Complete the following sequence. Montreal. Los Angeles. Hydra. …?
If you wrote down Crouch End, North London, well done. Originally a medieval hamlet on the road north from our capital city, Crouch End is now considered a boho quarter for up-and-comings with a thriving local arts scene and parkland held in trust for posterity thanks to another of those Victorian philanthropists that England used to breed like rabbits. Or, if history’s not your bag, it’s where actor Simon Pegg lives.
For a couple of hours on Thursday, it was also the temporary stop off for Adam Cohen, he of the unmistakable family surname, peripatetic global address book and proud focal point of a fifth, and rather wonderful, studio album, We Go Home. When I arrive at the address I’ve been given I find myself in a re-appointed but internally basic church, part of which is home to The Crypt Sessions. Adam and some of his touring band are playing some tracks for a future video release online. Can I wait; they’re running over? Oh, I think I can hang around and watch, yes, shouldn’t be too much of an issue. For the next half-an-hour studio engineers go in and out of the recording space, twiddling knobs, fussing over intonation, querying bass response, swapping tales from the road. Adam appears and disappears and apologises for the delay. The night before, the band played a sold out show at Bush Hall but you wouldn’t know it – they are upbeat, into their playing, relishing the brotherly (and sisterly) atmosphere of companions with a purpose. Most of the takes I hear are one-time affairs and the sound coming out of the board could be mistaken for the CD I have in my laptop bag.
Recording finished, and with barely a pause to compose himself, Adam walks with me down Crouch Hill to sit outside a coffee house in the pale Autumn sun. He searches for a light, offers me a Marlboro (Red, ‘natch; I decline), lights one up and grimaces at the poor quality coffee he’s offered. While we wait for our order I get a chance to size Mr. Cohen up. He’s dressed like a rock star. Leather jacket, white shirt, unbuttoned. Fashionably unshaven, hair swept back, a little unkempt. Eyes I can only imagine have coal mines at the bottom. He’s ridiculously good looking in the way men comfortable with their appearance are – the family genes have been good to him. The black stuff arrives – he’s right, it’s not good – he cups his hand around it, his body language relaxed, open; ready for what must be his umpteenth interview in as many days. He looks me straight in the eye and motions for me to begin. All of a sudden it occurs to me I’m interviewing Leonard Cohen’s son in a coffee shop in North London. Funny old world.
How’s the tour going Adam?
‘Beautiful, man. Your hope is to plant flags and see if they’re still standing when you come back. And we’ve noticed a natural increase – we’ve not done anything differently but we’re playing bigger rooms to bigger audiences. We have an artistic desire to rail against anonymity, and these days that’s hard. There are so many acts, so many bands; it’s such an attention economy.’
You’ve got to step up to stand out?
‘That’s it, exactly. Nicely put.’
Is the live band the same you recorded with?
‘Yes, these girls; I toured with them before. Basically, we’d already adapted Like A Man to be more dynamic… for touring. We had an idea how to make these intimate songs more engaging on stage. There was very, very little adaptation required on We Go Home because what we were trying to do was capture performances rather than construct them, so that we can just do what we did in the studio, which is what you just heard.’
Adam’s voice is unsurprisingly familiar, a sonorous, de-tuned low E that overpowers the ambient noise around us until passing cars and the chatter from nearby tables becomes a barely-heard background hum. You’ll have to take my word for it, but you could listen to this voice for days. Over the course of the interview, it will weave its way through the personal and universal, the fragile and the fierce. Adam will show himself to be passionate but thoughtful. He won’t jump into answers or conclusions straight away, will pause frequently to consider his options – should he continue down this route or jump trains? Beautifully articulate, he colours his responses with a poetic ease and prose that wouldn’t disgrace high literature. His commitment to his art comes with a lacerating honesty that appears to be his default position, both on his records, and today, on record.
Was there any pressure to follow up the success of Like A Man (his 2012 album which went Gold in Canada) and if so, was that pressure commercial or self-imposed?
‘It was an incredibly nerve-wracking experience to follow up my first and only success. I’d never had success before. It was my first gold record, the first time I was able to get the sense I was living out my adolescent dreams.’
Your first attempt to do so was scrapped. Was it totally different material or are we hearing amended versions on We Go Home?
‘It’s interesting. I was fully incapable of making a follow up. We went to LA and we made a slick, over-accomplished, neurotic record full of anxiety. We had no choice but to abandon it. I retreated to Hydra and Montreal – I had to take those measures to keep me honest.’
Adam visibly winces at the memory, though I think the coffee may have been a contributing factor. Did anything survive?
‘Some of the songs survived but everything had to be re-written. A theme emerged.’
He pauses, looks down at this cigarette.
‘I’m very grateful for having fallen on my face. It forced me to … … identify what the muse was for me, what my dad calls ‘the juice’. Where was the juice coming from?’
I venture that scrapping an album’s worth of material is a brave decision – he waves the suggestion away.
‘Although I was reticent and embarrassed that family, my roots and the legacy I wish to honour were at the centre of my thoughts, I figured if I have to go down I’ll go down on my terms. The irony of my last record was that only when I abandoned commercial hopes did I experience commercial success. I was willing to repeat that potential error and risk being completely off the commercial mark but hopefully striking a note of empathy in people’s lives when they heard what I ended up with.’
‘Yeah, it was terrifying. Mostly ‘cos I’d spent the entire budget. I had to do everything on favours with makeshift gear and the belief and camaraderie of the people around me. It turns out all of those things played into my favour.’
It’s certainly a beautiful sounding album.
It’s a very natural sound. Out of adversity you got what you wanted.
‘Exactly. I’d have done it three times, four times if I had to.’
I believe it. I spare Adam any more memories. We talk about the album itself. I read that you attempted to ‘raise your voice from the familial hush’ – a conscious choice?
‘There were two things that informed it. I’d declared to anyone who would listen that I’d found my voice on the last record, which I did. The objective was to remain faithful to that voice but indeed raise it – be more myself, to have the confidence, while embracing my legacy, to come out further and further as… as Adam Cohen – open the windows, come out of the homestead,’ another long pause, ‘to try, as is the hope of every songwriter, to exist out there in the community like those who existed for us.
The beat goes on?
‘The beat goes on.’
The string arrangements remind me of John Paul Jones and George Martin’s arrangements in their simplicity and beauty…
‘That’s a high compliment.’
…did you arrange them? Were they part of the original song ideas or did they come later when recording started?
‘It was definitely a collective effort. Some were done simultaneously to the arrangements of the song themselves. The sounds are very much organic and in support of the sentiment of the songs. I was incredibly impressed at the ability of the band to create these arrangements on the fly while we were recording – it’s a testament to the high musicality of this entire group.’
It’s not the last time in the interview Adam will praise those around him for their input, suggesting he’s comfortable being the ringmaster but wouldn’t like to work alone. I put it to him that We Go Home is very personal; what’s it like letting go of that work and knowing the public will apply its own interpretations, possibly wrong?
‘Well, you… I think the responsibility of the writer is to construct something and have all of the deliberations prior to the recording of the song.’
To get it out of your system?
‘Yeah, and when you’re ready to record the song, that’s when you’re going public. That’s when you’ve decided you can pronounce on a subject and there is no looking back.’
Yet another pause, He lights another cigarette, then a typically lyrical flourish,
‘Once a song is brought to the table and recorded, there’s no reconsideration. However wild, however disheveled. The flower is open.’
It’s already out there.
‘It’s like that beautiful saying – you can stir marmalade into a porridge clockwise, but you can never turn it counter-clockwise. An arrow from a bow; you can never pull it back in.’
Have you ever written for other artists?
‘Yeah, unsuccessfully. The only success was a track that made it onto a Bette Midler record about 20 years ago. Since then I’ve come close but no cigar.’
Would you consider it again?
‘Yeah, sure, if someone wants a song. Especially if it’s someone like Beyonce. (smiles). Rihanna can have one too…’
As long as you’re in the video?
‘Yeah, sure! Shakira; she can have one as well.’
Tell me how the ‘Song For My Father’ sessions came about.
‘I get approached for these kinds of nepotistic affairs probably a dozen times a year Every once in a while I acquiesce – I’m never upset about it.’
And why Bird On A Wire; your choice?
‘I loved that song – who doesn’t, right? I’m happy with the version.’
We Go Home suggests a period of transition; you sound both vulnerable but willing to take more responsibility. It feels like you’ve arrived at a place where you’re more comfortable in your own skin?
‘I am, and I appreciate you saying that.’
You feel more able to talk about your son, and talk about your father – your role in the relationship with both?
‘I was aware that I was drawing a target on myself; playing a nylon stringed guitar, using a lexicography that will have obvious evocations, singing in a low register, but these are things I believe I’m entitled to and come naturally to me.’
It’s the first time in the interview that Adam’s sense of entitlement breaks the surface and initially I misinterpret the context. Entitlement in some quarters these days is perceived as a dirty word, but it’s quickly clear Adam isn’t referring to a societal belief, rather a firm and transparently raw adherence to truth, simplicity and a role as standard bearer for the Cohen legacy. Articulated the way he puts it, it’s difficult to argue against – to be a Cohen is to mean something more than being a songwriter. It’s a theme he’ll return to again before we finish.
‘The true exercise, exercise and exorcise, of this record is to have the courage to try and reach what I consider to be beautiful, you know? To reach my criteria of beauty and hope that my taste and my truth is resonant to those around me the same way I found other’s truth and beauty resonant to me.’
I love the album opener, ‘Song Of Me And You’; a writer, writing about writing a love song that isn’t a love song, but is. Do I have that right?
‘That’s pretty much it!’
The plain language really works. Don’t write me a love song, but write me a love song.
‘The mother of my child has been with me for a long time, I have her to thank for the son. She’s seen my so-called career not be in full bloom for the majority of the time and one of her main criticisms was that the language might at times get in the way of the sentiment. She urged me to talk about the way lovers really feel. She said write a song about me and you.’
As an opening track, it sets the bar quite high. It’s unusual to be confronted with such a direct message.
‘I think the lyric pretty much says it all. “No metaphors, don’t be too witty / Don’t make it sad, or too witty.”’
Is it true that Fall Apart almost didn’t make it to the final cut – what persuaded you to keep it in?
He smiles ruefully. ‘Sometimes there are urgings around you that you succumb to. The song had also made a prominent appearance in a movie (Lullaby, with Terence Howard and Amy Adams) and I suppose the high hopes attached to it made us decide to include it. Of course, there’s also the thematic relevance. The whole record is composed of songs that very much chronicle conversations and musings about my role in my family.’
Was it important to record these songs at home (We Go Home was recorded at the Cohen family homes in Montreal and Hydra, Greece) – could you have recorded in a standard studio?
It had to have that element?
‘I compare it to a guy who has made it in society, has some high post and could easily develop airs about himself, but when he sits down at a family dinner those airs are see-through, false. He’s surrounded by people who know exactly who he is. The homes were like another band member, a lie detector.’
You speak about the walls talking back to you [Fall Apart]…
‘Yeah… these are homes that saw me grow up, the homes in which the dreams of who I wanted to become were ever present. It was a way of keeping me honest.’
How fabulous that you could still go there and allow that to happen.
‘It’s beautiful. Haunted. Haunted.’
But in a positive way.
‘Enriching and nourishing, for sure.’
Do you believe he has a ‘style’; ‘Uniform’ suggests he hopes not?
‘It’s like… first and foremost, my pre-occupation is being good. I think I have less aversion than others to being referred to as a folk artist, but I’m a modern folk artist. I think what I do is modern folk. I think that there is a very clear honoring of an architecture that came before me and a very clear import of a modernity to what I do that I’m incredibly happy with – how it’s categorised is irrelevant to me.’
All around us the daily to and fro of London thunders on but we could be anywhere. These topics are obviously ones Adam returns to time and again and talking about them in such a frank manner makes the real world disappear. The outcome of such internal and intensely personal self-analysis begs the question, so I ask it. Adam, have you become the man you always wanted to be?
‘Very much. Very much, yeah. The campaign will last as long as I’m permitted, as long as there’s interest, as long as offers come in for me to play beautiful places and as long as airplay, press and ticket sales are available to me. I will try to respond to any interest in me.’
I love a happy ending. It seems like a good place to wrap up our interview, so I ask what’s next for Adam. As if he hasn’t been open enough, I’m slightly taken aback by the course the conversation takes. I suggest Adam now has a foundation on which to move forward. With the success of Like A Man and the positive reaction to We Go Home does he feel there’ll be more records in the future? A final, long held pause, time enough to light another cigarette. As he did at the beginning of the interview, he looks me in the eye.
‘I’ll be very realistic. I’m going to tell you the truth man and I don’t say this very often, but if this record doesn’t work… if it doesn’t take me to the place I feel I ought to occupy, to the heights I feel compelled to belong to, then I might pack it in.’
I sit back in my chair. Really?
‘Yeah. I won’t stop making music, but I’ll stop peddling it.’
You obviously have a very strong image of where that height is?
Is that in terms of sales, in terms of fulfillment?
‘Where the height is? It’s for me to know, but the word tenable is the one I would employ. And tenable changes, the definition of what tenable is, changes.’
You must be pleased with the initial response though?
‘So far so good, you know. I can’t complain. The press has been really, really generous, the audiences… I’m playing to packed houses. It’s like a flower opening in the night; it’s got to keep on releasing its scent.’
On that peculiarly poetic note, our time is up. Even as I’m thanking him for his time, Adam sits, hands cupped around his barely touched Americano, before seeming to switch on inside, jump up and shake my hand.
‘Thank you. Thanks for helping me spread the message.’
Composed but anxious, humble, yet very aware of his family’s legendary status in modern music and the legacy his own output is both compared to and that he feels responsible for maintaining. It’s a burden and a gift and it seems he’s finally ready to accept both.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate
We Go Home is out now via Cooking Vinyl
Order via Amazon