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Jon Cohen talks the founding, life and future of the One Man Band Festival

Posted by Greg / May 17, 2013

20130515-JonCohen.jpgIt takes a special vision and a lot of drive to start a new festival in Montreal's extremely saturated market. That's exactly what Jon Cohen had when he held the first One Man Band Festival last year. Inspired by his own life experiences trying to tour with a band and then alone, and noting meteoric rise of solo artists from Owen Pallett to Grimes, it seemed like the right time to take a risk and try something new. The second instalment of the festival is next weekend and features artists like Montag, Danny Lutz, Jenn Mireau, Ira Lee, Elgin Skye, and Cohen's own Jon Cohen Experimental.

Recently, Cohen took the time to speak with us in depth about everything from festival's founding to the music biz as a whole to his favourite bands (solo and otherwise.)

What was the original inspiration for the One Man Band Festival?

The One Man Band Fest was conceived after touring for years alone. I hopped Greyhound buses across Canada, The USA , Europe, Scandinavia and the UK. I played over 300 shows and was able to do so alone which I could never do with a full band. I was realizing my dream of being a self-sustained, self-contained touring artist by my own right. I also discovered that there are many other solo artists out there doing the same thing. But each with their very own unique brand of music and performance.

There was such a variety with all kinds of tools at their disposal. What struck me the most out of all these acts was their variety, their ingenuity and musicianship, It got me thinking how amazing it would be to put on an event that would bring them all together under one umbrella. A fest that would highlight and celebrate solo artists and people getting out there and finding their place in music. To me it seems that one man bands out there just make this incredible music and put on these incredible shows because they have to, because its all eyes on them and the good ones who step up to the plate blow people away five times more! I wanted to bring that ethic and originality under one roof and that's how the idea for the fest was born. After the first year, which was small but hugely successful, I realized what an amazing event this is and wanted to develop it more, hence round two!

What was the first edition of the festival like, from your point of view? What's different now?

Last year was more like an experiment. It was about reaching out in the dark trying to see what this was and how it wanted to be born. It was about gauging the artistic relevance of an event like this in Montreal. It was small and humble and whipped together in just two months with the help and enthusiasm of the artists, the volunteers, the media and the venues who were very enthusiastic. It was a collective effort. It's safe to say it was a complete success. We had artists from all over Canada and there was this amazing vibe throughout the weekend. It was fresh and special. It was as if everyone was intuitively saying, "It's about time!"

This year is very different in many ways. For one it's much bigger but it still retained that enthusiasm and that awe-inspiring feeling. This year we have 57 one man and woman bands from all over the world and spanning all musical genres. We have more people involved in organizing it too. Interns and volunteers who have just been stellar. We have between three and six shows a night over 4 nights (may 23-26). We have a free looping workshop and artist panel on touring solo. We have two documentary crews making a film about the fest (one for BBC). We have a book sale, an outdoor barbecue party, a film screening on one man bands, a closing night, all free!

The vision behind this fest is to convey to one man bands, struggling solo artists, audiences and those curious about the concept that this is high art, and that their output and your support combined will be a precious contribution to the cultural landscape, and that it's time is right for this kind of event.

Did you learn any unexpected lessons when you shifted to doing solo performances?

Yeah, I learned how to take my career into my own hands. I figured out how to be a self-sustained self-contained touring artist by my own right. I enjoy much more freedom this way in the kind of show I wanted both creatively and practically. I can make my own decisions without going to the negotiations table every time. I also learned that playing solo, I had to work harder than I ever had on my music and my performance. There is no more hiding behind a band. It's all eyes on you.

Are there any negatives to solo performance? Anything you wish you could change?

There are some things that playing solo cannot replace. I love the feeling of playing music with others, that chemistry, that language you share. It's total magic, and that is something I will never give up. I didn't drop playing with others in order to play omb style, I do both in tandem, its just another aspect of my performance, but one I

As far as I can tell, there are more solo acts now than ever before. Why do you think that is? What's going on?

Well I think there are a few major factors for this. One is that it's become very expensive for touring bands to make it work.Taking 5 people in an van on a road trip for a month, feeding housing and moving them, keeping them happy, under the pressure of a tiny budget is not easy. As a one man bands you can make that happen on your own. kind of an answer to that, it's a low overhead, easier option

The other is that people now find it easier to create the music they want alone with the tools at their disposal. Technology has made it easier for us to put a band in a box. Computers, loopers, Sampler, Triggers, drum machines, all portable stuff . It makes making music ma much less complicated and expensive option, so naturally, more people are doing it. And it makes for great variety too, in terms of songwriting, style, costume, visuals, personal touch and choice of instrumentation. But that doesn't mean there isn't good and not so good everywhere. We have lots of amazing artists this year, there is such a great variety in this lineup, so much talent, it's literally insane. We chose some of the best!

Do you have a dream act to book for the festival (if they haven't already played)?

I'd love to get the old Andrew Bird as an omb, or Owen PallettSteve Hill is just insane and we're happy to have him on this year!  Lately I've been so into Reggie Watts, too, he is just awesome. We will eventually get all these artists on the roster. 

What are you listening to these days? Anything you want to recommend to readers?


Nice one, yeah, I'd say listen to shake it Like a Caveman on Soundcloud, Abner Jay rocks  my world, Clara VeniceRoyers One Man BandJenny Omnichord,Lonesome OrganistThomasTruax, Bob Log of course and Bloodshot Bill who is on opening night. He's just the king!



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