Arts & Culture

Priorities straight

By the time he was 18, Marc Cohn knew he was destined to be a musician.
By the time he was 18, Marc Cohn knew he was destined to be a musician. COURTESY PHOTO

In August 7, 2005, Marc Cohn got a violent wake-up call.

The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter was driving back to his Denver hotel after a concert when a would-be carjacker shot him in the head. Miraculously, the bullet did not penetrate his skull.

Cohn, now 52, came to two realizations: how lucky he was to survive, and how long he been away from the recording studio and the road.

“There was something that made me find a deeper appreciation for my audience and my work,” said Cohn, who performs Sunday in San Luis Obispo. “Lots of artists set their priorities straight by spending more time with their families. I set my priorities straight by spending more time with my audience.”

Returning to the studio for the first time in nearly a decade, Cohn released “Join the Parade” in 2007. He’s currently touring in support of his 2010 album, “Listening Booth: 1970.”

A passion for music

During Cohn’s childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, he recalled, “The house was filled with music.”

While his father played Bing Crosby and Mario Lanza records upstairs, his older brother’s band practiced jazzy standards by Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach in the basement.

“I had my own passion for music,” the singer-songwriter said. “I just made some unconscious decision that this is what I wanted to do. I was so enamored of the sound of the music and how it made me feel.”

In particular, Cohn felt drawn to singer-songwriters such as Jackson Brown, Van Morrison and James Taylor. He became determined to join them.

“By the time I was 18, I knew I didn’t really have a choice,” Cohn said. “I just felt that’s where I wanted to put all my work.”

He released his self-titled debut album in 1991.

“Atlantic Records told me, ‘If you sell, 50,000 copies of your first album, we’ll let you make another record.’ That was my goal,” Cohn recalled. The album, which earned him a Grammy Award for best new artist, eventually went platinum.

“I had a sense when I was writing it that I was beginning to find my voice,” the singer-songwriter said. “I started writing these songs that were authentically me.”

The album’s biggest hit, “Walking in Memphis,” describes a nostalgic journey through the musical mecca that launched Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“ ‘Memphis’ does encapsulate a lot of the qualities I like in my own writing,” Cohn admitted. “It’s a good story. It’s an interesting narrative. It’s got humor in it, but it’s also got a lot of soul.”

Although the songs on “Listening Booth: 1970” aren’t Cohn’s own, they easily echo the same smoky, soulful vibe.

“I first fell in love with the concept of picking a year and examining it from a music perspective,” Cohn said of his fifth studio album. “Then I started thinking what would be an interesting year to look at.”

He and Grammy-winning

producer John Leventhal settled on 1970, a year that saw the release of such seminal albums as Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.”

In “Listening Booth,” Cohn puts his deeply personal spin on Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” Paul Mc- Cartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Aimee Mann joins the performer for Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” while India. Arie duets on Bread’s “Make It With You.”

Cohn describes the album’s vibe as “late night and laid back,” the kind of music best enjoyed with cigarettes and scotch.

Intimate but rockin’

On Sunday, Cohn will perform selections from “Listening Booth” as well as older favorites such as “True Companion” and “The Things We’ve Handed Down.”

He’ll be joined onstage by guitarist Shane Fontayne, who’s toured with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart.

“It’s a very intimate but pretty rockin’ set,” he said. “We try to bring all of the energy of the band just between the two of us.”

Cohn said he’s grateful to be sharing his music live with audiences.

“It feels like a blessing. It feels like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Cohn said. “Night after night, it’s extremely fulfilling. This is what I should be doing.”