Things could have gone very differently for Amy Cook. We’re talking about the difference between glossily produced, mass appeal pop-rock and the stripped-down, under-the-radar, roots-pop singer-songwriter scene Cook finds herself in today.
Hanging out and writing songs in L.A. right after college, without her heart set on any particular music trajectory, she walked into a fledgling production deal, and got some songs on T.V. “These guys were trying to create a production company,” she says. “In the ‘90s, that was starting to happen, where you’d get those people who were writing for Avril Lavigne, or whatever. They were writing and producing, and they’d find somebody they wanted to work with, and they’d make her famous and she’d made them famous.”
“So these guys wanted to do that with me, and I wanted to get my songs out there. They’d make a record for ‘free’, and I’d sign this deal that if a label picked it up, they’d get such and such. That was how my first record got made, and [those were] the songs that got placed in Dawson’s Creek and Felicity and all that.”
There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with Cook continuing down that mainstream path if the music had suited her personality. But she’s done a good deal of self-discovery in the decade-plus since. Now she lives and works in indie-friendly Austin, where she’s not alone in sweating the small, rewarding details of songcraft. That’s where she crossed paths with Alejandro Escovedo – Austin fixture and roots-rock pioneer – and got an important opening slot.
“While we were on that tour,” says Cook, “I was working on all these new songs, because I was going to make a record. And he was like, ‘No, not that chord. Go to the C there instead.’” She laughs, remembering Escovedo’s unsolicited input. “He was like, ‘I should produce your record.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you should produce my record.’” That’s a big deal; Escovedo’s the recipient of the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for performance, and he’s never produced anyone else.
Cook came away with an album she was really happy with – 2010’s Let The Light In – plus a bolder singing style and songwriting lessons from the road. She says, “You start to realize that if it’s just you, it’s really important the song works, that it’s tight – like, you can play it with just you and a guitar and you don’t need anything else.”
Her new album, Summer Skin – not to be confused with the Death Cab for Cutie song of the same name – came from a much more stationary, solitary year of writing. Where Let The Light captured wilder times, the new songs speak to moments of transition and ambiguity. And you can tell that she took her time with the fetching melodies, building the songs from the music up, mostly on her classical guitar.
This time, Cook turned to New York-based producer Craig Street, who presciently brought in a crew made up of fellow singers-songwriters. Virtuosic bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and drummer Jonathan Wilson – who released his album Gentle Spirit last year – were in the rhythm section. “It makes a difference,” Cook reflects, “because they know what it’s like to be where you’re at, how important it is … [They] understand what it is to have your songs go out there and it’s gonna sound like that forever.”
Among the guest vocalists were Patty Griffin and Robert Plant, the latter of whom dueted with Cook on “It’s Gonna Rain.” “It was just like, ‘Whoa,’” she says. “You don’t think of him tenderly singing background vocals.”
If you stripped away Plant’s contributions and a bass line that vaguely recalls Ben E. King’s soul classic “Stand By Me,” what you have is a song that splits the difference between emotional language and tangible imagery. Pushed to analyze her songwriting approach – something most writers are loathe to do – Cook offers, “I think it’s probably easier for me to write an introspective thing, although I think I might tend to run away [from that]. I mean, I like confessional songwriters, I suppose, although I don’t necessarily want to be one. I have this love/hate relationship with it … I want it to be enough of [me], but not too much.”
It makes sense, then, that on her two most recent albums – the two Cook says are the most her – some songs lent themselves to intimate fingerpicking, and others called for jangly alt-rock muscle. “I love Big Star and Jeff Buckley and Nirvana and David Bowie and T Rex,” she explains. “But I also love Simon and Garfunkel and Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. There’s this place that doesn’t seem to make sense, but I like where it meets.”