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updated: 9/25/2013 12:31 PM

Marc Cohn talks touring, family and not sweating the small stuff

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  • Marc Cohn's tour brings him to Elgin this weekend.

    Marc Cohn's tour brings him to Elgin this weekend.
    courtesy of Myriam Santos Kayda

  • Video: "Walking in Memphis" video


Marc Cohn is touring and he's taking requests.

But don't bother asking for his signature tune, "Walking in Memphis," at his Elgin Community College Arts Center performance Sunday.

"It's a wasted request," the 54-year-old singer/songwriter said by phone from his home in New York.

That's not because he's sick of performing the hit after 22 years. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

"I'm always going to play that song," Cohn said. "There's no point in asking for it."

So how does an artist keep the song that essentially defines him as a musician from becoming stale and old?

"I'm not sure I have an explanation," he admitted. "I've been really lucky in that regard. The song still seems relevant to me. I don't think I'll ever lose that essential love of music, which is what that song is about. And I love how much other people really love it. I'll change it up a little bit when I'm playing, but it keeps itself alive because I'm still moved by the message of that song."

Moved to write the autobiographical song about a jaunt through the musical haunts of Memphis while struggling to make a career as a musician, Cohn is grateful for the power the lyrics have had with his audience.

"I used to do this series on Facebook where I would talk about some of the meanings of lyrics, but I stopped because I realized I don't want to fill in too many of the blanks," he said. "You want to write something personal but have it resonate with the audience and allow them to have their own interpretation."

He gets stopped occasionally by fans who want to talk to him about the philosophy of certain lines in the song. He mostly listens, nods and smiles instead of offering any analysis.

"Look, what these songs mean to me is really only important to me," Cohn said. "What's more important is what it means to someone else. And I like to hear that."

And it's not like words come easily to Cohn.

"I wrote my first new lyric this week in at least a year," he said. "Writing is very slow for me. It comes and goes, mostly goes. Years have gone by where I haven't had anything to write. I've found over the years where I can't do anything to force it."

Cohn, who has two older children from a previous marriage and is the father of two preteen children with ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas, said he has to strike a balance with the touring schedule and being with his family.

"The best part of my job now is that when I'm home, I'm really home," he said. "We've learned that two weeks is the max to be away."

Cohn kicked off what amounts to roughly two months of touring recently. There are requisite breaks in the action, including a notable halt around Halloween when his dadly duties may take precedence.

The tour is actually two tours. On one, he is supporting Bonnie Raitt and for the other -- like the show this Sunday in Elgin -- he is headlining with singer/actress Rebecca Pidgeon opening for him.

"One of my favorite things to do is be out on the road with Bonnie," he said. "But this tour is as much fun because I'm not promoting anything at the moment and I can be a lot more free with the set. I kind of have an idea where certain songs are going to go, but there's not really a set list. That's why I take requests."

His last studio recording was a collection of covers from 1970, called "Listening Booth, 1970." He chose the year because of the significance of the songs that were recorded that year and the impression they made on him as an 11-year-old. On it, he tackles hits by Cat Stevens, Paul McCartney, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon and Van Morrison, though he claims he had to be coaxed into covering Morrison's "Into the Mystic."

"I had to be convinced to even try it," Cohn said. "It is a song I sing live a lot and I'll take it out and do all sorts of Van songs with, but you have to have a little nerve and a little resolve because I love the original version so much. You just hope that people that are attached to the originals are not insulted by the covers."

While he will always be known for "Walking in Memphis," Cohn more recently gained renown for surviving a carjacking attempt in Denver eight years ago that left him with a gunshot wound to his left temple. The bullet did not penetrate his skull, but he freely admits it changed his life.

"It changes it in phases," he said. "At first it made me very scared and anxious because I was suffering from (post-traumatic stress disorder). There was a cop at the hospital who said not to be a tough guy and get help. Little did he know there was no chance I was going to be a tough guy about this. There is something wonderful about going to therapy for this because it was the first time I knew exactly what the cause of the problem was."

Cohn said surviving something like that made him more grateful, but it didn't make him a different person.

"You think it's going to change you forever, but it really doesn't do that," he said. "I still remind myself not to sweat the small stuff."

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