By Simon Fielding
Jon Cohen played with The Dears and The Social Register before going it alone as The Jon Cohen Experimental. His impressive ‘Behold’ album has cast a spell on critics and fans alike. Before bringing his show to Glasgow and Edinburgh, he tells Scotcampus about his home in Montreal, experimentation, and the joys of being a solo musician.
How far does a sense of the place you’re in inform your music? Montreal has obviously produced its fair share of luminaries – do you feel connected to that, or do wish to cut loose from it, to some degree?
“I’m not sure I think about it too much that way. If you’re asking whether I feel connected to a city, well I like the advantages of an urban space but if I could play shows in forest, or outdoors only, I don’t think I would mind that too much. I think I may have hermit envy. Montreal is a great place to live, a near perfect city in my eyes. As far as scenes go, I think a scene is just the clothes the city is wearing at a particular time and every city wears its own unique name brand.”
The instrumentation is diverse on Behold – how far did the producer, Dave Draves, invite you to experiment with your palette of sounds? Is experimentation key to your work?
“Umm, he didn’t really; I pretty much put the whole recording together – structurally, layering, instruments and guests. We had rehearsed the songs as a three piece over the last few years, lots of demoing. Where Dave brought the whole thing to life was in the mixing sessions, he’s one of those guys who just gets right into it, and it was fascinating to watch him work. He’s so immersed in it, for everyone he works with or for. It was a successful experiment working with that guy.”
The title track of the album seems meditative, or reflective. Did you want to address some philosophical concerns on that song? Do you see the song, lyrically, as a key to your world-view?
“I wouldn’t say world view; that might be a bit too broad. I’d say each song represents a state I was in, thoughts I was thinking then, how I was perceiving the world then. I don’t like to attach too much to trying to fit a uniformity into any of my work. I don’t wanna corner myself against a wall that way. I’m finding out where the balance is between being self indulgent and truly, humbly creative, between preaching and trying to share about personal realisations, not as a kind of doctrine but more as if I were showing people what I’d found.”
Necessity forced you to work as a solo artist – do you see this as a happy accident now?
“Yes! I do, I’m happy musically doing this now. It’s bringing me lots of artistic freedom, which makes me very happy about the direction I’m going in. I rarely have to argue or negotiate with myself either, which is convenient for touring. Have you ever backpacked with people you sometimes didn’t get along with? Everyone has, and they know it can ruin a vacation or even relationships, that’s why so many bands break up on the road. I wonder if you can break up with yourself?
No, seriously though, I think that more importantly, it gives me freedom to travel, to play music, to meet people, and to show my real personality onstage. It’s making me write music more creatively and more honestly too. I like it because it’s forcing me to do more, to be more, to use it for good and not evil. By evil I mean where it brings out the nastier sides of you. It’s a great way to tour as well; my last winter tour through the roads of North America on old beat up Greyhound buses was like a personal journey, a travelogue. Joni Mitchell says ‘Your life is like a travelogue, a picture postcard’. I think that’s beautiful.”
Given the shifts in mood and instrumentation on Behold, the songs will, presumably be reworked to suit a solo performance. Do you find new depths in the songs when you take them on the road?
“Yes and no, not all the tunes were able to break on through into solo form. I had to rethink not only the music but also the way the music was presented; sometimes even that changes its message. I think that the transformation breathed new life into these songs off Behold. You know that old saying whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger? Well this rule also seems to apply to this too.”
You’re recording your next project, Passion Pilgrim, in London. Can you tell us a bit about the new material?
“I like this question, because there’s a funny misunderstanding in it. I actually meant London, Ontario, a small town in rural Ontario, Canada. Ha ha! Not quite as glamorous. There’s a studio out there I have my eye on. We’ll see, nothing set in stone yet. First I have to accomplish what I need to accomplish on this tour and see where we stand after that. All I know is that I want to meet and greet anyone who’s willing to invest a little of their time to come to my shows. I promise I’ll work hard for you and we’ll have a grand ol’ time!”
Click here for more info on Jon Cohen’s tour and latest releases.