Joanna Schroeder interviews musician Adam Cohen about love, success, and the perilous allure of pursuing fame over art.
Singer-Songwriter Adam Cohen is the type of guy you notice when he enters a room.
He has a particular style that stands out, even in Hollywood where everyone thinks they stand out. He knows how to sport a fashionable scarf like a man, always wears the collar of his jacket popped up, and has the slightest hint of an accent that betrays his international upbringing.
Adam was born in Montreal to a beautiful American, Suzanne Elrod, and folk music legend Leonard Cohen. He was raised in France, Greece, Canada and New York City and embodies all of these elements naturally. He carries a confidence that is very European, along with an intimacy with classic fitted clothing and great shoes. The New Yorker in him lusts after live music in dark bars and the kinds of conversations that happen in the latest hours of the night.
But life has settled down for Adam, who is the father of a 5 year-old son. He is finding peace in the simple and profound aspects of life: family, friendships and his musical roots.
Adam’s new album, Like a Man, is on heavy rotation in my home. While I instantly loved the whole album, a few of the songs stand out as future classics in the singer-songwriter genre, and speak to issues of manhood that you rarely hear in popular music: depression, gender roles, and the beauty of truly knowing and loving a long-term partner.
The first time I heard the opening track, Out of Bed, I literally lost my breath. It’s honest, desperately heartbreaking, and simply gorgeous. The gentle, insistent guitar harkens back to Nick Drake’s peaceful but melancholy Pink Moon but also feels very much like Adam.
It’s not a shocker that Adam is unafraid of delving into lyrics that deviate from the usual pop fare. His father’s career isn’t one of a manufactured pop star whom everyone on the street recognizes. Rather, Leonard Cohen is considered an artist of the purest musical form. He shrugged off the trappings of late 1960s style and affect, and created music that runs layers-deep in poetry and musical composition.
While other stars of the era may have had legions of screaming girls swooning outside of hotels, those who love Leonard Cohen speak of how his music changed who they were, as people. And while that may be an overwhelming shadow for a young musician to be raised in, Adam found the fertile soil in which he was planted to be a great place to grow.
JS: On the EPK you feature on your website, you admit that this record is a “coming of age” for you. In order to come of age, there are things we need to try and fail at… Or even to try at and then succeed only to fail more grandly in the big picture. In what ways did your failures help you come to “Like a Man”?
I saw I’d been wholly unfocused on things like art, greatness and legacy. Instead, my main preoccupation throughout my so-called-career, was reaching a high and visible post that would create adulation and accolades.
I learned that my failure was to conjure up the right dream from myself, one that suited who i was rather than who I wanted to be. All I wanted was the applause and the sex of a the archetypal rock n roll life style. I wanted to participate in the myth of show-business. And lo-and-behold my early work resembled my aims and its eagerness.
No more of that, thank you. It left me yearning for leaving something truthful behind, uninfluenced by avarice and marketplace.
JS: In what ways did having a musical legend as a father hinder you from your coming of age?
AC: It’s embarrassing to say that I feel unhindered by having had a legend as a father. I was thoroughly supported, and benefited from a great deal of of advice, filial devotion and encouragement. The hinderance was my youthful arrogance and myopia, and misguided carnal and first degree preoccupations.
JS: On your website, you explain that the song What Other Guy reflects the ethos of your father’s So Long Marianne… Was there a time in your life when you actively tried to reject the legacy that the music industry would try to place upon you?
AC: My choices were a result of my motives: I was not rebelling against my father. I wish it’d been that simple. Mine was a case of chasing my aesthetic goals at the expense of honoring thy father. But this was accidental.
JS: The other element of “What Other Guy” that strikes me is the very uncommon romantic ideation you’ve assigned to a long-term love wherein you know your partner very deeply, intimately, and for a long time. Usually, in popular music, we obsess and put the infatuation of brand-new love on a pedestal. Was this a conscious decision to call out the distinction between infatuation and love? Or am I reading into it?
AC: I wanted to take a faithful picture of someone I know and love. One that revealed the extent to which I was familiar, an expert even, in the subject of this very person. The only subtly antagonistic subtext here is the cliche that familiarity bread contempt, since I do end every piece of evidence I offer with the question: “What other guy knows you like that?”
JS: The song Like a Man will probably really resonate with our readers, since we’re all about masculinity and talking about what it means to be a man here at GMP. In a way, do you feel you’ve essentialized masculinity as being controlling or patronizing? Do you feel you’ve shaken off those stereotypes with your album?
AC: I was not writing a manifesto with my song. I was simply enjoying playing with gender roles in song. Prince (who I listened to obsessively as a teen) has written some fantastic and courageous songs from the standpoint of a woman. They are surrealist and perverse. I wanted to give this exercise a try, but with a emphasis on a gender neutral love. One that dispensed with the old rules, or was courageously impervious to them. It’s an ideal. It’s a dignity-in-thought experiment. It’s a message to myself. It’s a confession. It’s just a love song.
JS: What’s your favorite song on the album?
AC: I like the two you’ve mentioned a lot.
JS: What song do you think will be most misunderstood?
AC: I have not experienced misunderstanding of my songs much, and less so on this record. In fact, I’m rather prideful on the subject! I think that the songs are designed to be really concise, clear and efficacious in delivering a message, or recounting a story.
JS: Tell me about the “generational moment” you recently had with your father and your son.
AC: I was sitting at the dinner table, with may son to one side of me and my father to the other. I felt an age-old connection to my family, to the responsibilities I had not upheld but wished to. I felt powerfully in that one instant, I wanted to be a better father to my son. And a better son to my father. It was a pivotal moment.
JS: So on to the Good Men Project’s man-to-man questions, which were conceived by our founder, Tom Matlack…
First, who taught you about manhood?
JS: How has romantic love shaped you as a man?
AC: I’ve been lucky with the game of courting. Consistent luck gave me courage. Courage set me apart.
But I had to learn humility.I must confess it came a bit late, after making a fool of myself many times, from what I thought was up on high.
I learned luck can not be depended on it like an invincible ruse, my charm is not a magic spell… I had to actually develop other social skills to navigate romantic waters. And that’s the luckiest thing of all: I did!
JS: What two words would you use to describe your dad?
AC: Run DMC has a song that famously says “not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good”.
[Pauses... Laughs] And I say this in hopes you understand that my two words for my dad are: mother fucker.
JS: [Laughing] I get it. Like… actually fucked your mother. Funny!
So, How are you most unlike your father?
AC: I’m less disciplined and do not posses a frighteningly dense literary and liturgical education.
JS: From which of your mistakes did you learn the most?
AC: Chasing sex drugs and rock no roll during my most arrogant, energetic and pregnant-with-potential youth.
JS: What dad in your life do you really admire for his parenting skills?
AC: Any man I hear remaining close and involved with his children and grandchildren, while not cowering to them or succumbing to indolence and domestic captivity.
JS: When was the last time you cried?
AC: I cry at the slightest hint of sadness in a movie, and that’s where I cried last.
JS: What advice would you give teenage boys who are trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
AC: Work backwards: who is great to you and why? And what can you do to truly be like the people you admire. Not outwradly. But truly. And inwardly. And devoutly.
JS: What’s your most cherished guy ritual?
AC: Ritual is a religious word. An organized word. I’m neither religious or organized enough to have a most cherished guy ritual… Unless tempting the night with tequila and attractive friends counts?
JS: I would think so… Okay, finally, have you been more successful in public or in your private life?
AC: My public life has many highlights, and promises more. But my private life has been absolutely sizzling on many many occasions.
Editor’s Note: This is a no-hostility post