John Coinman – Devils in the details
Join Coinman wants to talk about his song “The Hero”. Although he’s never enlisted, “The Hero” is his war experience. Having found the place from which to write it, he’s haunted by it, like a crisis he can’t quite seem to put behind him.
“I think protest songs are really important. They’re not going to change the world, but you need to get them out there,” he says. “I don’t know what World War II was like and I didn’t go to Vietnam, but I know in Vietnam or Iraq a lot of children were killed, and it’s got to be a very difficult thing for these soldiers to go over there.” His voice trails off. “When we [his producer Teddy Morgan co-wrote the song] say, ‘What I’ve seen, what I’ve done…cling like shadows/to my life’ — those things are real important, to acknowledge that.”
Coinman has an actor’s skill for inhabiting a character. He got into the movie business over the course of a crazy-quilt working life to support his music and travel habits. “I’ve sold flowers, worked on horse ranches, paved roads, worked as a handyman, a DJ, a circle 8 dirt track race announcer, cook, fisherman on a fishing boat,” he recounts.
Perhaps inevitably, when in Los Angeles, he studied acting, in the process befriending a then-unknown Kevin Costner. Coinman’s acting was left on the cutting-room floor of Costner’s first indie directing effort, but the star eventually invited Coinman to supervise music for his landmark Dances With Wolves. They’re still pals, but Coinman is quick to point out, “We just don’t talk about politics anymore.”
“I love writing songs…that are real story songs,” Coinman says. One such song on his new disc Songs Of The Modern West, “U In Buick”, is fleshed out with a memorable melody and hooky chorus, and it sticks with you even if you don’t get what it means. Coinman laughs about that. He tried to make it obvious with the disc’s cover art; the song is a hopeful journey out of a rut with no particular destination. The “U In Buick” refers to a stuck radio button; the guy in the song is looking for a new life, with maybe a new car and a new radio.
Such small, sharp details swim through most of Coinman’s songs, fixing the focus of the storyline. “Long Hot Night” makes particularly dramatic use of them — a big lemon moon out the window, trucks passing over the distant freeway, Tex-Mex radio playing in the corner house — while offering frail respite, and life preservers for his sanity, through one of those agonizing, vulnerable nights of self-recrimination.
“One of the things that I really wanted to do with this record is I wanted to make it darker and dirtier,” he says. “And Teddy’s got such a great sense of country blues, a gritty edge to his guitar playing. And then I’m more of a folk-rock kind of a player, and so Teddy puts some of the edges back on. He’ll say, ‘Well, instead of just playing a chord, let’s do it this way and it gives it a whole different feel.’ I’m really enjoying writing with him.”
Morgan produced the album in the course of moving from Tucson to Nashville. “I heard Teddy’s work with Cathy Rivers and I just loved it,” Coinman says. “I’ve been making all my records in L.A. because I had contacts there. I made three records out there, [but] I just really wanted to make something here, so we did all the basic tracks here, with Tucson musicians (including Nick Luca, who arranged strings on “Down In Nogales”), then we did all the vocals and the overdubs in Nashville.”
Coinman’s L.A. connection is still strong, though, and he performs there several times a year. He also continues to write for movies. It was a movie gig, in fact, that introduced him to Amy Rigby, with whom he wrote the memorable “Every Intention”. As “Long Hot Night” ends with a wish to be a better man, “Every Intention” recounts all the ways he might have done that.
Other co-write credits on Songs Of The Modern West include longtime collaborator and bassist Blair Forward, and James Intveld, who produced Coinman’s last record and co-wrote the indelible “Gonna Find That Girl” on the new disc. Coinman says Intveld encouraged him to take his songwriting in a new direction. “One of the things he taught me as a writer is to not be quite so myopic,” he says. “Jimmy…would always be saying, ‘Let’s make it a little more universal.’
“I’m like a chameleon in terms of writing,” he adds. “I can write with anybody.” And he can sing almost anybody’s story to make you live it.