Singer-songwriter Marc Cohn remembers a time when record stores were magical places of discovery, staffed by clerks who functioned as shepherds guiding novitiates through the new musical gospel. One in particular that stands out for Cohn is John Wade, a Cleveland store located a couple of miles from his childhood home.
“Almost every person there knew the best possible records you could listen to judging by the taste they knew you had,” he said recently during a break in his current tour, which stops in Lowell on Saturday, July 31.
The store also offered a private room for customers to preview music. Cohn spent a lot of time in that glass booth with a pair of headphones on, sampling then-new works from James Taylor, Neil Young, Van Morrison and others. The experience provided a catalyst for his latest album, Listening Booth: 1970, containing covers of a dozen songs from that pivotal year.
Cohn’s fandom has long shown through in his own songs. His biggest hit, “Walking in Memphis,” name-checks Al Green, W.C. Handy and Elvis Presley, while 2007’s “Listening to Levon” describes a teenage Cohn too distracted by a Band song on the radio to concentrate on the girl in his arms.
“I’ve always sort of been tipping my hat to the great masters of music,” he said. “This was just more of an explicit way of doing it.”
The new record is equal parts homage and musical reinvention. “Wild World” sounds more buoyant than the Cat Stevens original, while Cohn’s version of “After Midnight” has the same bluesy elements as J.J. Cale’s —though, like most people, he first heard the song on Eric Clapton’s solo debut.
Perhaps the most surprising choice is Bread’s “Make It With You,” done as a duet with India.Arie. “That was one of the most fun to try and transform,” Cohn said. “You could really take that somewhere else. You could take a song that was inherently not all that soulful and give it some soul.”
Listening Booth: 1970 grew from a shared passion between Cohn and his longtime collaborator John Leventhal. “All the songs on this record began with John and I,” Cohn said. The two would meet at each other’s home studios, roll tape and then listen back to find what worked.
Some attempts, like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” didn’t make the cut, but Cohn and Leventhal built upon the rest.
“Whatever we thought was needed, John would basically add except for drums. It was kind of done the reverse way from any record I’ve ever made,” Cohn said.
One of the first songs the pair tackled was a minimalist take of John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See The Light.” The stripped-down approach was Leventhal’s idea.
“That’s John’s genius — he immediately in some unconscious way taps into a vibe, a tuning, an approach,” said Cohn. “The only thing we had to consciously look at was, what’s the key that’s going to work for me?”
Leventhal also chose “New Speedway Boogie,” a Grateful Dead song about the violent Rolling Stones show at Altamont in 1969. “I’d never heard it before. I was only sort of casually familiar with the two great Grateful Dead records that came out in 1970,” Cohn said. “The opposite was true for John: he loved it and really knew everything about that track from top to bottom, which actually surprised me because our sensibilities usually match up, and that’s one place where they didn’t, around the Dead. That was one of the hardest tracks for me to sing — I really had to get inside that song in a way that I didn’t with the others. But I loved the challenge of it, and in the end I really loved that track.”
Cohn and Leventhal both found certain material too “perfect” to remake. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James was one; another was Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush — “a huge record for me,” said Cohn, who was captivated both by the music and by Young’s scribbled lyrics in the liner notes.
“There’s something about seeing that along with listening to that record which made me realize this isn’t just magic,” Cohn said. “It was like looking at an architect’s blueprint.”
Another song that almost didn’t make it was “Into the Mystic,” which ended up hewing closely to the Van Morrison version. Even the foghorn saxophone, perfectly played by co-producer Rick DePofi, remains.
“That was the only track where they had to twist my arm. I really felt that was an untouchable song,” Cohn said. “It still stands for me as one of the best tracks ever recorded. I’m still pretty much on the fence about that one, but I think we acquitted ourselves pretty well.”
Listening Booth: 1970 is Cohn’s first new record since 2007’s Join the Parade. Over a 20-year career, the songwriter has made only four original studio albums. The light output is his own fault, Cohn said.
“I’m probably too good of an editor — editor isn’t even the right word,” he said with no trace of irony. “I heard Joni Mitchell say once that there was a time when she was allergic to artifice. I’m most allergic to artifice in myself. If I sit down and try to craft a song, or think I have some quote unquote good idea, nine times out of ten, I’m wrong and it doesn’t work. It usually comes from some other place that’s subconscious and I don’t know what to do except to wait. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of waiting in my process.”
In 2005, Cohn survived being shot in the head during an attempted carjacking. The experience spurred him artistically.
“Right after that incident I did complete a record, one that I’d been really struggling with for a long time. I couldn’t find my way to the other side,” said Cohn, who considers Join the Parade to be his strongest ever.
“I think it impacted me in every possible way and it did sort of lead me to a place where I made a record that’s very different for me, and I like that.”