In The Know...Interview with Jon Cohen

>> Monday, 10 January 2011

For his current musical odyssey, Jon Cohen (of the Jon Cohen Experimental) decided to leave the Experimental at home. Instead of bringing along the band, he's doing the one-man show thing for the entire trek, a three-month "personal pilgrimage" that required Cohen to sit down, construct a completely new set, and revamp song after song.

But the purpose of the pilgrimage isn't some sort of end goal: it's to bring the songs off his terrifically thoughtful and well-written sophomore disc, Behold, to as many receptive ears as possible.

I caught up with the Montreal-based pop-rock artist over the weekend and asked him about the challenges of preparing for a solo tour; how members of the Stills, Stars, and Dears came to guest on Behold; and what his New Year's Resolutions for 2011 were.

Painting over Silence: In the past you’ve been a member of such high profile bands as the Dears and the Social Register. What made you decide to form your own musical project?

Jon Cohen: The need to express myself, do my own music and take charge of my own affairs. I can write music – I don’t only play instruments – and if you put that away, it’s okay for awhile; but, after awhile it going to affect you unless you let it out of the closet.

PoS: How did your time and experience playing with these acts help ultimately shape the Jon Cohen Experimental and your personal songwriting style?

JC: Well, the amount of time that was spent playing music with so many different members and just being out there, touring a lot and just trying out all these different styles of music has not gentrified me in any way. It’s kept me pretty open to any possibility, and I take that spirit into my own music. It’s taught me to have an open mind to try anything.

PoS: Behold features some A-list cameos from the likes of Evan Cranley (Stars), Murray Lightburn (Dears), and Liam O’Neill (Stills). How did these musicians get involved in the album?

JC: I asked them! *laughs*

I called them up, and I said I’m working on a record. It wasn’t the easiest thing. Obviously these guys are pretty high caliber musicians and busy guys, and I’m just another friend who was making music. But they were really supportive, and they really got behind the music. It was definitely a concerted effort - I wouldn’t have done it unless I felt the music was up to par. It was just a question of approaching them and seeing to what extent they’d like to be involved.

PoS: Behold is your second release under the Jon Cohen Experimental moniker. What changed this second time around, in terms of your approach to writing and recording?

JC: Both records have their pros and cons. On the one hand, with the first record, there’s a sort of naive approach and just this kind of raw energy of jumping into something and doing it fast. There’s an innocence there that is definitely undeniable, and although the music is not quite as developed, it still contains something that is hard to capture otherwise.

With this record (Behold), it’s the opposite. It was two years of intense labour, working and reworking the music and trying to capture it at its best moments. There’s also the age factor – a little older, a little wiser as they say – and just wanting to have a totally different experience when making the record. That’s not to say the next record won’t be done in a weekend. For me, it’s more about the process - the process dictates the outcome so much more than anything else.

I want to try to change it up as much as possible from album to album, and that not only refers to how I approach it, but also where I want to record it and with whom I want to play with.

PoS: The word “behold” means much more than seeing – it refers to observing, processing what you see. What made this particular word a good fit for the album title?

JC: Well, lyrically this album is focused on introspection; it’s focused on my own personal journey of self-discovery. The word ‘behold’ generally refers to this idea of revealing something to yourself - of revealing yourself to yourself. An aspect of yourself that you may not have been aware of before. Or somebody reveals something to you as well. It’s a kind of “a-ha” moment like “ah. This takes me to the next stage of my experience.”

I think lyrically this album asks listeners to not just listen on a superficial level or not just do things in life on a superficial level, and try to look for a deeper meaning and try to have a bit more insight into your daily thoughts and actions. It’s a message, really, to myself; but, like all music, it’s a personal thing, and depending on how honest it is, it can really translate to a lot of people. The title word was carefully chosen. It really is about this idea that we live in a society where we don’t behold.

PoS: So the current tour is just Jon Cohen solo, without the Experimental.

JC: That’s correct.

PoS: How does preparing for a solo tour compare to preparing for one backed by a full band?

JC:  It’s very different. It’s obviously more isolative. I had to understand that I couldn’t rip my band away for three months of their lives to follow me on this personal pilgrimage. So, I had to seize this opportunity to experiment with a whole other side of myself. I had to create a completely new set and take these songs from behold and reinvent them.

One thing was for sure: I didn’t want it to be the singer of the band who goes solo, just has an acoustic guitar and plays the songs bare bones. I took it as an opportunity to reinvent myself and while I’m not fully there, I’m working out the kinks. I’m definitely on my way.

By the time I hit Winnipeg and the prairies, this thing will have morphed into something I can negotiate with.

PoS: Last question: 2011 just kicked off, which means New Year’s resolutions are being bandied about left and right. What are Jon Cohen’s New Year’s resolutions for 2011?

JC: To work hard! To push and to get myself out there and to give more. And try to be more honest, more outgoing and try to do what I believe I was put here to do.

Which is to make music and give it to people.


He means that literallyCatch Jon Cohen this Friday night at the Cavern. The first ten or so people receive a free copy of his latest record, Behold


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