On The Line with Adam Cohen

It’s very clear that musical talent runs in the family. Adam Cohen just so happens to be the son of singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen. With a sound reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen and an impeccable fashion sense, he’s definitely a special kind of musician that one would be glad to encounter. I spoke with Adam about recent live shows and experiences, different types of frontmen, his wardrobe, Hallelujah and more.

Alex Obert: You were recently in Athens, can you fill in readers on that experience?

Adam Cohen: I was in on the very day that the banks closed. I was playing a historic and magical ancient Roman amphitheater that is two thousand years old and at the foot of the Acropolis. It was a badge of honor and pride that I was going to play there with the a symphony. But when the new struck that there was this impending catastrophe, which I think the whole world has seen unfold. At the very least, we were concerned for ticket sales, given that nobody could take cash out. At the very worst, we were worried that the mood of the city and the country would really not serve the purpose of the celebration with music that I had in mind. But it was actually one of the most magical and satisfying gigs in my entire life. There was joy and laughter. We all got to forget our own conditions in the national crisis just for a moment. Music served as a reprieve. And it wasn’t even about me, it was about the success of the evening. I’m really happy about it.

Alex Obert: Where else have you played that was really a unique setting?

Adam Cohen: Well Glastonbury was also in the pantheon for me just because of the incredible reputation and to be able to say you’ve done it. But then topping the list I think was playing in my hometown of Montreal at Jazz Fest on a Saturday night in front of almost a hundred thousand people. I think that that was my most exultant, happy, enthusiastic moment on stage so far in my so-called career.

Alex Obert: In that crowd of a hundred thousand, who was in the crowd that you call friends and family?

Adam Cohen: I have to say it doesn’t matter to me who is there. I recognize that people were there in such large numbers and that the show was so well-received. The next day, I’m buying a newspaper or pack of smokes and I’m getting nods on the street from strangers who were there. We all do this to try to somehow exist in culture the way others existed for us. And although it’s music-centric for those of us who have gone into music, and nod of recognition and proof that you exist is sometimes deeply, deeply satisfying. Especially in your own little community. That was very much the case in Montreal at Jazz Fest.

Alex Obert: When you go off on long tours, how do you stay sane and focused?

Adam Cohen: The truth of the matter is it’s like a conveyor belt, you really don’t have a choice. You have to show up. There’s your reputation on the line, both for the public and the organizers for the gig set up. This is what we’ve signed up for. The choice is either one of complete unprofessionalism and irresponsibility, which is not really an option for those who think of ourselves as a pro. And then the other is trying to make the best of the opportunities. As we all know, the music business is in real trouble. Those of us that still have a few gigs here and there, we should be in the business of making the best of it. That’s my MO.

Alex Obert: What’s a misconception for someone who thinks that getting signed to a record label is a dream come true?

Adam Cohen: Well I don’t want to be the guy that’s raining on anyone’s parade. Excitement and enthusiasm is a beautiful commodity. I’m now in my early forties and I’ve seen a radical change in the business for what some would consider the worst. That doesn’t mean that someone’s true excitement should be corrected. Think about it in dating terms, you go out to a bar with a guy who’s hard up and really needs a date. It doesn’t matter that you think the person that he’s ended up taking home is a five. If they think the person that they take home is an eight, don’t take their excitement away from them. Give them a high five and say “Hope it was a great night, my friend!”

Alex Obert: Who would you say influences and inspires you outside of music?

Adam Cohen: I’ve gotten to a pretty precarious point in my so-called career where anyone who’s making it happen or as hip-hop says, “making it rain” is someone admirable for me. It’s hard. People putting microchips on a conveyor belt and getting that paycheck and staying cool, calm and feeding their family, these are admirable traits to me. Anybody who’s making it work. I’ve gotten to the point right now where the myths of rock ‘n roll and the glamour and the self-adulation, these play a backseat role to trying to earn a living and refining what it is that I have to offer so that I don’t feel like an imposter or someone who’s just like a moth to the light, seduced by the business.

Alex Obert: I’m glad you mentioned hip-hop because I had read that you were influenced by early hip-hop. How did you discover that?

Adam Cohen: Oh my God, anybody at my age who grew up listening to the radio was beautifully bombarded by the birth of hip-hop. I still peer in, listen and take inspiration from the music that I heard when I was a kid. And that was largely hip-hop on the radio.

Alex Obert: As far as your music is concerned, would you agree that there is a resemblance to Bruce Springsteen? That was the immediate impression that I got.

Adam Cohen: It’s flattering to have heard that on a few occasions. I certainly didn’t set out to emulate anybody in particular, but that kind of working-class hero is not a bad comparison. Your site is called Journey of a Frontman and it makes me think there’s so many different archetypes. There’s the Pete Dohertys and the piss and vinegar type frontmen, bad boy libertine. Then there’s a whole bunch of gentlemen frontmen like Bryan Ferry or James Taylor. Then there’s funky, incorrigible types. There’s lots of types. If you’re identified as being one of them, even if it’s not perfectly what you set out to do, it’s flattering, as long as it doesn’t outright not resemble you.

Alex Obert: A frontman can also be quickly identified by their book. I’ve noticed that you have quite a fashion sense. Who influenced your wardrobe?

Adam Cohen: Well that’s very kind of you to have noticed. (laughs) I remember people asking me early in my career what my look is. They said I need to be a frontman the way The Beatles were and that I need to be seen from far away in the theater. Never look like you might be someone in the audience. That is an adage of show business that I actually don’t subscribe to enough, so it’s nice to be considered somewhat stylish. I think all people that I admired in show business were just that.

Alex Obert: Would you say that you were influenced to wear a fedora by your father?

Adam Cohen: Of course my old man has that signature fedora, but I only actually adopted it recently because my hair is out of control and it takes too long to put myself together sometimes. It’s easy to just lazily throw on a hat and call it a style.

Alex Obert: Since he wrote such an iconic song, what would you say is your favorite cover of Hallelujah?

Adam Cohen: That’s a tough one. I think it’s been done beautifully so many times that I’ve lost the ability to point one out, to tell you the truth. There are literally thousands of versions. Almost every contestant on those shows ends up doing it. I’ve heard Mary J. Blige do it. I’ve heard Rufus do it. I’ve heard the obviously first big version, which was Jeff Buckley. I’ve heard Bob Dylan do it. I’ve heard k.d. lang do it. I’ve heard opera singers do it. I’ve heard kids who are in the cancer ward at a hospital do it. With all that, it’s just too large for me to say.

Alex Obert: You really opened up my eyes to that fact, so thank you for that. Through finding yourself in the music business, what you have to say about staying humble through it all?

Adam Cohen: Well I guess it goes back to the frontman thing. There’s some people who you love for their arrogance, it’s part of their act. And you don’t take it seriously. Take guys like Kanye and Russell Brand. Kanye’s actually serious and Russell Brand is self-mocking. And then there’s people whose approachability and outward humility are their defining traits, someone like Beyonce or something like that. It’s just like going to the bar and meeting a stranger, there’s no question that humility feels a tiny bit better to the touch and it’s a more popular trait. I think that people like Taylor Swift and host of others are cultivating the idea of person next door. It’s unfortunate that humility has been modified and is actually a part of the show business vernacular now. But if you’re talking about true humility meaning not feeling above anybody, I think that that is a beautiful trait to aspire to. It makes people feel comfortable and connected.

Alex Obert: In closing, what do you have up ahead for the next couple of months?

Adam Cohen: Well right now I’m locked into a couple more festivals and then I’m actually deliberately taking a moment off to concentrate on making another record. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to follow my own orders. I hope to get back in the studio quickly and continue my grind, as they say. I hope to get back to making music and trying to be in music what others work for me, which is existing in culture and being really ever faithful to the vocation that I’ve chosen.

Alex Obert: I’d love to thank you so much for your time and for a really insightful interview. I really appreciate your honesty.

Adam Cohen: Oh man, you’re most kind. Thanks for your time, questions and interest.

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