Marc Cohn: "I've Had a Very Specific and Odd Path"
Speaking of the song "Walking in Memphis" -- it was such a huge hit for you. Did you have any idea how big it would become?
No. I wrote the song several years before it came out. I wrote it several years even before I was a signed artist. It was impossible to think it would be a hit, because like I said, I wasn't even a signed artist yet. It was a turning point for me when I wrote it. I knew when I wrote it I had found the closest thing yet to my songwriting voice I'd ever gotten to.
I had been writing songs since I was 12, and "Walking in Memphis" and "Silver Thunderbird," which I wrote the same month, were the beginning of me finding my voice. That to me was huge. That to me was everything. Because up to that point, I'd been looking for a record deal, I'd been trying to make it in the business, and if I was really honest with myself, there was nothing particularly original about the songs I'd been writing. They were OK, but "Memphis" and my song "Thunderbird" were the beginning of me thinking that maybe I'd turned the corner, and sure enough, those were the songs that got me signed.
When you have a hit as huge as that, obviously it's a blessing. But is it also an albatross? Does the record company want you to keep on rewriting the same song to keep the hits coming? Does it raise expectations?
I guess. I think I had that worry and that pressure for about six months. When it was time to make my second record, I could sort of tell that the record company would have enjoyed a "Walking in Memphis" II. The only problem is, it's impossible. I mean, it's impossible to write any song again, whether it's a hit or not. It may not be impossible, but it just doesn't interest me. For me, having a song like that that's endured for 23 years, that keeps getting covered and keeps getting played, and I still love playing it live, it's all blessing. The curse I don't even relate to at all.
I felt a little odd with my record company making my second record, but after that, I was really happy I had a radio hit, but that was never the plan or intention. I want to make albums that mean something, that people will listen to and be moved by the way I was by my favorite records. I didn't care if Van Morrison had a hit on the radio or not. I loved his albums. So for me, I'm still doing what I always wanted to do, Having a hit on the radio was phenomenal, but it's not the only way to have a career. If I felt like, all these years later, I had this one radio hit and the rest of my work was relatively insignificant to my audience, it would bother me. But the truth is, my audience knows of my music, and much of it is more important to them than the hit.
It's clear to me when I do shows now, if I don't do a song like "True Companion" or "The Things We Handed Down" or a handful of others, those are the songs my audience comes to hear, and none of them were hits. Obviously "Walking in Memphis" provides a fantastic moment in the arc of the show because it's so well-known. And I feel blessed that I had that hit and that I still have an audience that knows the breadth and depth of what I've done for the last 20 years, and most of it hasn't been on the radio.
You were shot and nearly killed in Denver in 2005. It was a tragic incident and attracted worldwide attention. What was the impact of that? Did it change you emotionally in any way?
Well, it was a shocking situation, and I had to go through some post-traumatic stress for a while. It was not the kind of thing you expect to happen after a show. I felt very unsafe in the world for quite awhile. I had a lot of panic attacks. Even though I was so lucky not to be physically harmed -- I should have been dead -- the bullet stopped just short of my skull. It went all the way through my soft tissue, but it didn't penetrate my skull. I guess because I'm incredibly hard-headed.