Marc Cohn’s success in the early years of his career cemented his place in the history of popular music. The brilliance of his self-titled debut album, particularly the radio-friendly hit “Walking in Memphis,” earned the singer-songwriter Grammy nominations and a top award at the 1991 ceremonies. He won the “Best New Artist” Grammy, in a category that included Seal and Boyz II Men, and “Memphis” was nominated in the prestigious “Song of the Year” category. Cohn also received a “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male” nomination that year.
Fast-forward to the present, and Cohn’s Grammy-winning ways continue. One of his recent projects involved co-writing songs for legendary blues artist William Bell for his album “This Is Where I Live,” which was named Best Americana Album for 2016. And his work with Gospel Music Hall of Fame greats the Blind Boys of Alabama on their most recent recording “Almost Home” yielded a Grammy nomination for “Best American Roots Performance” for the track, “Let My Mother Live,” a song co-written by Cohn, John Leventhal and the Blind Boys’ own Jimmy Carter.
Cohn will appear with the Blind Boys of Alabama — who began singing together seven decades ago and whose recording career has earned them five Grammys plus one for Lifetime Achievement — on Jan. 5 at the Fairfield Theatre Company (FTC).
Cohn recently talked about how his songwriting muse connected on the “Almost Home” project.
“Writing for myself is very difficult,” he said. “Writing for someone else can be much easier. The Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe did a really brilliant thing. He videotaped two or three of the guys and asked them to tell the story of their lives, basically, hoping that some songwriters that they reached out to would find songs in those stories. And for me, it was really songwriting combined with journalism. The way some of the Blind Boys talk, the way they tell their own stories, it was already poetry in there. All I had to do was take notes and pick and choose. What was the title? What was a great story to tell? How to tell it? But that was wonderful for me, because I had guidelines. I had signposts all the way. That made that project really fun, really poignant, and really easy, because I knew what I was going for. So that was a joy.”
Cohn, who has toured with the Blind Boys of Alabama before, is planning on going into the studio with them in the next few weeks and will also be recording some of their upcoming concerts together, including the FTC show.
“We’re going to be recording two or three shows to try to get some the versions that I’ve been doing with the Blind Boys of some of my old songs — ‘Memphis,’ ‘Silver Thunderbird.’ They sing on ‘Baby King,’ which sounds great, and on ‘Ghost Train.’ So I want to put some of that out, along with two new tunes that we do together. I’ve written three or four songs on my own that I really like, and I may do one or two of those as well,” he said.
Cohn offered some basic advice for songwriters. “Fine tune your antenna. You never know where a song is going to come from. You’ve got to stay open to that. I’ve found songs inside of ‘Architectural Digest.’ I’ve found songs by walking by the TV and hearing a fantastic line that somebody says. I’ve found songs in overhearing conversations, and I’ve found songs by travel. Try to keep yourself awake and listen and feel and find your voice, meaning imitate, imitate and imitate until you find who you really are.”
For more information about the show, visit fairfieldtheatre.org.