Interview: Chris Cohen
“My parents got divorced while I was making this record,” says singer/songwriter Chris Cohen of his mellow yet frequently upbeat self-titled third album. “They were married for 53 years and my father spent most of his life in the closet, hiding both his sexual identity and various drug addictions. For me it was like being relieved of a great burden, like my life could finally begin. … I hoped that by writing about what was closest to me at the time, I might share something of myself and where I came from.”
Prior to his Tuesday, April 9 show at The Mothlight, the Los Angeles-based artist spoke with Asheville Stages about communicating through music, the perks of having composers in his touring band, and his experiences with nontraditional housing in Buncombe County.
Edwin Arnaudin: What’s your history with Asheville?
Chris Cohen: I don’t have too much history in Asheville, but I’ve been coming there on tours for a long time. A nice stranger housed us — they had a teepee or maybe a yurt? It seems like a good place to live. It reminds me of Santa Cruz, CA, where I went to school.
EA: As you very well may know, St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ 2018 album Young Sick Camellia is part of a proposed trilogy where frontman Paul Janeway explores the men in his family from his perspective and that of his father and grandfather. You also explore your family’s multigenerational masculinity on your latest album. Is there something about the current social climate where male singer-songwriters feel more comfortable expressing these topics than they previously had?
CC: I don’t know if I could speak to that. It seems like men have always been expressing themselves. I think everyone's dealing with the fallout of inequality one way or another. Men are so messed up. I’m definitely not saying that men need more air-time or something like that. I just wanted to pull apart some memories from my family and try and figure out what happened.
EA: How has openly addressing your relationship with your father through music and in interviews affected your life? And what does he think about these songs?
CC: I don’t talk to my dad anymore, so I don’t know what he thinks. He was always proud of me, but probably doesn’t like what I’m saying about him. He had a heroin problem, among other things, and I just got tricked too many times, put in jeopardy too many times. I felt like it was destroying me to continue dealing with him, but obviously I accept him.
Music probably hasn’t had as much affect on my relationship with my dad as I had hoped, but it's helped me in so many other ways. It’s my best way of speaking.
As for interviews, it’s been helpful for me to think the songs through. It’s difficult to being open about the personal stuff in interviews, but it seems better than having to hide the truth, which is what I used to do when people asked me what my songs were about.
EA: “House Carpenter” feels like a classic folk ballad from the British Isles. Is it influenced by any particular tales or compositions — or does its genesis lie elsewhere?
CC: It’s a traditional folk ballad that I learned from the Watson Family record on Rounder. It was just something I always loved and seemed like a nice complement to my songs.
EA: Who’s in the band you’re bringing to The Mothlight? How do you know them and what distinct qualities have each of them brought to realizing your latest songs in a live setting?
CC: My band right now is Ben Varian on drums, Jay Israelson on keyboards, Davin Givhan on bass and harmonies. I’m not sure how to describe their different qualities — they’ve worked hard to learn my songs and play with patience and care. They’re all composers, too. My recordings have lots of weird little licks, so I suppose it's a matter of figuring out what’s part of the song and what’s open to interpretation night after night.
EA: What do you have planned for the rest of 2019?
CC: Next month we’re going to Europe for a few weeks, Springsfest in Ohio, and a West Coast tour with Dear Nora in July, [plus] more international touring in the fall. In the summer, I’ll do some producing work for other artists and then see what else there is to do.
IF YOU GO
Who: Chris Cohen with Emily Easterly
When: Tuesday, April 9, 9 p.m.
Where: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
Tickets: $10 advance/$12 day of show
(Photo by Ebru Yildiz)