The Writers Round with Marc Cohn

Marc Cohn sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as the story behind "Walking In Memphis."

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Marc Cohn
Artist Publicity Photo

Welcome to the Writers Round, a new monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey. This month, Marc Cohn sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the story behind his iconic hit, “Walking In Memphis.”

As a teenager, Marc Cohn was constantly inspired by songwriters. He admired artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Randy Newman and says the art of songwriting moved him so much that he willed himself to be a songwriter.

“I wanted to learn if it was possible for me to do the same thing and have been on that journey to find out ever since,” he tell Sounds Like Nashville over the phone during a recent tour stop.

Cohn wrote his first song as an early teen. “It was about a girl, of course,” he says with a laugh. It wasn’t until he was 29 years old that he signed with Atlantic Records and later released his first album. This year, he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his debut self-titled album which included his timeless single, “Walking In Memphis.”

While Cohn has seen much success as a songwriter, it was a long journey. He says there were many times he was close to giving up. In those dark hours, it was always someone in his life that encouraged him or an opportunity arose that convinced him not to throw in the towel.

“I had people in my life that believed in me more than I did and were really very loving and very supportive and encouraged me to try a little bit harder. That was important,” he shares. “The truth is, it’s a matter of luck and fate, too. It’s not just being good. There’s a lot of good songwriters that don’t get discovered. I was lucky.”

When he was in his early 20s, Cohn moved to New York and found work as a session singer where he sang demos for other songwriters. He eventually began writing for commercials and movie scores, which kept him going financially as he continued to pursue a songwriting career.

He credits his songwriting success to putting in the hours. Much of his time was spent eating, breathing and drinking music, whether he was writing on his own, jamming with friends or listening to records.

“I would spend any time I had at a piano or a guitar or with my legal pad writing lyrics,” he recalls. “Month after month, year after year, honing my craft and trying to find my voice. It took a long, long time. Longer than I hoped.”

Cohn says it’s important for songwriters to study the people that inspire them and perhaps even imitate them for a while. Sooner or later, what makes an artist’s music resonate is when he finds what is “essentially you and not someone else.” For Cohn, it was listening to the advice of a hero of his, James Taylor.

“He gave advice in this article to songwriters who were stuck for ideas. He said, ‘Go somewhere you’ve never been. Get in the car, get on a train, take a guitar, keyboard, whatever, and go some place you’ve never been,'” Cohn recalls. “He called it a geographic. Do a geographic. His advice was that if you get out of some familiar territory, you might come up with something you wouldn’t have thought of if you just stayed at home. Go places. Open up your sensibilities. That’s what I did. That’s why I went to Memphis. I was following James Taylor’s advice. It was great advice.”

Cohn admits he would have never written “Walking In Memphis” if he didn’t travel to Memphis. Writing the song was a big moment for Cohn. He wasn’t signed to a record label at that point, but he knew he turned a corner as far as finding his songwriting voice. As he explains, he felt that there was something about the song that was essentially him as he wasn’t imitating anyone else.

“It was a wonderful beginning to my songwriting and artistic journey, no doubt about it,” he says of writing “Walking In Memphis” when he was 25 years old. “It has opened up and continues to open up a lot of doors.”

Cohn said after traveling to Memphis for the first time in 1985 he knew he had a song. During his trip, he visited Al Green’s church and met an inspiring woman named Muriel Davis Wilkins who played piano at The Hollywood. All these experiences made their way into “Walking In Memphis.” While he took some poetic license, Cohn says the song is as close to a true travel log as they come.

“In the end, that song is about the transformational power of music itself, which is why over all these years, it’s still easy to sing, because that’s still true for me,” he explains. “It resonates the fact that music is really a healing thing.”

While Cohn shares Taylor’s songwriting advice openly, he has difficulty when asked what advice he has for struggling songwriters. He admits that he always finds the question hard to answer in an authentic and honest way as everyone has a different path and journey.

After pausing, he discusses a book he read by the poet Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. In the book, Rilke advises a young poet that he must make sure writing poetry is something he absolutely cannot live without.

“If you don’t feel that passionately about being a songwriter, or a poet, or an artist of any kind, you shouldn’t do it,” Cohn says. “Now to me, I’ve given up on that answer because I’m always assuming that if somebody’s trying to be a songwriter or an artist they really want it. Assuming that we’re talking about people that all are equally motivated, I don’t know what advice to give except follow your heart and your own instincts.”

He further explains that the best advice is for a songwriter to be honest with himself. Would you go to a show of your own? While he admits it’s hard to be that objective it’s something you have to do.

“It was a big moment for me to sit down and really listen to the demos I made back when I was 22 or 23, because so many record companies were saying no. I had to really listen and go, ‘Okay, why is everyone saying no?'” he says.

Ultimately the answer was the songs weren’t that good. If you have a moment where you can be really honest with yourself about why things aren’t happening, just keep working at it if that’s what you want. You will get better. A strong work ethic does pay off. Will it ensure that you’re a superstar? No. But nothing will do that.”

Cohn concedes that there is one thing that hasn’t changed since he started writing songs over 25 years ago.
“I do believe if you’ve written a great song someone will hear it and help it get heard,” he asserts. “The best question to ask yourself is, ‘Have you really written a great song? Have you written a Kristofferson level, Paul Simon level, Jimmy Webb level kind of song?’ If you have, someone will hear it. That’s what you’ve got to write, because that’s what you’re going to be compared to.”

Marc Cohn is currently on tour. His latest album, Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities is out now.