ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of song, "Walking in Memphis")
Mr. MARC COHN (Singer and Songwriter): (Singing) Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane.
NORRIS: Singer-songwriter Marc Cohn had a massive hit with his Grammy Award-winning single "Walking in Memphis," but that success was followed by struggle, modest record sales and major trauma.
In 2005, he was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking and narrowly escaped death. After a long absence from the studio, Marc Cohn is back, and he's reaching back to his youth for a release called "Listening Booth: 1970." It's a collection of cover songs from a seminal year in pop music. For instance, it's the year the Beatles broke up.
Mr. COHN: I was about 11, and I think the music you hear when you're around that age, especially if you're predisposed to music like I was, it really gets to you in a very deep, resonant way.
CAPELOUTO: Cohn said the music he listened to on his Magnavox helped him navigate his pre-teen emotions, and one song in particular helped point the way.
Mr. COHN: For me, there is one song in the record called the "The Only Living Boy in New York," which is off the "Bridge Over Trouble Waters" record -brilliant record - by Simon & Garfunkel, who also broke up in 1970, but their sort of parting gift to us all was this brilliant album. I think just the sheer beauty of Paul Simon's songwriting and the way he produced his own music and the way they sang that music, I really - that was the beginning of me trying to just figure out how do you even begin to go about delivering that level of beauty? And I just remember that song really touching me at the time for - in ways and for reasons I don't think I really understood. But it's still one of my favorite tunes and a little intimidating to try to redo, but I think we brought something new to it.
(Soundbite of song, "The Only Living Boy in New York")
Mr. COHN: (Singing) Fly down to Mexico. Don-da-da, don-da-darlin' here I am. The only living boy in New York.
NORRIS: Marc, I was going to ask you about that, the challenge of taking someone else's music and then trying to make it your own.
Mr. COHN: That was the challenge for my producer and I. I have a great producer on this record named John Leventhal. And that was really the only thing that mattered to us. Two things that were important. One was could we bring something fresh to this song without just rehashing it? And the second was, was it a good song for me to sing that it sort of fit my voice and my tone? But that was the challenge. And some of them didn't work. Some of the ones I really hoped would work were too iconic or already too just sort of what they were to change, but others worked better than I would have expected.
(Soundbite of song, "Make it with You")
NORRIS: There's a real range here, and there's one song in particular that made me chuckle when I first heard the opening strains to the song. It was the huge hit by Bread.
Mr. COHN: I knew you would tell me that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHN: I just knew it.
NORRIS: I mean, it was such a big hit at the time, but it's so dripping in so much saccharin, you know...
Mr. COHN: Yes, it is.
NORRIS: ...when you listen to it today.
Mr. COHN: You could get hurt.
NORRIS: Yeah. It is - your teeth's hurting (unintelligible). There's so much saccharin there but it was - I guess, for an 11-year-old, this must have been the slow dance song.
Mr. COHN: It was sort of that, especially for my older brothers. I think they were more into it than I was. For me, that song wasn't as important at the time. It was just, for me, the challenge was, okay, how do we make this song, which has admittedly got a pretty high cheese factor? How do we make this interesting?
So interestingly enough, it has a built-in really good melody, and the structure of the song is great. I just had to find a way to feel okay with saying I want to make it with you, which is not a line I ever would have written, but we turned it into sort of an Al Green groove. And the great singer India Arie sings it with me, so we made it into a duet. Somehow, it works.
(Soundbite of song, "Make It with You")
Mr. COHN and Ms. INDIA ARIE (Singer): (Singing) I'd like to make it with you. I really think we could make it, baby.
NORRIS: How did you approach a song like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and try to scale that mountain? Because for so many people, this song in particular, is so closely attached to the artists and to a particular point in their lives. People have very strong attachments to the song.
Mr. COHN: Yeah. And it's an amazing recording by McCartney. Because that is such a great screaming rock vocal, there's no use trying to, like, outdo that approach. So we just brought it way back to a guitar piece - a guitar-based, finger-picked ballad, where I'm singing kind of low in my range, not trying to scream or do anything sort of over the top. Just this really relaxed, laid-back, late-night approach.
(Soundbite of song, "Maybe I'm Amazed")
Mr. COHN: (Singing) Maybe I'm amazed at the way you're with me all the time. Maybe I'm afraid of the way I leave you.
NORRIS: You get the sense that you're almost tiptoeing through this.
Mr. COHN: That's a nice way of putting it. I like that. You know, there is a quote I heard from Ray Charles. A long, long time ago, somebody asked him what his approach to singing was. And he said, in terms of my emotion and what I put across, I envision a full cup of coffee and not one drop ever goes over the edge.
And I thought that that was a beautiful image for me as a singer beginning, and I reminded myself of that quote when I sang a lot of these tunes. So the idea of sort of tiptoeing through some of these songs appeals to me. In a way, that's exactly what I was doing.
(Soundbite of song, "Maybe I'm Amazed")
Mr. COHN: (Singing) Ooh, yeah.
NORRIS: So how do you tiptoe through a song that has - that is much more effervescent, a song like "Tears of a Clown"?
Mr. COHN: Well, that's a good question. Maybe there's, like, slightly less tiptoeing through that one, but again, we purposely put all these tunes in a key in my range where I didn't have to shout.
Smokey's record is obviously so perfect already - Smokey Robinson - and the song is so beautifully constructed. We just came up with a more folk-oriented, almost Tom Petty-ish approach to the thing. And because it's such a great song, I think it still comes across. But to try to do it a la Motown, why? I mean, it's already perfect in that style.
(Soundbite of song, "The Tears of the Clown")
Mr. COHN: (Singing) Now there's some sad things known to man but ain't too much sadder than the tears of a clown when there's no one around.
NORRIS: So listening to - "1970" includes many big hits from 1970 - "Wild World," "The Letter," "No Matter What," "Into the Mystic," songs that, you know, even the titles will evoke those melodies that many people are so familiar with. But it sounds like you might not stop there. Will there be "Listening Booths: 1985" or "1991"?
Mr. COHN: That's funny. There's a friend of mine who's a screenwriter. When he heard this record, he said you may have come upon - stumbled upon a very, very useful franchise here because if this works, you may never have to go through the pain of songwriting again.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHN: Something about that is sort of appealing to me. You know, there's so much great music to explore that maybe there will be another record like this at some point.
NORRIS: Marc Cohn, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Mr. COHN: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: That's Marc Cohn. His latest CD is called "Listening Booth: 1970."
(Soundbite of song, "No Matter What")
Mr. COHN: (Singing) No matter what you are. I will always be with you. Doesn't matter what you do, girl. Ooh, girl, with you.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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