Releasing three albums during the 1990s, singer and songwriter Marc Cohn’s emotionally stirring compositions and his easy, lilting baritone earned him a following as a musician’s musician. When he first appeared on the music scene as a newcomer in the 1980s he was classified as a pop artist, although his music skirted the popular folk tradition of earlier decades, picking up neatly where the balladeers of the 1970s left off.
Born on July 5, 1959, Cohn was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Orphaned as a youngster, he was barely out of infancy when his mother died; his father died ten years later, when Cohn was 12. As a teenager in the 1970s Cohn was inspired by the plaintive voices of his generation, idolizing Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and especially Paul Simon, whose music, Cohn says, can bring him to tears. Cohn learned to play guitar and started writing songs when he was in junior high school, playing and singing with a local band called Doanbrook Hotel. While attending Oberlin College in Ohio he taught himself to play the piano, then after transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles began to perform in the intimate coffeehouse and steakhouse venues popular in that locale.
Lured by romance, he moved to New York City in the 1980s to be near his fiancée. Working initially as a backup artist in recording sessions, he established a secure professional footing after assembling the Supreme Court, a 14-piece cover band. They caught the ear of prominent celebrities, including singer Carly Simon, who brought them to the attention of Caroline Kennedy in 1986. Kennedy was planning her wedding to Edwin Arthur Schlossberg at the time and hired the group to perform at the reception.
In 1989 Cohn was a backing pianist for singer Tracy Chapman on her Crossroads album. The job led to a contract with Atlantic Records in the early 1990s after label executives heard a demo disc featuring Cohn on piano and vocals. Working initially with Chapman’s producer, David Kershenbaum and collaborating later with engineer Ben Wisch and producer John Lev-enthal, Cohn released a self-titled solo album in 1991 applauded as “[b]eautifully tasteful and intelligent” by All Music Guide’s Kelly McCartney. Cohn was recognized with a Grammy as the Best New Artist of 1991; the win pushed the album to number 38 on the chart. The album’s hit single “Walking in Memphis,” an original Cohn composition, reached number 13 on the pop chart and was nominated for Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal. Marc Cohn achieved gold-level sales by February of 1992 and was certified platinum in 1996.
A 1993 follow-up album, Rainy Season, featured guest vocals by David Crosby, Graham Nash, and others but peaked only at number 63 on the album charts. Entertainment’s Bob Cannon despaired that Cohn “can’t seem to find his joy button” and criticized the songs’
Born on July 5, 1959; first marriage ended in divorce; married Elizabeth Vargas (a broadcast journalist), 2002; children: (first marriage) Emily and Max, (with Vargas) Zachary. Education: Attended Ober-lin College, Oberlin, OH, and University of California at Los Angeles.
Vocalist with Supreme Court, a 14-piece band, 1980s; signed with Atlantic Records; eponymous debut album, 1991; released Rainy Season,1993, and Burning Daze,1998; extensive touring throughout 1990s.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best New Artist, 1991.
Member: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Addresses: Record company—Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104-0101, website: http://www.atlantic-records.com
“brooding sameness,” declaring, “This is the album to put on when you really want to savor a lousy day.” Overall it was a disappointing showing for Cohn. He toured extensively in the early 1990s, including a trip to Australia with headliner Bonnie Raitt, and recommitted himself to find poetry in his life and bring it to his art.
Cohn slowed his pace in 1995, contributing an original song, “My Great Escape,” to David Grusin’s soundtrack for the Peter Horton film The Cure. After a five-year lag following the release of his second album, Cohn began his next stint in the recording studio. For his third solo effort, released in 1998, Cohn worked largely with his old colleague Leventhal, adding some cuts coordinated with producer Malcolm Burn. He was joined on the album once again by popular artists, including country music’s Roseanne Cash.
The album marked some emotional lows for Cohn, including separation and subsequent divorce from his first wife, an experience that rekindled the sadness he felt following the loss of his parents. The final product—called Burning Daze in spite of its focus on death and loss—is introspective but not depressing, according to Billboard’s Melinda Newman. Her critique supported an earlier comment in Time by Alexander Tresniowski who proclaimed Cohn a “troubadour for troubled times.” Lois Smith Brady affirmed somewhat flippantly in the New York Times that Cohn’s songs were appropriate indeed “while contemplating signing divorce papers.”
The recording spawned a video, “Already Home,” which was nominated for Best Clip at the subsequent Billboard Video Music Awards. Following the release of Burning Daze, Cohn went on spring and summer tours in 1998. The following year he contributed to Kris Kristofferson’s highly collaborative Austin Sessions. He has added vocals to recordings by Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, and Rodney Crowell, and in 2002 was heard on Jackson Browne’s Naked Ride Home. Cohn’s original tunes have been recorded by many popular singers, including Susan Anton and John Tesh.
Cohn permitted a rare public glimpse into his romantic life in 1999 after making the acquaintance of broadcast journalist Elizabeth Vargas at the U.S. Open. After a three-year courtship he proposed in April of 2002. The couple celebrated their wedding that year on July 20, with a lavish reception and dinner at the Council on Foreign Relations mansion on Park Avenue in New York City. Emily and Max, Cohn’s children from his former marriage, were in attendance, with 11-year-old Max as his father’s best man. At the reception Cohn serenaded his bride with the song “One Safe Place,” which he confessed to have written prior to making her acquaintance—but in anticipation of such a lucky day. In February of 2003 the couple welcomed the birth of their first child, Zachary Raphael.
Marc Cohn, Atlantic, 1991.
Rainy Season, Atlantic, 1993.
Burning Daze, Atlantic, 1998.
Billboard, February 14, 1998, p. 12.
Entertainment, February 21, 1992, p. 26; March 7, 1992, p. 76; June 4, 1993, p. 54.
In Style, December 11, 2002, p. 364.
New York Times, July 28, 2002, p. 9.
Rolling Stone, July 11-25, 1991, p. 29.
Time, November 11, 1991, p.79.
“Marc Cohn,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 5, 2003).
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