Three Albums In, Chris Cohen Is Hitting His Stride

Artwork for the Cohen's just-released self-titled album.
Artwork for the Cohen's just-released self-titled album. Detail from the album cover

For more than a decade, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, Chris Cohen, was an artist lurking behind the scenes of the indie-rock world, touring and recording with some of the most enigmatic and critically-revered artists around, from Deerhoof to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti to Cass McCombs.

In 2012, however, Cohen stepped out under his own moniker with Overgrown Path, a solo album completely recorded and played alone by Cohen in his home studio. Here is where we were first introduced to not only Cohen’s unique brand of timeless psych-pop, but his natural ability at the helm of the recording process. By the time of his 2016 follow-up, As If Apart, Cohen the solo artist had become a fully realized concept.

This past Friday, Cohen released his third full-length album, a self-titled work. Relying on tremolo-heavy guitar sounds, crisp rhythms, and his unmistakable croon, Chris Cohen is a dreamy manifestation of the sunbaked sound first explored in Overgrown Path. However, now with years of experience recording his own work (as well as time spent producing others such as Weyes Blood), the album is by far Cohen’s most well-crafted work to date.

Take “Sweet William” for example. The tune is constructed as simply and sparsely as possible, infused with as thin of a drum and bass sound as you’ll come across in today’s low-end loving world of production. What this does is give the song room to breathe, allowing the strength of the keyboard play and resonance of Cohen’s voice to carry the song through its several key changes. This tactic is used throughout Chris Cohen, and provides a refreshing contrast to the homogeneity and predictability evident in much of today’s music.

Cohen says he plays music the way he wants to, without any preconceptions. He largely credits this to his Southern California upbringing, a place that lacks “oversight or a proper way to do things,” as he explains. “Out here people seem to do things any way they want, often wrong in my opinion, and that’s what makes it a super harsh place in some ways but also a beautiful place where strange things can develop. I’m a part of that mentality—I don’t like to follow recipes or read instructions, I like to learn experientially in that West Coast mindset.”

Where Overgrown Path and As If Apart were largely created in a solitary environment with Cohen playing every instrument recorded, Chris Cohen features several collaborators throughout. “I would prefer to work with other people at this point,” Cohen says. “I’m trying to walk the line of maintaining my inspirations in the presence of other people. This record was like baby steps towards collaboration. It's mostly me, but I can bring people in in a very controlled way.”

While the additions from musicians like Jay Israelson, Kasey Knudsen, and a host of collaborating lyricists add to overall aesthetic of the album (see the excellent sax addition to “Edit Out”), Cohen explains that it’s the lack of solitude that really makes a difference. “I’ll never let go with my songs completely I don’t think, but I do welcome the changes that other people bring. I also really like having company with me in the studio. I’m tired of being lonely and depressed.”

At first listen, heavier ideas such as loneliness or depression don’t necessarily come to mind with Chris Cohen, as the melodies and overall feel of the music conjure up the same bright disposition of earlier LA pop-rock singer-songwriters (a la Brian Wilson). Yet, settle into the lyricism behind these melodies, and you’ll quickly realize Cohen had plenty to unload in the making of the album (further not unlike Wilson).

According to Cohen, “each [album] is a very different experience for me based on what else is happening in the world and in my life.” During the making of Chris Cohen, Cohen's experiences revolved around the divorce of his parents, his father’s coming out of the closet, and the confrontation of his father’s struggles with drug addiction—plenty of personal happenings to draw inspiration from to say the least.

In the past, Cohen often hid his emotional weight behind a more ambiguous style of lyricism that rarely led a listener to the height of exactly where his life was at given point. Chris Cohen on the other hand, finds him operating with freeing amount of transparency (giving the album’s self-titled label more weight than initially realized).

When asked about this heightened level of transparency, Cohen details how “It wasn’t a logical or conscious decision. I just wrote about what felt closest to me at the time—which was often the struggle I went through letting go of my relationship with my father and trying to understand all my feelings about my parents' relationship and my father’s addiction. I did think about previous experiences of releasing records though and I did want to avoid some of the misunderstandings that I think people had.”

To illustrate, Cohen explains how people believed his 2016 track, “In a Fable,” was about his own relationship, when in reality he was reflecting on the already troubled marriage of his parents (“That love's no longer mine / But it's still yours”). In Chris Cohen on the other hand, there’s little room for confusion. “Green Eyes” for example, finds Cohen singing “He was the first man I ever met / He filled in every space / Told me not to mumble / There was anger in his face,” plainly confronting the presence of his father.

This Friday night, Cohen will be bringing the songs of Chris Cohen to Satellite Bar, for the start of a what will be a four month-long tour through the United States and Europe. Asked about performing personal songs to a live audience night after night, Cohen says he finds it more therapeutic than it is difficult.

“I think about the words when I’m singing if I can, but often I’m not thinking of anything, just trying to put the sounds where they need to go and thinking about the people listening and my place in the room with them. That’s good for me.”

Chris Cohen Live in Houston at 8 p.m. April 5 at Satellite Bar, 6922 Harrisburg. $10-13. Ages 18+
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