Elizabeth Cook | Aftermath | (Agent Love/Thirty Tigers)
Four out of Five Stars
Elizabeth Cook can often be considered somewhat unpredictable. One moment she’s a wailing banshee, the next, she might be found singing a spiritual. Through it all, she holds true to a markedly uncompromising stance, one that’s evolved out of a series of personal pitfalls — among them, the end of her marriage, a stint in rehab and the loss of several close family members.
Through it all, Cook’s commitment to her cause has remained remarkably consistent, often by affecting a tenacious tone that makes it quite clear she’s unwilling to compromise simply for the sake of commercial success. Indeed, she has the kind of backstory that often brings with it an elevated awareness; born and raised on her family’s farm in Central Florida, she made the move to Nashville nearly 20 years ago. From that point on, she managed to win the support and approval of some of the biggest names associated with that hallowed music community, among them such heavyweights as Dwight Yoakam, Rodney Crowell and Buddy Miller, all of whom contributed to her landmark 2010 effort, Welder. Her latest album, Aftermath, represents a rebirth of sorts, a new chapter in a 20 year career that’s been marked by change, challenges and an evolving outlook in terms of what it takes to find the things that are meaningful by her own measure.
Although certain songs on the new record offer her a catharsis of sorts —”When She Comes,” “Half Hanged Mary” and “Bones” being some of the more obvious examples — the album overall finds her exuding a decided clarity and confidence.
“Thank you, I think,” she replies when it’s pointed out that she doesn’t fit any single definitive description. “Everybody’s experiences can be very sophisticated and multi-faceted. We’re complex, complex, complex creatures. I’m fortunate that in my art I can get away with expressing more than one thing. I’d be bored to death if I had to be super linear.”
That said, Cook doesn’t shy away from wearing her feelings on her proverbial sleeve. It’s been an ongoing element in her career — specifically, that need to express herself as the need arises.
“My songs are all confessional… sort of my version of hillbilly Catholicism,” she maintains. “I’m just telling some stories and those experiences and reactions that I’ve been dealt. I’m fortunate to be able to share that through my music.”
Nevertheless, Cook admits that taking a personal perspective, such as it is, can create certain drawbacks. “Yeah in the way that people can turn on you and use your perceived weaknesses to do just that,” she suggests. “But I’m just not the kind of artist that can make music for fodder. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time. It’s important to me that it be highly entertaining and also that it has layers so people can dive in to whatever I’m writing about, whether it’s about a piece of history or a quirky metaphor about Hinduism. It’s challenging for me to write that way, but it’s also fun. I like to write songs that way. There’s something there for everybody in every moment, in all the different ways they want to experience them. It might give them some peace of mind.”
Several songs on the new album take that intent, and make it both palatable and practical. “When She Comes,” “Bad Decisions,” “Thick Georgia Woman,” and “These Days’ reflect a sense of unwavering determination and the assertive style that’s always been so essential part to her MO.
“Things that people are confronting now have always been there, but now there’s this stark opportunity to confront them and deal with things and have faith and have thoughts,” she reflects. “We need all the music therapy we can get. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about the end. I’m totally in my own head, pleasing myself, thinking about myself, telling my own thoughts, and having fun doing the writing.”
Even so, there’s a tendency by some to put an artist on a pedestal and look to them for answers to their questions and concerns. “I have no fear of that,” Cook insists. “As long as I’m being honest, it is what it is. That’s my only obligation…to be honest and not bullshit people. Where I’m from, that’s a crime. It’s something you do not do. It’s not patriotic. You’re not a traveling salesman, You’re not selling snake oil. You’re here to cut a rug, to cry and laugh and throw down, and my goal is to do all of that.”
Clearly, the new album reflects that desire, although as the title suggests, it offers an added element.
“It’s about regrowth after a catastrophe and how sometimes you sacrifice that regrowth in order to fortify the soil again,” Cook says of the title. “So it’s just going through that process. I’m by no means on the other side of all the things that I’ve learned, and I’m still in the process of figuring it all out. I’m educating myself when I write these songs, and record them, and learn them. It’s years in the making. I’m still learning this record and my thoughts and feelings and intentions behind all of it. Absolutely. It comes out of nowhere. I don’t completely understand all the thoughts and things that I’m experiencing while I’m doing it. It’s all out of body.”
In that way, her writing process can be complex. It involves research, perception and perspective. She elaborates on it with a depth and detail that leave no doubt as to her commitment to her creative cause.
“There’s this moment of inspiration and things that occur to me that I think are interesting and important, and I’m always collecting a little knapsack of things that are interesting and important to me,” she reflects. “But they wouldn’t make sense to anybody in the world if they fell out on the sidewalk. Then, when I begin to collect those things, I start to do my research and there’s a point where I’m reading books and reading articles and going to the library. So I’ll start a file on a song. It will have papers in it. It might have a knickknack in it. And when I have enough there to work with, there’s the hard part — to put it all together and turn it into a song.”
She refers to “Mary, The Submissive Years” in particular, a down-home discourse that ends the new album while also providing a kind of counterpoint to one of John Prine’s signature song, “Jesus, The Missing Years.”
“I had the idea for a long time,” she recalls. “I had the title. I knew I wanted to write about Jesus’ mother. The idea was about trying to find out more about her because there’s not a lot out there about her, and there’s injustice in that. Compiling all these thoughts took time and perspective. As did printing out John’s lyric and putting it in the file and printing out all these articles and then sketching it all out. So I isolated myself, which is not unusual now, but it was then. I isolated myself the entire month of December 2018. We were going into the studio in January, so I was trying to amass as much material as I could. So I just sat down at the table and piled it all out. I wanted it to parallel John’s song, so every verse of mine parallels his. While this was happening for Jesus, this was happening for Mary. I wanted their paths and their journeys to complement each other verse for verse, line by line. It was unusual for me to do it this way because I usually don’t have a guide that I have to match.”
“Usually I don’t keep a grid,” she continues. “However I wanted this song to have this certain feel. Other songs may have another feel, like maybe Shelby Lynne or Todd Snider, James Brown, or Bettye LaVette, and I look for music that sort of patches it all together. It’s like a puzzle that you just have to put together. You write it, then make another pass and you continue to edit and put it to music. For that song, I probably put it together from start to finish in about six hours, but the idea behind the song and the collecting of the thoughts and materials around the song took years.”
That then, is what sets Elizabeth Cook apart and allows her to pursue whatever path seems appropriate at the time. It’s also what makes her such a fascinating performer and one that’s always worth anticipating.
“I’m always in the process of reinventing, not just artistically but also throughout my adult life,” she maintains. “I’m a single woman, a home owner and a business owner and that’s a handful, just to run everything by myself. I probably haven’t slept deeply in two weeks. Plus I do a radio show every day. I have a dog and a cat and some artist friends that I keep close and other relationships that allow me to care of people that I love and that are important to me. I’m also in the process of creating a fishing show for TV and I’m writing a book.”
The term renaissance woman comes to mind, but it’s clear that Cook also has the desire add determination to express herself fully and freelyy. Aftermath is obviously one more way for her to get to that goal.
Aftermath, which will be released September 11 on Agent Love Records/Thirty Tigers (pre-order here).