INTERVIEW A chat with Philip Cohen
MIT Sloan student releases his debut album Leaving
Sloan student Philip Cohen G has a new project — and with its original melodies, smooth bass, and powerful lyrics, it lies far outside the traditional business realm. Leaving, an album of 14 songs written by Cohen, was pre-released last month and is available on his website for free.
Cohen’s story has many more facets than just that of an indie musician. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs, Cohen began writing songs when he was 15. Although he has not been continuously composing since then, he has filled his time with various other endeavors. Besides his credits at Sloan, Cohen attended boarding school at Vermont Academy, graduated from the Air Force Academy, and played full-time hockey between high school and college.
Three years ago, Cohen picked up songwriting again, and Leaving is the result. Cohen’s work initially stemmed from simply playing around on the guitar everyday. Once he found a riff and chord progression he was pleased with, he would add in a melody and lyrics.
Recently, Cohen has had less free time for experimentation — a problem all MIT students can relate with. Fortunately, melodies come more naturally to him now, and he is less reliant on his guitar. “The songwriting process has changed a lot for me. I feel more confident now about putting out a song I feel good about,” Cohen said.
In addition to his personal artistic development, Cohen’s music productions have come a long way. Cohen credits much of his progress to his current drummer, Chris Dorsey, who he met at a local block party. Dorsey was a software engineer for Avid, a company which provides music software for large production studios. “He helped move my project from the home recording phase to the studio phase,” Cohen said. “Sometimes you just need someone to give you that push, that kick in the butt.”
Being a passionate artist does not necessarily mean that producing work is always easy. “The creative process is like a sinusoidal curve — sometimes there are big lulls, and you just try to flatten it out,” Cohen remarked (in true and proud nerd fashion). Cohen’s songs take between a day and a year to write. His favorite song of the album, “Pawn and Queen,” required six months to fine-tune.
For sure, Cohen does not categorize himself or his songs into any specific genre. The process of completing each song is unique, and Cohen is focused mainly on finding the right mesh of music and lyrics. For example, a song like “Pawn and Queen,” loaded with meaning in the lyrics, required a non-traditional, more organic approach. “I had this riff in my head, on the low E string — it sounded kind of crappy. I liked that,” Cohen said.
True to his roots as an English major, Cohen is more interested in the process of writing lyrics than in musical composition. Before songs, he found ways to express himself through writing short stories and poetry. Inspiration for Cohen’s album title actually began with one of his favorite creative writing professors in college, who once commented that all good stories were about love. Meditating on this, Cohen concluded that good stories also involve the idea of leaving, in some form or another. Leaving could be literal or metaphorical: departing from a physical place, or changing and leaving behind the person you were before. After Cohen finished writing his album, he realized this theme was subconsciously woven into all of his songs; some of his personal explorations on the subject included leaving Afghanistan and the military, and the boundary between life and death.
Speaking of leaving places, Cohen already has ambitious plans following his graduation from Sloan. Given his experience managing large teams of people while working for the Air Force, he hopes to launch a consulting firm for mid-size companies, especially military ones, focused on team leadership.
In the meantime, amidst his many projects, Cohen has also founded two nonprofits. Like his business plans and his songs, they reflect his interests and passions. Community Ice Project opened and maintained an ice rink in Cohen’s neighborhood last winter, and Modern Soldier Poet publishes a biannual journal of writing, illustrations, and musical compositions by military veterans.
Music has always been Cohen’s passion, which is why he invests himself in it. And while he would be thrilled with success in his musical career, he also has many other options. Cohen describes himself as “trudging along the path to success in many areas,” but by no means does he do so because he wants safety nets. “I’m always looking for a challenge,” he said.
And that’s one frame of mind he won’t be leaving anytime soon.
Philip Cohen will be performing Oct. 25, 8:45 p.m. at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Central Square. Visit his website, philipcohenmusic.com, for more information and upcoming concert dates.