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Sam Cohen and Yellowbirds: Thoughtful and Wonderous

Yellowbirds-Sam-Cohen-by-Bernie-DeChantUpon the demise of Boston’s indie-darlings Apollo Sunshine, vocalist and guitarist Sam Cohen set out on his own.  He was playing and writing songs by himself and soon started Yellowbirds as a solo project and outlet for the musical experimentation he was going through.   He released Yellowbirds debut album The Color in 2011.  The Color was a powerful statement by Cohen. It was awash in psychedelic-indie-guitar glory and it announced Cohen’s presence as songwriter to take notice of.   He recruited friends Brian Kantor on drums, Annie Nero on bass and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman to help fill out a band so he could take the songs on the road.

The four musicians found an undeniable chemistry and Yellowbirds morphed from simply a Cohen solo project into a full-time band.   The new band released Yellowbirds second album, Songs From the Vanished Frontier earlier this year.  Songs From the Vanished Frontier reflects the addition of a full-time band with its fuller, more expansive sound. It still swims in the psychedelic glory of its predecessor, but the more expansive sound serves to subtly hide some of the simpler nuisances of Cohen’s folky based guitar and singing.  This makes for a more interesting aural trip for the listener as you have to dive deep to discover all the hidden secrets of Cohen’s adventurous, timeless songwriting.

As 2013 draws to a close, Cohen took some time to look back on the year that was for him and the Yellowbirds.  He reflects on the recording process for Songs From The Vanished Frontier, speaks of the joy he found serving as musical director for The Complete Last Waltz, and looks ahead to 2014.

 

Honest Tune:  How did the process in making Songs from the Vanished Frontier differ this time around as opposed to your last album?

Yellowbirds coverSam Cohen:   In certain ways it was similar, in others maybe more refined.  On The Color, we spent two days in the studio tracking the band and did the rest of the record at my apartment with really limited gear.  For Song From The Vanished Frontier, we again spent two days tracking in a studio focusing mainly on the drums, but had a great space to do the rest of the record.  Brian Kantor (drums), Josh Kaufman (guitar/organ), and Jim Smith (co-producer/engineer) were sharing a space in Dumbo at the time, pooling our gear and borrowing some great stuff, so the laboratory was much nicer.  Having Jim there for a lot of the recording was a big help and an important part of the sound of the record.  That space had a great energy that really influenced the record.

 

 

HT:  What is the songwriting process for you like? What inspires you during that process?

SC:  Writing comes in phases.  A few good songs show up, and an album comes together, and that stays fresh and fulfilling for a little while.  Then new sounds and ideas start to show up, and I realize I need a new set of material to make these new sounds happen.  Books and movies, sometimes poetry, inspire lyrical ideas. The music just shows up when it’s ready.  I’m more open during the writing process, so whatever happens, whatever I see or hear during that time, a great show, a show with a great moment; that will all seep into the album I’m working on.

 

 

HT:  The album has a timeless quality and feel to it. What do you attribute this to? Was it something you consciously tried to achieve when creating the album?

SC:  Thanks for saying so.  I’d feel incredibly lucky if my music were to actually span any significant amount of time.  A few generations?  That would be amazing!  As far as trying consciously to make it timeless: ideally, while making records, I wouldn’t do anything consciously.

 

 

HT:  You have had the chance since its release to live with the album for a bit and perhaps get away from the space you were in when you created it. Has your perception of the album changed with some distance between you and the actually making of it now?  What parts of it really stand out for you now, and what if anything would you like to go change?

yellowbirds_photo_vert_stripesSC:  The process of making a record is a great joy for me – it’s thoughtful and wondrous, and you go so deep inside it.  The process of finishing a record, when you go from broad strokes to fine ones and then try to step back and see it all, is tough because it’s almost arbitrary.  You can decide on things, but you know that soon you’re going to change.  I’m thankful the songs get to go on living through live performances.  The way we play together is always evolving, and it’s really special when our current selves bring improvements to older songs. I have to listen to my albums passively or not at all.  It’s like listening to someone else’s record.  I think, “this is cool, there’s a decision…ok.  I’d do that differently.”

 

 

HT:  You have a regular band that you played and recorded with for the new album, how did that impact the resulting album?

SC:  For how tight and familiar we’ve become as band, it’s not a particularly a band-ish record.  Everyone contributed, but the recording process was more like glorified four tracking than capturing a band.  We started with just Brian and I with Jim engineering. I added all the bass parts and started printing Echoplex drum tracks early on.   Everything on top was just peppering guitars, keyboards, vocals, experimenting toward the right mood.

The songs were really new when we started working on the record.  Most of them we’d never played live and many we’d never played in practice.  I didn’t demo the songs and send them around like I had on The Color.  That demo’ing process is a discovery process, and I wanted that process to BE the record for Songs From The Vanished Frontier.

 

Yellowbirds band shotHT:  How would you compare Songs from the Vanished Frontier and The Color?

SC:  The Color is Songs From The Vanished Frontier’s little brother.  The next record is going to be their ancient and majestic grandfather.

 

 

HT:  What are you currently listening to? Does what you are listening to impact your songwriting process, and if so what were you listening to while writing Songs from the Vanished Frontier and The Color?

SC:  Currently listening to a ton of The Band because I’m musical director for this concert that we just put on called The Complete Last Waltz where we play that entire show.  It’s an amazing experience.  I got to play with great friends who are some of the finest players I know and bring in guests who are some of the musicians I most enjoy and admire.  I was going through all The Band albums because some of their best stuff is not part of that concert.  “In a Station”, “To Kingdom Come”… oh my God!

The main record I remember listening to while writing the album was Duane Eddy’s Silky Strings, Twangy Guitars.  There’s a breezy vibe to the record, which maybe that accounts for.

 

 

HT:  Is there one album that for you stands out as pinnacle of songwriting and creativity, an album that is a big motivator for Sam Cohen liveyou?

SC:  More certain artists than a single album.  I’d like to have sculptured busts of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen flanking me in the studio.  They’re the guys that, for me, have set the bar, which I am always furiously flopping below.

 

 

HT:  As the year end is drawing near, what were the highlights of 2013 for you and Yellowbirds?

SC:  Touring as a duo in January opening for Guster was a really special experience.  It was amazing to perform for some of the largest audiences I’ve been in front of, and be so naked.  A real learning experience and they were a blast to travel with.

The Pickathon Festival in Portland was amazingly curated and a thrill to be a part of.  We toured down the west coast afterwards backing up our great friend, Eric D. Johnson from the Fruit Bats.  That was incredible.

The Complete Last Waltz, which Josh and Brian, were also part of, was a spiritually uplifting experience.  A huge amount of preparation, and four hours of playing with Nels Cline (Wilco),  Cass McCombs, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), Marco Benevento, Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti (Further), the Antibalas horns, Nicole Atkins,  Binky Griptite (Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings), Alecia Chakour, Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), Andy Cabic (Vetiver), Scott Metzger…  the list goes on and on and everyone was so wonderful.  That was last Wednesday (November 27), so I’m still reeling!

 

 

HT:  What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

SC:  Making a new Yellowbirds record and collaborating with as many friends as twelve months will allow.