MUSIC The wee small hours of the a.m., when the rest of the world is deep in z’s, is magic time for Tim Cohen. “Most of my profound musical moments have come very early in the morning, not being able to sleep and being woken up by a weird dream or nightmare,” verifies the leader of the now-defunct Black Fiction, co-songwriter of the Fresh and Onlys, and proud papa of Magic Trick (Captured Tracks). He casts clear gray eyes — taking everything in like fully open apertures — out the front window of Cafe Abir, pint on hand and orange cap squashed over his brow while sunlight brushes away gray, stormy skies.
One such sonic turning point came in about 2002, when Cohen was visiting his parents in Richmond, Va. After buying a clutch of John Fahey LPs from a thrift store that day, he dreamt of driving through the “spiderweb-like complex” of a suburban business park. All around him women standing at the tops of the buildings were jumping to their death. Startled awake, he put on the first album he saw — Fahey’s Vol. 4: The Great San Bernardino Birthday (Takoma, 1966) — and, with his headphones on, drifted back to sleep to the sound of acoustic fingerpicking and then the backwards guitar of “Knott’s Berry Farm Molly.” This time he was driving the dream in reverse, cruising backward as the suicides jumped back onto the buildings.
“I woke up and swore off playing with a pick,” Cohen declares today. “I went on this several-year run of writing fingerpicked acoustic songs, waking up and realizing there are so many possibilities to this guitar.”
Those sorts of dawn revelations are the reason Cohen says he bolted awake in his Left Coast bed for no explicable reason on the morning of 9/11 — and why he advises susceptible listeners, in the notes for his third solo album and its accompanying double 7-inch EP, Bad Blood (also on Captured Tracks), that they should listen to the music in the comfort and terror of morning darkness. And it may be the reason why he ever-so-sweetly wails on Magic Trick‘s “Sweetheart,” “Don’t be afraid of my heart/ I’m not afraid of the dark.”
“That’s the time of day when you’re most like a sponge,” Cohen explains, as busy Divisadero Street bustles outside. “Every experience you have, whether it’s ecstatic or traumatic, it’s going to stick with you.”
There’s more than a bit of a seer in Cohen, who says he’s making a practice of being open to collaborations with, say, bassist Shayde Sartin in the Fresh and Onlys (note: Cohen refuses to cop to being either Fresh or Only) and to inspiration when it hits him, which is often. “I have a lot of songs coming out me,” he says matter-of-factly.
Fortunately, Cohen has iPhone’s voice memo at the ready to capture scraps of melody and a Tascam 388 in his amazingly tidy bedroom studio to record with, high in the gnome’s-cap fairytale tower of his Western Addition Victorian, surrounded by 360-degree bird’s-eye windows overlooking SF. Cohen’s own intriguing, intricately detailed drawings decorate the walls of the flat, much as they do the covers of his solo LPs, coexisting easily alongside Cubs memorabilia. He’s recorded much of his music here — and it’s legion, including hip-hop projects the Latter, Hattattack, Feller Quentin, and the semi-active Forest Fires Collective; psych combo 3 Leafs; and the “druggy” Window Twins, which will release a full-length this year.
With the help of bassist-keyboardist Alicia Vanden Huevel (Aislers Set), drummer James Kim (Kelley Stoltz), and Noelle Cahill, Magic Trick may be Cohen’s most refined, effortlessly endearing recording to date. His dark, pretty, strangely exhilarating lovestruck songs dip deliciously into cockeyed folk ruminations (“I Am Never Going to Die”), curious psychedelia (“New House in Heaven”), throwback 1960s pop with a three-way wink (“Don’t Give Up”‘s whimsical “When three people lie down together/ They’re trying to make a good thing better/ Good things happen all the time”), and scorched-earth country (“The Flower,” based on the songwriter’s real-life experience of eating a poisonous lily in mid-flirt), with Cohen hitting new almost-heartbreaking highs with his disarmingly rough-hewn vocals and wiseacre-y wise-fool wordplay.
Modern lovers, take heed. This time it’s personal for Cohen, who enjoys a nice, sturdy alias as much as the next MC. That’s why his name is on it.
With Holy Shit, Puro Instinct, Sam Flax and Higher Color, DJ Jimi Hey
Thurs/24, 9 p.m., $5–$8
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF