Marc Cohn is happy to do an interview, he says, but it will have to be quick.
“My son wrote an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ which is premiering tonight and we’re having a big celebration,” he noted during a phone call from his New York City apartment Sunday. “People over and everything, but my daughter, she’s in LA, meeting with agents, trying to get support for a movie she wants to make, so she has to miss it.”
Singer-songwriter Cohn said his oldest offspring, Max and Emily, continue to be an incredible source of pride for him as they make their own careers in the entertainment industry. He is equally proud of his teen-aged sons, Zachary and Sam who are still students.
He’s always glad to talk about his children, but Cohn also has a lot to say about his own career these days. A rigorous tour promoting his new album, “Work to Do,” recorded live with the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama is keeping him busy. He will perform Saturday evening Nov. 9 at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca.
Oddly enough, his relationship with the legendary Blind Boys - whose roots go back to 1939 when the founding members came together as children at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind - is what’s helping to keep Cohn on the contemporary music scene.
But considering how his depth of passion for gospel and blues inspired his best-known song, “Walking in Memphis,” Cohn’s collaboration with The Blind Boys’ founding members Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter is really not so strange.
Cohn contributed three tracks to the octogenarians’ 2017 Grammy-nominated album “Almost Home,” for best Roots Performance. He brought the band called “gospel titans” by Rolling Stone on tour with him for the past few years, recording the concerts for fodder for “Work to Do.”
Except for the traditional “Walking to Jerusalem,” and “Amazing Grace,” Cohn either wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs, including inspired new arrangements for his classics “Walking in Memphis” and “Silver Thunderbird.”
The new songs include the soulful “Listening to Levon,” a tribute to his friend and mentor the late Levon Helm who died in 2012 and at whose funeral Cohn sang. The title song, “Work to Do,” he wrote with the humbleness and the spirituality of the Blind Boys in mind, giving over to their reverence for serving a higher power.
He unearthed some of his early material, including “Baby King,” a song he said he hardly ever performed before the Blind Boys tour, and updated it. The song, he said, could be interpreted either as a tribute to Jesus, or “about a new child coming into a couple’s house, which is how I wrote it.”
“I went to temple, and I was confirmed and all that, but I have always loved the gospel blues,” Cohn, who is Jewish, said. “There is a limit, though. When we were working on ‘Walking to Jerusalem,’ I said that I couldn’t sing that I knew I was going to see King Jesus, because I didn’t believe that. I said I knew I was going to see my mother, and my father, and Jimmy said to me, ‘Well, just sing that then.’”
In addition to writing the new songs on the most recent record, for the past few years, he’s also written for others. In 2017, Cohn worked with William Bell on his Grammy Award-winning album “This is Where I Live.” He co-wrote several tracks on the album, including the opener, “The Three Of Me.” Cohn also collaborated with the Blind Boys on their Grammy-nominated song “Let My Mother Live.”
In 2016, Cohn co-wrote a song with David Crosby, “Paint You a Picture,” which was on Crosby’s “Lighthouse” album. Crosby, a friend since the “Walking in Memphis” days, has called Cohn one of the best songwriters of his generation because Crosby said Cohn writes from the heart in a genuine voice. “I think Marc is right there with people like Shawn Colvin,” Crosby said in an interview earlier this year.
Cohn said it was Crosby who told him he had to get back out on the road and get back to work after he was shot in the head in 2005 during an aborted carjacking in Denver. Miraculously, Cohn was not seriously injured but he suffered from PTSD, which he said was made worse by watching the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina. As it had been throughout his life, writing became a place of peace and solace. He put out a new album, “Join the Parade,” in 2007.
“I hope this doesn’t say something about my life, but the constants are things that are traumatic; it’s still the way I do it,” he said about writing. “It’s emotional, the floodgates open, it puts me in a vulnerable state. But it’s cathartic and it’s comforting to know what your job is. The only thing scarier for me than writing is not writing.”
Cohn’s big break came in 1989, when he played piano on Tracy Chapman’s second album and an Atlantic Records executive heard one of his demos. They offered him a contract, which lead to the success in 1991 of “Walking in Memphis,” an autobiographical song about a trip to the city known as The Home of the Blues. It won him a Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 1992.
The following year, Cohn met Bonnie Raitt through mutual music friends and she asked him to join her tour that took them to Australia and then to New Zealand to open for Bob Dylan. Raitt and Cohn remained close friends, and in 2012 and 2013, Cohn opened shows on Raitt’s concert tours, alternating with Mavis Staples.
Now, at 60, it’s clear there could have been no other career path that would have satisfied him. He continues to write and he’s looking at material for his next album that he hopes to have out by the end of next year.
“I’m touring, so I’m doing just a little bit of writing,” he said.