Failure gave Adam Cohen impetus to make the best music of his life

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Adam Cohen nearly failed in his ambition to become a successful singer-songwriter—but not, he notes, because of the daunting legacy of his famous father.

“That dark, tyrannical shadow that everyone is always talking about? I don’t actually sense it,” Leonard’s son says, on the line from his Los Angeles home. “It’s quite the opposite—I feel like the bar has been placed very high, and that’s very aspirational. I also feel like I share a genetic code with someone who is most admirable and, dare I say, historic.

“I’ve lived a very privileged life, with colourful, influential, interesting characters and travel,” he adds. “And I’ve always had food on my plate, so I actually have much, much more to celebrate and be happy about than people give me credit for.”

Still, despite friendly advice from the man who wrote “Bird on the Wire”, “Suzanne”, and “Hallelujah” and record companies clamouring to give him a deal, the 40-year-old Cohen feels that his first 20 years in the music business—both as a solo artist and with his band Low Millions—were an unmitigated disaster.

“I’d really been given chance after chance to succeed, and I’d essentially blown every one of them,” he reveals. And not, he reiterates, because of some deep psychological resistance to succeeding in his father’s industry.

“It’s simpler than that,” he stresses. “I think that my preoccupation was with being successful rather than with being a good artist. When a certain amount of sobriety and wisdom finally arrived on the doorstep, I realized that I really hadn’t satisfied my inner criteria for what I’d always wanted my life to be in music. I’d actually missed the target completely.”

At first, that realization nearly led him to hang up his guitar for good. Instead, he made the just-released Like a Man, which he suggests is the first fully listenable album of his career. It’s not going to make anyone forget New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the Leonard Cohen album Adam admits was one of the templates for his return to songwriting, but it’s more than listenable.

Just don’t expect him to explain what it’s all about.

“I’m happy to have you infer some intention from what is a pretty bold album title,” he says. “But I’d love for the songs and sentiments and stories and lyrics to speak for themselves.”

What they’re saying to this listener is that Cohen has made an honest—almost embarrassingly honest, at times—response to what it is to be a man, and a lover of women, in these sexually and morally ambiguous times. And in at least one regard, he’s done his old man proud: so far, the women he’s played it for have approved of his message.

“It’s always a privilege to be able to play a song for someone you actually know—one that either bears their name, or bears such strong traces of something you lived with them,” he says, adding that the response so far has been “pretty much favourable”.

“You know,” he says, “even if it’s a bad song, I’ve found that the act is very well received.”

Adam Cohen plays the Rio Theatre on Friday (October 19).

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