have found a certain release in speaking about it, although incredibly difficult at times. Have other family members been supportive? There are a lot of complexities in opening up about hurt and pain so thank you for this record.

CC: Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss. Our experiences are probably very different. Other family members besides my dad have been supportive. I don’t know what he thinks, we don’t speak. It’s difficult to discuss these things just because I don’t want to misspeak and say something I’ll regret or that will be unfair or hurtful to anyone else. But, for whatever reason, I seemed to want to talk about it and that’s been OK though like I say, I do say very carefully. Mostly my urge to speak is through music, words being very different. For lyrics, I just write about whatever makes me feel something, usually whatever is closest.

JB: You are known for music featuring unusual rhythms and key signatures but not on this record. How much experimentation went into recording this album?

CC: That’s interesting – you feel that this record’s different. I wanted to make the exotic musical elements (strange intervals and rhythms), be more effective (i.e. something that doesn’t push you away or make some listeners shut down). I experimented a lot with how to bring in that kind of stronger harmonic flavor more slowly and deliberately, like more spread out in time and just when it was most needed. For me to write these kind of songs it took a lot of trial and error and most of my ideas didn’t work. Another reason why I make one record every 3 or 4 years as opposed to 1.

JB: Has this record provided you with more insight and clarity about yourself as a musician/artist? Did you know from an early age music was what you wanted to do?

CC: I’ve never thought about it – I was always a musician. I didn’t necessarily think I’d be doing it professionally though. This record makes things less clear for me. I’m always reaffirming my connection to music itself but, its place in the world – I really don’t know about that.

Chris Cohen on the road:

7/5: Sleeping Village – Chicago. IL
7/6: Springfest – Yellow Springs, OH
7/15: The Chapel – San Francisco, CA
7/17: Mississippi Studios – Portland, OR
7/19: Sunset Tavern – Seattle, WA
7/23: Old Western Saloon – Point Reyes Station, CA
7/28: Soda Bar – San Diego, CA