Chris Cohen embraces candor, musical freedom

Andy Downing
Chris Cohen

Chris Cohen's decision to self-title his third solo record reflects a choice he made early in the creative process, wherein he opted to distance himself from the more elliptical lyrics he'd employed on past efforts, instead writing about his past with a directness and candor he'd long avoided.

“I was trying to talk about things in a way … where it could be understood more easily,” said Cohen, whose voice is also set noticeably higher in the mix than on previous records, further advancing this idea. “In the past with my songs, I think I kept them sort of private and abstract to deflect attention from what was inspiring them. Writing this record, I felt tired of keeping secrets.”

A number of tracks deal with the musician's difficult (and now nonexistent) relationship with his father, Kip Cohen, a record company executive who led A&R at Columbia, where he signed Billy Joel, and at A&R Records during the years in which the label signed Styx, among others. Chris Cohen said he felt more comfortable writing about his father following his parent's divorce, as well as in the wake of his own decision to sever ties with the elder Cohen, who discussed his struggles with drug addiction and the impact it had on his family in a 2008 interview with NPR. “There was a lot of wreckage that I had to deal with,” he said at the time.

Despite the tumultuous backstory, the songs populatingChris Cohen are generally measured and, on the surface at least, unassuming, with Cohen methodically crafting soft-lit indie-rock tunes genial enough that the arrangements have a way of cloaking some of this heavier source material. Regardless, the musician never plays it entirely straight, upsetting his more-traditional compositions with unexpected time signatures and weaving in instrumentation that hints at the unease churning at the core of his songs. On the melancholic “Green Eyes,” for one, Cohen layers in a buzzing keyboard line that adds a nearly imperceptible dreamlike quality to the song, making it sound as though the musician is reflecting on his childhood through the fog of time.

“I like there to be something that keeps you from being able to put it in a category, or something that seems out of place,” Cohen said of his process. “If anything is starting to feel like one style, I like to do something to confuse it, or do something to offset it somehow.”

Musically, Cohen borrowed inspiration from the records he absorbed early in childhood, though less sonically than in the sense of absolute freedom the art form offered in those years before his tastes hardened.

“I felt like that was the time when my music appreciation was at its most pure, where I was open to anything,” said Cohen, who will perform as part of Springsfest in nearby Yellow Springs on Saturday, July 6. “After that, I think my musical taste started to orient itself around the idea of rebelling against my surroundings or creating an identity for myself based on what records I bought. I feel like that kind of change is pretty normal. Very few people hold onto that pure sense of music appreciation that comes before, where you're listening to music and not bringing these ideas to it like, ‘I like the Clash. I don't like the Grateful Dead.' I'm ready to let those ideas go.”

John Bryan Community Center

Saturday, July 6

100 Dayton St., Yellow Springs