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Songs About Music

Marc Cohn overcomes tragedy with his first studio album in nine years

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Sometimes it takes crisis to fuel creativity.

"Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for me," says singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, who just saw the release of Join the Parade, his first studio album in almost a decade.

"When life's going really well, the last thing I want to do is write a song about it to spoil the magic. Sometimes it takes something monumental to shake me up."

In Cohn's case, most of the songs on his new album were written during a prolonged surge of inspiration that followed his amazing recovery from a 2005 gunshot wound, and his emotional reaction to the devastation weeks later of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Critics have heralded the songs on Join the Parade as Cohn's best since his 1991 breakthrough hit "Walking in Memphis." Cohn will play those songs, as well as others from throughout his career, at the Fox Tucson Theatre, on Monday, Dec. 10.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Cohn fell in love with music from an early age, influenced by his love of Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

He taught himself to play piano and guitar, and when asked about his uber-soulful singing voice, he attributes it to plain luck. "I've never had a voice lesson. I wouldn't know what to study, or how to go about it."

After stints at Oberlin College and UCLA, Cohn relocated to New York City, where he led a popular 14-piece R&B band called the Supreme Court. After sending his demo to Atlantic Records, he scored a deal that led to his debut album and the Grammy Award-nominated "Walking in Memphis," a stunning masterpiece about the legacy of American music.

Two years after its release, that song earned Cohn more honors, perhaps prematurely, as a "one-hit wonder," from VH1. Cohn, though, would've been happy if he had only been known for that tune.

"I'm more inclined to try to promote and talk about other songs, because they are my latest work, but I am very proud of that song. It has been my calling card more than any other. That's the song I am most known for."

During the 1990s, Cohn released two more studio albums--The Rainy Season and Burning the Daze--as well as a live recording. For several years following, Cohn experienced a period of writer's block.

Then, on Aug. 7, 2005, Cohn's life changed. Riding in a van in Denver with members of his band after sharing a bill with Suzanne Vega, he was shot in the left temple during an attempted carjacking. The bullet was removed, and he left the hospital the next day.

"It was a miracle," Cohn says today. "The bullet landed a centimeter short of my brain and didn't touch my eye. There was no other physical damage."

Cohn, however, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. While recovering at home a few weeks later, Cohn was shocked to learn of the disaster wrought by Katrina. "I really felt the immediate need to write, and all these songs started coming out," he says.

Many of the songs on Join the Parade deal eloquently with life-and-death matters, including "Life Goes On," "My Sanctuary," "Giving Up the Ghost," "Live Out the String," the title track and "Dance Back From the Grave," which was inspired by a post-Katrina essay by Rick Bragg in The Washington Post.

Cohn also makes sublime music about the experience of music, such as the one-two punch of "Listening to Levon" and "The Calling (Charlie Christian's Tune)" that opens the new album.

The first is a terrific homage to Levon Helm, singer and drummer for The Band, and the second describes the passion of producer John Leventhal (who worked with Cohn on his first two albums) and the influence of the ghost of the legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

Cohn says he doesn't consciously try to use music as a topic for songs. It just comes out that way.

"These are the great spirits of the people in my life. To write about them makes sense. They are as much a part of my life as if they were my family."

Also a large part of his life are the musicians who have played with Cohn over the years, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Patty Griffin, Rosanne Cash, Chris Botti and Martin Sexton.

On Join the Parade, Cohn's guests include such players as Charlie Sexton (who co-produced), Jim Keltner, Danny Kortchmar, Benmont Tench and vocalists Shelby Lynne, N'Dea Davenport and the Holmes Brothers.

Opening for Cohn on the current tour is Amy Correia, a folk-pop singer-songwriter.

"Amy's got a magical voice, and a beautiful songwriting style," Cohn says. "You definitely shouldn't arrive late and miss her set."

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