He’s Leonard’s fan

After years of distancing himself musically from his famous father, Adam Cohen embraces his inner hallelujah.

Adam Cohen 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Arbel/PR))
Adam Cohen 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Arbel/PR))
Going into the family business can be risky – and not only if it’s olive oil importing. Whether it’s joining the family plumbing company or becoming a performer like musical parents, following the same career path as mom or dad can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it leaves you vulnerable to claims of taking the easy way out without any of the prerequisite dues paying, and alternatively, it can prevent you from taking the necessary steps to walk in your own path.
It took singer/songwriter Adam Cohen a couple of decades to realize that the footprints he was meant to make were extremely similar to those of his father – the iconic Leonard Cohen.
“It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was in the family business,” the 39- year-old guitarist said last week during a phone call from Malmo, Sweden, where he was performing as part of a tour to promote his new album Like A Man, a loving tribute to his father’s musical style.
“I was so damn preoccupied with sex, drugs and rock and roll and adulations and feeling desirable – being a pop star and kind of ignoring my lineage and relying on arrogance, youth and an appetite for success.”
Cohen’s ability to unflinchingly talk about his life – and his talent of expressing articulate, fully formed thoughts in long, complex sentences – indicates he may embody the same Zen-like qualities his father possesses. And the music on Like A Man demonstrates he shares many of his father’s musical qualities – a husky, melancholic voice singing sweetly, poetically and whimsically about intimacy, connection and lovers.
“This album was not only an exercise in sharing material of mine that resembles my father’s work, but also an exercise in celebrating that influence. And to have my father pronounce that I have world-class love songs on my record is a deeply gratifying compliment,” said Cohen.
Making an album that skirts so closely to his father’s themes, moods and sounds would have been unthinkable up until a few years ago for Cohen, who has released three previous albums in a stop and start musical career launched in 1996 that has done its utmost to distance him from his past.
He was born in Montreal and after his parents separated, spent much of his childhood in France with his mother, Suzanne Elrod, as well as with his father in New York, Los Angeles and the Greek islands. His interest in music was immediate and natural.
“I was always encouraged by my parents to pursue music and instruments – probably too much and without enough reason to second-guess myself, given in retrospect, that same arrogance and appetite for success which blinded me to asking more difficult questions,” said Cohen, who learned guitar, drums and piano by the time he was 12.
After studying international relations at Syracuse University and playing in a series of bands in New York City, he moved to LA in the mid-1990s to pursue a music career.
He eventually signed a recording deal with the same label as his father, Columbia Records, and released a well-received, but commercially unsuccessful, debut in 1998.
The material included tinges of his father’s sound, but revealed more of Cohen’s eclectic influences, including Randy Newman, Prince and Serge Gainsbourg.
“I didn’t pay enough attention to my father’s work – not until later. Certainly not at the beginning,” said Cohen.
“But he always gave me advice about songwriting. He was always generous with his thoughts and guidance and filial devotion.”
DESPITE THAT support, Cohen’s initial foray into the music business left him somewhat dismayed. When he next resurfaced in 2004, there was a drastic shift with a French-language album, Melancolista, a move that Cohen now admits might not have been the wisest career choice.
“Perhaps, it might have hurt me, but I’m a Francophone from Montreal, and I spent 12 years in France. I was trying to throw the anchor off the shores of the Francophone world, but unfortunately a terrible wind blew and it wasn’t successful,” said Cohen.
The same year, he formed an indie band, Low Millions, and released an album, Ex-Girlfriends, which scored some minor adult contemporary radio hits. But soon after, Cohen again disappeared from the public eye.
A 2007 performance in Barcelona marked the first time that he played a song by his father, and that cathartic moment marked the beginning of the process of reconciling to the fact that there was no escaping the fact that he was Leonard Cohen’s son.
In 2009, Adam recorded a cover of his father’s song “Take This Waltz,” which appeared on the benefit album War Child Presents Heroes, and indirectly led to the making of Like A Man, a play on words of the elder Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man.”
Cohen collaborated on the album with noted producer Patrick Leonard, who’s worked with Madonna and Elton John among others. Together, they managed to evoke the familiar Cohen sound without sounding like family-based tribute band.
The reviews have been sterling, and with a new lease on his career, Cohen is finally comfortable in his family’s well-worn shoes.
He admitted that he was apprehensive about merging his own public identity with that of his father’s much more established persona, but explained that he knew audiences were already making that connection themselves, without his help.
“That’s been the case, whether I was wearing a tutu or a clown costume. So I figured I might as well ante up,” he said.
These days, though, fans are showing up more often than not to see Adam Cohen, the artist, not just the famous singer’s son.
And as he tours some of the historic cities of Europe, Cohen said he was appreciative that he seems to have rediscovered an audience, and the joy of performing songs he’s proud of.
“It’s such a privilege to be in one city after another here – Oslo, Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels, it’s not like we’re touring in Cincinnati. It’s actually a tour of prestigious, beautiful cities, all of which I have some interest in,” said Cohen.
“I’m also peddling wares which I’m particularly proud of for the first time. So I see it as an opportunity to really lavish in a chance I thought I wasn’t going to get again – to tour the world.”
And, following his father’s big footsteps once again, Cohen is arriving in Israel – to perform on December 13 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. While audiences shouldn’t expect to receive the Priestly Blessing, like that bestowed upon the Ramat Gan crowd by Leonard Cohen at his 2009 concert, Cohen said that he had a strong Jewish foundation.
“Hey, I’m Adam Cohen, son of Leonard Cohen. So it’s inevitable that Judaism would be a part of my life,” he said, adding that he had been involved in the run-up to his father’s Fund for Coexistence and Reconciliation, which was established with the bard’s proceeds from the concert.
“We spoke about it often and as it was going down, from the inception to the dramatic but expected politicization of the show, to the way in which it was resolved with the fund, to the ultimately triumphant performance itself,” said Cohen, adding that he was excited to be making his first visit to the country.
“I’m hoping it’s the kind of visit that will leave a taste and yearning to come back,” he said, adding with a hint of humor that he was already receiving part of that taste with the press interviews that had been arranged for him that day.
“I hope you’ll forgive me for saying this, but they’re playing into my expectations.
Nobody’s called at the right time, and every time I take a call, I get 25 beeps from other reporters calling thinking it’s their time.
Welcome to Israel, amen.”
Cohen laughed, and for a short time, anyway, the heavy weight of being born into the family business has been lifted.