Adam Cohen overcomes failure on "Like a Man"
Adam Cohen admits to being both "delighted" and "a little bit nervous" about the imminent release of "Like a Man." It's his first solo album since his 2004 French-language record, "Mélancolista," and he's prouder of it than any of his previous work. But pride has its costs.
"I have to defend now what I've been announcing to anyone who will listen which is that this is my proudest achievement yet," he says. "It will be so wonderful if it sparked a lot of empathy and resonated with people. It's such an unlikely story for me. I really didn't think I'd be making more records. That anyone is interested in them at this point, I just have to be flattered and get up and do my job."
Indeed, Cohen -- yes, he is the son of Leonard -- had pretty much given up on his musical career after years of both commercial and critical disappointment. His self-titled 1998 debut was only a very modest success, as was "Ex-Girlfriends," the 2004 record he made with his band Low Millions. Whether or not he would (or should) continue making music was a serious question in the wake of those failures. Says Cohen: "I was living with what I thought was a case history of defeat in the music business from which I thought the ultimate lesson was to pack it in."
Cohen, 39, credits the existence of "Like a Man" to his producer Patrick Leonard. Leonard, best known for producing much of Madonna's early work, including the hits "Open Your Heart" and "Like a Prayer," offered to produce Cohen's record, albeit under strict conditions: that he sang while playing a nylon-string guitar; that a given song only got three takes before they moved on; and that all the musicians recorded together in the same room.
"That would have terrified me at any other time," Cohen says, "but I had so little to lose that I miraculously summoned the courage to do it."
I ask what spirit he and Leonard were trying to capture by working under those strict rules.
"For me it was a question of rescuing a whole body of work from oblivion," he says. "And the body in question were songs I had categorically hidden away because they all resembled my father's work too closely."
Indeed, Adam Cohen is wilfully inviting comparisons to Leonard Cohen with "Like a Man," citing his father's 1974 album "New Skin for the Old Ceremony" as the primary aesthetic influence. Songs like "Girls These Days" and "Sweet Dominique" recall that record's spare acoustic quality while its subject matter is both libidinous and self-deprecating. His father's son indeed.
"There were three big catalysts for this record," Cohen says. "The first I've probably been quite redundant about, which is I wasn't satisfied with where I was creatively and what I had accomplished. The second was the triumphant and inspiring return to the stage of my father whose resurgence was profoundly stirring to me. And the third was becoming a father myself and feeling linked to my family in a way that I had never felt before and knowing my son was going to consult my work the way I consulted my father's. I had a feeling like I really had to acquit myself of a responsibility I hadn't properly assumed."
I ask Cohen about the title track, a pledge to the woman in his life that he will not act like a typical male. What are the gender politics of that song?
"I'm particularly preoccupied with the idea of becoming a man," Cohen says, "firstly because it happened so embarrassingly late for me and secondly because of recently becoming a father. You're launched into being a man in the larger sense of the word because you're a father. You're forced to take on responsibilities, and you're officially no longer a kid in many respects because you have to be an adult for someone else.
"It's sort of the Biblical tradition of becoming a man, the voyage that one has to take," he continues. "As the Bible says, 'Know thyself.' And that was a really big turning point for me. I realized that I was performing a kind of contortion act for many years and riding on fumes of a dream that was conceived as an adolescent as part of the music business, with a capital 'm' and a capital 'b', and all the glamour and sex, drugs and rock & roll that accompanied that. And now I'm doing it to be good, not because of any sort of external, material or superficial values."
While I do not harp on Cohen's family during my questioning, the singer himself admits that his father's shadow looms large over his career. In fact, Cohen sought his father's approval of "Like a Man," slipping a CD copy into his mailbox. Fortunately, the elder Cohen liked what he heard.
"It was deeply gratifying to be so receptive to this work," he says, "especially given that it's a celebration of the soundtrack of my life which is largely contained with his music. It's natural for any son to seek the validation and approval of his father, especially mine given his incredible credentials."
I conclude our interview by asking Cohen if he would ever encourage his own son -- whose grandfather is of course Leonard Cohen and whose uncle is Rufus Wainwright -- to pursue music as a career.
"It's going to be tough for my kid," he says. "He's got Uncle Rufus, he's got Granddad, he's got me. In a way I've finally graduated to having an honourable place in the family business. He might be seduced into trying the same. I'm not going to vigorously encourage or discourage him one way or the other."
Adam Cohen opens for K'naan at Toronto's Massey Hall Oct 1, followed by dates in Toronto, London and Montreal the following week. Go to www.adamcohen.com for details.