Colorado singer-songwriter finds her footing on new disc
Jill Cohn will open library's Cottonwood Concert Series next week
FARMINGTON — Jill Cohn has proven to be a prolific songwriter and recording artist, delivering a dozen albums of mostly original material over the last 20 years. But her relationship with her own material hasn't always turned out to be comfortable, and she acknowledges it can sometimes take months or even years before she finds the right footing on some of the tunes she's penned when she tries to perform them live.
To her considerable delight, that turned out not to be the case with her most recent piece of work, the 2018 disc "Balanced on the Rail." For the first time in her career, Cohn — who kicks off the Farmington Public Library's annual Cottonwood Concert Series next week — found an immediate warmth, rhythm and familiarity with the material on the recording.
"'Balanced on the Rail' has been an amazing fit for me – and quite surprising," Cohn said May 29 from Santa Fe, where she was scheduled to perform the next night.
Cohn typically records with a full band but performs most shows solo, something that requires her to come up with different arrangements for much of her material. She professes to have no idea why the new material clicked for her this time.
"I just got out and started playing them live," she said. "It's the first time I've ever written a record and played every song on it live. Every song seemed like a good fit, and they've brought so much life to my shows."
Cohn is a familiar face to Farmington music fans, having become a regular at the library's summer concert series. She's anxious to perform the new songs for local listeners who have become fans.
"I just know I'm having a blast playing them at my shows, and I'm enjoying my engagement with the audience," she said. "Honestly, I don't want to know what the magic is with this song cycle, but I know I'm feeling rejuvenated. And I don't want to question it, because I may never be able to repeat it. … There's no rhyme or reason why certain things are good and certain things flop."
Cohn relocated from Seattle to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, after a breakup a few years ago to be closer to her touring base across the Southwest.
During the recording of "Balanced on the Rail," she worked with Grammy-winning producer Malcolm Burn and achieved the best results of her career. She enlisted Burn's help again this time, but she was ready for a bit of a change in the dynamic between them.
"The other two times I worked with him, it was in his studio (in upstate New York) with his musicians, where there was a certain level of comfort for him, and he was the commander in chief," Cohn said. "This time, I really wanted it to be a co-production. There's definitely a more artistic influence I had on the production this time. There were definitely some artistic choices I did not relinquish this time to him."
Asserting her independence to a producer and musician who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp to Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris didn't come easily for Cohn. She recounted her nervousness during their phone conversation on the subject, and she worried she had alienated him when her description of what she had in mind was met with a pregnant pause.
But she was relieved when Burn said he understood and accepted her need to have a greater say over her own sound. Ultimately, there were few conflicts between them during the recording process, and Cohn came away pleased with how it unfolded.
"I was not certain how that would sit with him, but I got the recording I wanted this time," she said. "So, if I ruffled any feathers with this, I think it was worth it to have that happen."
The themes covered on "Balanced on the Rail" are likely the most personal of Cohn's career, covering relationships old and new, the loss of a dear friend, a change in surroundings and even her grief over the passing of a handful of rock 'n' roll icons. It's ironic, then, that, for the first time, Cohn also shared songwriting credits on many of those tunes with various partners.
"It's really new for me," she said of the cowriting experience. "I'm such a newbie at it. But it's kind of exciting because it's given me a new perspective on it. It's been a breath of fresh air to bring people into my circle and introduce a 'we' factor. It's brought more energy into my songs and made them more of a community experience."
Cohn co-wrote "The Shoe Song" and "Legends" with Kitty Riley, a writer she met at a songwriting workshop in Colorado who was looking to set some of her poems to music. The two found common ground, with Cohn quickly rounding Riley's lyrics to "The Shoe Song" into shape, and Riley pushing Cohn's "Legends" across the finish line, a tune she had struggled with for a considerable amount of time.
The latter song is a tribute to three of Cohn's greatest musical influences — David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty — each of whom died in 2016 or 2017. Cohn said the opportunities Prince gave female artists ranging from the Bangles to Sheila E. was instrumental in the formation of her own identity as a musical artist.
"He showed my generation — and me — that women were not just talented, but powerful," he said.
Her fondness for the music of Bowie and Petty has been with her since her childhood, she said, and she even recounted a schoolgirl crush she had on Petty.
"I fell in love with him," she said, giggling at her infatuation with the skinny, shaggy-haired young Petty who slouched with his guitar on the cover of his seminal 1979 album "Damn the Torpedoes." "But that's when you're forming your musical self — in middle school. You put an imprint on the music you like and the music you want to create."
Cohn invokes two other artists she has enormous respect for on her cover of "Fort Worth Blues," Steve Earle's tribute to his late friend Townes Van Zandt. But her version of the song is intended as a memorial for a friend of hers who died shortly after Cohn moved to Colorado three years ago.
"(Her) influence on this record was huge," Cohn said. "She was really there for me the year I moved to Colorado. Her friendship at that time in my life was pivotal."
Despite the presence of those two songs, Cohn hastens to describe the mood of the "Balanced on the Rail" as anything but morbid. After an initial period of adjustment to her new home and the end of a long relationship, she said she has found happiness in the southern Rocky Mountains.
"I hope 'Balanced on the Rail' reflects that," she said.
Cohn will perform at 3:30 p.m. on June 7 in the library rotunda and at 6 p.m. in the amphitheater on the north side of the library. The series continues every other Friday through Aug. 2. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1270 or visit infoway.org.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at email@example.com.