The Fashion of Pop

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In my typical month a lot of material passes over my desk. Much of it is disposable–both literally and figuratively. Music these days from any given genre is a dime-a-dozen and quality is at a real premium.

Still, I try to be fair and give everything a chance. I must confess however when I first read about openly gay New York vocalist Neil Cohen I first expressed real interest in the project mainly because of his last name.

There is another Cohen with whom I am quite fond and I thought perhaps they were related. Alas, Neil and Leonard are no relation that I can discover but it was fortuitous that I gave this gem a listen nonetheless.

Neil Cohen is blessed with unbelievable pipes that can swell to momentous pop heights one moment and drop to the depths of sultry soulfulness in the next. Before the release of his debut album "Day Off", Cohen had been devoting all of his time to a successful fashion business he started eight years ago with his life partner Claude.

A year ago, after a six year hiatus from music, Cohen decided he needed to take a day each week to record an album. Financing the project himself, Cohen entered the studio with Greg Parratto and Everett Bradley producing the album and co-writing three original tracks alongside Cohen. A year later the aptly named "Day Off" debuted. "Day Off" is a gorgeous scrapbook of thoroughly modernized classics from the late 60s and early 70s encompassing a variety of sounds ranging from playful pop to breathtaking soul.

This little Jewish boy has a voice that shakes the listener to their core leaving them begging for more. Recently, Neil Cohen took time to chat with O&AN in a phone interview about his new album.

Before your hiatus to pursue your fashion business you were being courted by a major label. Before that time what was your history in music?

From the age of five I’ve been singing. I took some voice lessons through the years but most of my vocal experience has been natural, god-given.

Your vocal range covers a variety of styles and sounds. As a vocalist to whom do you look for inspiration?

Growing up I was always turned on to black singers. Like so many singers I grew up listening to the brilliance of Stevie Wonder and I loved Pebo Bryson. I have a great love for music and great melodies so that’s what I’ve always been turned on to.

When you were choosing the songs for the album what were the challenges involved in interpreting the songs from this era of music?

When I went to do a cover album I was obsessed with the material because the market is so flooded with covers right now. So many of the labels are looking at new vocalists and wondering "what do we do with this guy" and it seems like everyone ends up doing cover tunes. So, it was important that my work stand out from all of that we picked some really great material that was being ignored for the most part. 

Considering the era that you chose to cover is it reasonable to assume you are targeting mainly Baby Boomers with your work?

Not at all! We worked hard to make the album accessible to not only the baby boomers who love the songs as cherished memories from their past but also to the people in their twenties who have never been exposed to a lot of these songs some of which are 35 years old. We took some songs like "More Today than Yesterday" which is still one of the standard pop songs of our time and we wrote a whole new section where there’s a rap and I think it works great. I’ve had people tell me that it reminds them of the Black Eyed Peas.

You are joined on the album by a number of other noted musicians and vocalists including such vocal masters as Billy Porter and the powerhouse Carpathia Jenkins. Was it intimidating at all to be performing alongside such great talent?

Yes, but it was good for me as well. I liken it back to when I was in school and would be playing tennis. If I played with better players I always played well, but if I played with shitty players I played shitty. I took a break from the industry for about 6 years so when I got back in the studio with this album I was blown away at first that this level of musician was in the studio with me working on my project.

Having been immersed in both the world of fashion and the world of music how would you compare the two?

When I started 20 years ago the two worlds were so separate that no one would have ever thought of mixing the two. By contrast today they are completely connected to each other in a number of ways. Everyone who has an album now has a clothing line and your music is largely defined by what you wear and so forth. I really enjoy that they are so in synch with each other now because I have always been very aware of image and the role that it plays. The two are not so dissimilar as industries however. They both function in much the same way as the other so it’s not a hard transition to make.

Which do you feel more of a calling to?

Fashion has been so much more a part of my life for so long now that I defiantly feel more of a calling to it than music. Even though there is a lot of interest in my work I’m still very anxious because I had no idea that there would be so many people in my corner cheering me on. A year ago I just wanted to sing again. Sometimes I look around myself and I wonder what’s going on and when I’m going to wake up. I suddenly have a press agent and I’m meeting with A&R guys again. It’s totally amazing, but also really kind of terrifying at the same time.

O&AN will be giving away copies of Neil Cohen’s "Day Off". To enter the giveaway send an e-mail to F. Daniel Kent with "Day Off" in the subject line and your name and mailing address in the body. Winners will be picked at random and notified via e-mail.