A GoPride Interview

Neil Cohen

Neil Cohen interview with ChicagoPride.com

Sun. October 15, 2006  by ChicagoPride.com

Neil Cohen
photo credit // www.neilcohensings.com
They don’t make singers like Neil Cohen anymore. Blessed with a voice that can scale the loftiest pop high heights one minute, only to gracefully swoop down to plumb a song’s soulful depths the next, the singer inspires awe with the agile beauty of his athletic instrument. Cohen, who recently returned to the music scene after a hiatus of several years, has just released his debut solo album, Day Off, a gorgeous scrapbook of thoroughly modernized classics from the late 60s and early 70s classics, plus three new pop gems, all co-written by the singer.

Prior to the release of Day Off, Cohen had been devoting all of his time to a successful fashion business he started 8 years ago with his life-partner Claude and his longtime friend Randi. Cohen’s career in fashion began in the 80s, when he worked with such fashion icons as Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, and Narciso Rodriquez. At the same time, he was performing regularly at such legendary Village music venues as Eighty-Eights and The Bitter End, ultimately earning a development deal with a division of Virgin Records.

Over the course of the next several years Cohen continued to live two lives. "Because Claude, and I eventually started our own fashion company, it naturally took precedence over my music career," explains the singer. "Having your own business tends to do that. Still, music always remained with me."

A year ago, on this birthday, Cohen decided to give himself one day a week to devote to music and to produce an album. Aptly named Day Off, the album was produced by Gregg Parratto and Everett Bradley, who also co-wrote the disc’s three original tracks. The title song is a breezy, upbeat dance single that pays joyous homage to the precious Tuesday Cohen devoted to this album every week. "Hurry Home" is a love letter to Claude. And the third original song, "High Rise," is dedicated to his late mother and her dream of living in Manhattan. About the album, Cohen says, "It was amazing to collaborate with singers and musicians that work with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Dido, Bon Jovi, Bette Midler, and Rod Stewart­ and to sing alongside vocal masters like Billy Porter and Broadway’s Capathia Jenkins."

Cohen, a native New Yorker, recently sat down to talk about his new album, released on his own Scootertown Records and available at www.CDBaby.com.

CP: Tell me about how you decided to start making music again.

NC: (Neil Cohen) Because I’m a partner in a fashion business, I found that there was no time to do my music. And the most important thing to me, besides Claude, my partner in life, is my passion for music, which I’ve loved since I was very young. Growing up gay, music was like a safety net for me. It was a way I felt I could be accepted because I thought, "I’m good at this." You know, if you felt slightly different than other people, and you could sing and make people feel good, that was a form of acceptance. It made me more mainstream. Anyway, about a year ago, I was getting depressed, and I said to my business partners, "I have to figure out a way to do music again." That meant I had to take some time off to do it--I decided to take a "day off" a week. So, I called some of my old contacts, and within a week, I was having lunch with my producers.

CP: Tell me about your first go-round in the music business. At one point, you had a deal with a major label, right?

NC: Yes. My first big connection was with a gentleman named Phil Quartararo, who was working at RCA Records way back when. I was 19-years-old, and I had just made my first demo. A cousin of mine met Phil on a subway in New York. She said, "Oh, my cousin is a singer," and he told her to have me send him my demo. He called me after a week and said, "I'd like to meet you; I like your voice." He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

CP: Did he sign you?

NC: He didn’t sign me then, but he wanted me to keep in touch. He wanted to hear more demos and to see me perform live. After that, I was in a Euro-pop group called BON 21, and we were always playing places like the China Club and the Cat Club in New York. And then we did a showcase for the label, but it didn’t happen. After a few years, I started doing stuff on my own. I also re-connected with Phil, who was at Virgin Records at that point, and he gave me a development deal with a division called Charisma. It was so exciting, getting my first check from a label—I was out of my mind!

CP: Were you writing songs back then?

NC: Well, everyone, including Phil, told me I had to have original material. But I always thought of myself as a singer first. So, I wrote some songs, and I went in with my best shot, but my material was pretty mediocre. I really just wanted to be a singer. Ultimately, it didn’t work out, and I was really bummed. At that point, I basically walked away from music as a career—until last year.

CP: Was that when you started working in fashion?

NC: I worked in fashion on and off to make a living while I was doing my music.

CP: Tell me about working for Isaac Mizrahi.

NC: I met him at a gym in New York, and I knew he was in the fashion industry because he’d come to the gym wearing leather driving gloves and a camel-hair blazer. He wasn’t like a typical gay boy. We actually shared a little desk together. I only worked for Isaac for less than a year because he was just starting out, and he didn’t have much money yet. From there, I went to Anne Klein and worked there for five years. I finally got a real job—my mother was so happy!

CP: Let’s talk about being gay. What was that like for you when you were young?

NC: Well, I definitely did not have an easy time of it. I fought it a lot. I remember having a crush on my camp counselor—he looked like Mark Sptiz. I was 12 or 13. You know, I wasn’t a really queenie kid, but I wasn’t butch either. I was teased, but I was popular, too, because I sang. So, there was this kind of split—I’d been called a "faggot" by some kids, but other people thought I was really cool because I sang. Music was my savior, and I still look at it that way. And then, when I was 17, I had my first sexual experience—in my parents’ house—and I remember getting sick right after. I threw up because I was I freaking out.

CP: Is that when you came out?

NC: No, in high school, I continued to hide it. I was still struggling with it. And then in college, I went to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], and for a gay person, that was like--"Hello!"

It was like, "We're out, we're out, we're out!: Everyone pretty much assumed that if you were a boy going to FIT, you were probably gay. You didn’t have to say anything, and the vibe was, "You know what--you’re safe here." It was the early 80s, and we all went dancing at Xenon and Studio 54, we all wore whatever we wanted, and everyone was cool—gay, bisexual, straight, it didn’t matter. It was an amazing experience being surrounded by people who were so cool with it.

CP: Fast forward to today. You’ve been with your partner Claude for twelve years. If marriage is legal in New York someday, will you get married?

NC: Well, after the first year, we had a kind of informal party in our house, and we exchanged rings in front of friends and family. It was very emotional, and we kind of felt that we did it in our own way. But would we actually get married? I think yes, we would. Though at this point, do I want the big ceremony? I’m not sure. Although the sweetest thing that my dad has ever said to me was, "If you guys ever want to have a commitment ceremony, I would like to pay for it." My dad wants to throw us a wedding! Talk about acceptance—that was huge for me.

CP: How did you end up choosing the songs on your album?

NC: I always did cover tunes as a kid. Again, I always thought of myself as a singer first. But when choosing songs for this album, I didn’t want to choose the same old songs that everybody else is doing—I mean, there are a million cover albums out there now. So, I chose an era of songs that I felt that nobody ever addresses—late 60s, early 70s. I chose classic pop songs that have great melodies and have really never been done. But at the same time, I wanted to give them really fresh, contemporary arrangements, so that a young person might really get into them too. My producers came up with all of these great arrangements. Like "Betcha By Golly Wow" is this classic old-school Stylistics track, but my producers gave it this whole kind of cool cocktail-bar undertone. They made the songs hipper than if I have just covered them as they were.

CP: What about the original songs?

NC: You know, I wanted to show the public that I could write as well. We ended up with 3 originals, and I am incredibly proud of them.

CP: Now, you are having dance mixes made of the title track "Day Off."

NC: Yes, I have some DJs in New York working on it now. I’m very excited about it.

CP: What does this album say about you?

NC: That I’ve always loved great singers, and I’ve always loved great songs. You know, I brought in Billy Porter on this album because I think he’s one of the most gifted singers I’ve ever heard in my life. I also have Capathia Jenkins on the one track. She was in Caroline, or Change, and I just saw her in Martin Short’s new Broadway show Fame Becomes Me. She just blows the audience away. I wanted to surround myself with amazing talent—it just makes me sing better. You know, when I’m singing with Billy Porter, I’m singing my ass off. But I love it because I’m such a ham—what can I say?

For more information, visit www.neilcohensings.com or contact: Peter Galvin at 212-645-4449

Interviewed by ChicagoPride.com