Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Musical Interlude: An Interview with Dan Cohen

I am a lucky, lucky woman. Not only did I just celebrate my birthday, but tomorrow, I will feast with my best cooking friend and all of her Thanksgiving guests. Daphna gave me a sneak peak at the menu, and all I can say is, “Oh, MAN! There’s gonna be some good eatin’ tomorrow.” Rumor even has it that she’s going to make my wedding cake in the form of tiny cupcakes, which makes me think I might just pass out in sheer bliss at the end of the meal. Hubba hubba!

I am also totally and completely spoiled. Daphna’s got her eye on Thanksgiving bragging rights, so she politely declined my offer to help her cook. This is fine and dandy because I’ll be busy putting together her hostess gift on Thursday. Have you ever given another foodie a gift bag? It’s really, really fun! It’s a little like having permission to buy all sorts of cute things or exotic ingredients, and then you get heaps of praise in return. I rather like the whole exchange.

Even though I won’t be cooking Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, I’ll still be in the kitchen, making holiday meals for breakfast and lunch. While I’m puttering around, I’ll have the CD player spinning my favorite albums. I love to listen to music while I cook. It energizes and soothes me, and it keeps me company when I’m cooking by myself. One of my favorite kitchen albums is Dan Cohen’s self-titled solo debut album. I’ve written about Dan’s album once before because I think it’s really wonderful. It’s the “soundtrack of life,” if I may quote myself, an eclectic mix of country, rock, and jazz. It is sassy and sublime.

Today, I am thrilled and honored to share with you an interview with Dan Cohen. Dan agreed to discuss his thoughts about the album, songwriting, performing, and even his own encounters with fame. I love getting to peak inside the creative process through Dan’s words; he is funny and humble and inspiring. I’m just tickled to have him here at Life, Love, and Food.

Dan, thanks so much for agreeing to interview with me, a starstruck fan. Let’s begin by discussing Dan Cohen, the album. What was your favorite part of recording Dan Cohen? What were some of the more challenging aspects of the album?

I liked doing the guitar parts. What I really liked was seeing how songs changed when we all got together and played them. Some things I heard differently in my head before we went in to track them, and when I heard how they came out, I was amazed and delighted. Matt King had a lot to do with this. We kind of arranged stuff on the fly for some songs.

"When You Don't Come Home" was particularly fun to record, because we did it all live in a big room. Matt wanted a front porch kind of feel. The "kick drum" is actually Derek stomping on the floor. Matt is playing the triangle. We did overdub the vocal and I got to play the vibes, which was a life-long dream of mine, of course.

“Lullaby" was also fun to record. Or not so much fun as gruelling and horrible because that one really was live—the guitar and vocal at the same time. Ordinarily you would record the guitar part and then overdub the vocal so you could go back and make fixes and comp and tune and stuff. But Matt said I sang it better while playing the guitar, so we did that. And there are a couple of pitchy spots that made me wince for a while, but they don't anymore and now I'm quite proud of that performance.

What are a few of your favorite songs on the album?

I just love "Even Us." It’s the one track I still get goose bumps listening to. I like "Jackknife" for the horn parts, and I love "Hope You Don't Change Your Mind" because sonically, it's just so full and warm and well-balanced. That's the best-mixed song on the record, despite that there's like 20 people playing on that track. It's insane! And I like "Pete and Elizabeth" because it's got this great mood.

My sources tell me you are a very prolific song-writer. What is the song-writing process like for you?

I am more prolific than I used to be, I suppose. My brother says I am. He runs the business end of the label and the publishing company, and he says that I'm not nearly as lazy as I think. Good. We just signed three new writers to the publishing company, Jace Everett, Doug Powell, and Denitia Odigie. I write with all those guys for their projects so I will no doubt be even more prolific in the next year or so.

I often start with a little guitar music and maybe a melody I hum with no words or nonsense words. Sometimes the nonsense words end up making sense and become the basis for an idea, which is certainly weird, to be sure. I don't really like writing words because I don't really have much to say. And what little I do have to say always gets twisted around ‘til I can't recognize it anymore once a lyric is done. Or rather I'll have a cool idea in my head, but when it comes out on the page and I sing it, I say, “That is very, very, VERY dumb. I'm glad no one was around to hear that. I will now destroy it forever." That's when I'm writing alone. But when you co-write you have to throw everything you're thinking out there, to keep the process flowing along. So you end up saying some dumb shit. But so do they, so hey!

Basically the music is pure and the words never quite measure up to a great melody. Unless the words are fantastic, but how often does that happen? But that's just me, maybe. That's why I like to team up with clever lyricists like Matt King and Jace and Doug.

Is there a time of day when you find yourself most inspired to write songs?

Not really. I get inspired with music late at night mostly. But I can write hackneyed, crappy words all day long.

How do you decide that a song you have written or co-written is one you would like to perform yourself?

Usually I know from the start if I'm writing for me or someone else. But sometimes a song I'm thinking of for The Levees (my other project) will end up working for me.

You write some of your songs from a woman's perspective, with the intention that they will be performed by a woman. What do you do to put yourself, creatively, in a woman's shoes? Are those songs harder or easier to write than songs written from a man's perspective?

I do the same thing I do when writing for anybody. I think, "If I were on stage singing this song, what would I say here that would make me seem really cool and smart and sexy?" And that usually does it.

Speaking of women, with which female singer would you most like to perform a duet?

Oooh. That's a tough one. Gillian Welch, maybe. Or Alison Krauss. I met her and Robert Plant in Nashville at a recording studio. I wrote a song for them but I forgot to tell them about it because I couldn't speak or make brain work right forget words speak not goodly.

Or Suzanne Vega.

A big part of your career is performing live. From what I can tell, you alternate between more local performances in the Nashville area, where you reside, and farther-flung touring performances. What do you love about performing in Nashville? And what is life like for you when you are on tour? Is there a city where you dream of performing?

I need to book more shows. It's difficult doing everything on your own. We're a small label, and the booking agents these days don't pay any attention until you're already drawing really good crowds, and at that point...what do you need a booking agent for?

As far as Nashville goes, there's not much I like about performing here. Everybody has music flung at them from all directions all day. So it's hard to get people excited about something. It's hard to get people OUT at all. Maybe it's like trying to get attention paid to one's cooking when you live in...Paris. There's a saturation issue. I like to get out of town because I make money there and people appreciate music, particularly live music.

I want to get over to Europe and play my music.

And speaking of cities, any chance you'll be performing in the Chicago area any time soon?

I will if I can. Gas is getting cheaper. I just need a place to stay. Hmmm...

Since this is a cooking blog, let's talk about food. Do you cook at all, Dan? If so, what's your best dish? What do you cook if you are trying to impress?

I don't cook. I used to...a bit. I made this Asian orange ginger chicken that was okay. And once I made a tiramisu for a girlfriend and I'd never made it before and screwed up the mascarpone mixture and had no more. So I went out scouring the streets of Philadelphia at midnight for something I could use to substitute. I went into this 24-hour market place near my apartment—the kind of place that says it sells "groceries" but this turns out to mean two bananas, [a] frozen burrito, and a bottle of margarita mix. Anyway, they did have one container of Philadelphia Cream Cheese! So I used that and it was awesome. Cream cheese tiramisu.

* * *

So I’m a little heartbroken that Dan doesn’t cook, but I suppose I’m willing to forgive him for this lapse in good judgment. More exciting, though, is his thought about performing in Chicago! Dan, I have just the place where you can stay, a humble little treehouse of an apartment. The food there is fantastic, and for a few strums of the guitar, you might even get dessert. Now that the price of gas is going down, you have no excuses for not heading north. I’ll be waiting for you.

*All photos courtesy of Dan Cohen. Isn't he great?


Anonymous said...


Daphna is going to make your wedding cake in the form of tiny cupcakes?

Did I miss something??


Rosiecat said...

Dear AMPD,

Ah! Confusion! At some future, unknown date, Daphna is going to make my wedding cake, this deep dark chocolatey luscious thing with vanilla frosting. The frosting is really amazing stuff. Officially, it is "Swiss Meringue Buttercream," and it's light, fluffy, buttery, and subtly sweet. I am in love with it. For Thanksgiving, Daphna made the same cake, but this time, she made it as tiny cupcakes and I got to frost them! Yay! She brought out the cake-decorating tools, and we made all sorts of fun designs with that magnificent frosting.

Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful, Mrs. D!