It’s easy, when one has never encountered an artist or their music before, to write off both when the first impression given comes from a record comprised entirely of cover songs. However, in the case of JP (John Paul) Cooper, a failure or an unwillingness to look outside that single musical marker means a deprivation of appreciation for why this latest EP from the English singer-songwriter exists in the first place – details best not left unacknowledged in the midst of Cooper’s collective story.
When viewed in short hand bullet points or familiar one sheet fashion, Cooper’s public credentials illuminate an artist who has attained plenty of notable kinds of success. Platinum sales, billions of streams, massive festival performances, ample touring (pre-COVID-19), and a large but tightly knit fanbase make Cooper’s trajectory as a public figure seem like a continuously rising, linear path.
Thus, the unveiling of a modest EP bearing only pre-existing songs could certainly be perceived as a sign of stagnancy or a creative rut. Yet, much the same way a glass can be perceived as half empty or half full, Cooper’s steady, ongoing rise, now followed by a decision to lean on the compositions of others, can be seen instead as a choice to appreciate and honor the kind of music and artists who preceded him. Rather than a symbol of a stop gap, Cooper’s Covers EP is project of gratitude and humility, qualities baked into Cooper’s journey from the beginning.
In the days leading up to the release of his EP, Cooper chatted with American Songwriter about the path that got him to Abbey Road Studios, how he views the concept of a covers record, what he brought to his selected songs, and more.
American Songwriter: When did Abbey Road Studios become an element on your objectives list and what did you do to work toward achieving that opportunity?
JP Cooper: I’ve never been one to kind of have these landmark goals. Like, ‘I want to play this festival,’ (or) ‘I want to record in the studio,’ which is kind of strange actually. Like, I think my kind of real paybacks came through my own little personal breakthroughs – whether it’s my writing or my singing or my, you know, just little things in life.
The opportunity came to spend a couple of days in (Abbey Road) this year. And, you know, for a long time, I’ve kind of, you know, wanted to capture some live footage of something in there, this iconic place. And I guess it kind of had just fallen into place that my manager got in touch and said ‘You want to record some songs at Abbey Road?’ And you know, it has been as amazing as I expected. It comes with a little bit of pressure but I think there’s something in the air there. It’s like this strange magic. And I know a lot of people at these great places, whether it’s Muscle Shoals, or anywhere else, they’ll speak of this thing. But even if we’re making it up as like some weird, placebo, spiritual experiences, it’s definitely there it happens.
It kind of feels a bit like a pilgrimage. You know, it’s like it you know, to go to that place and I think even for you know, when it was open, as you know, I know they have like a gift shop and things and I think they take on visitors maybe now and again to have a look around. I think even for you know, just music fans, it is quite a pilgrimage in the UK. So it’s strange and then all of a sudden you’re in there and you forget about how special it is and you’re just doing your thing and hoping that maybe one day you can add to being a part of his history and it’s it’s a privilege.
AS: How do you perceive the choice to do a record of covers? Is this your way of stopping to smell the roses of what you’ve managed to achieve, so to speak?
Cooper: I think, you know, (with) this year in general, one of the silver linings of this whole madness that’s been going on has been the opportunity to be able to stop and actually really take stock of what the last kind of six years has been (for me) and what it’s looked like and also where I want to go, as usually, you’re kind of just on this conveyor belt – this treadmill – of just, ‘Okay, what’s next? What’s next? What’s next?’ And I think creatively, that can become a bit of a thing as well.
As far as the thing with covers it’s a strange one. I mean, I’ve never been one––I never was a singer who started out by singing covers. I always loved writing. So I never had this great repertoire of songs that I could sing. And so I’m very, very selective with (cover songs) simply because, you know, certain songs, first of all, they resonate with me. Secondly, I’m quite hard on myself. And I think there’s only a few songs that I really need to feel like I can do them justice before I give them a go. So in a lot of ways, it’s finding those ones that people might suggest to me or that I’ve just listened to so much that they’re almost become a part of my DNA, you know, the songs that you’ve just heard so many times.
AS: As someone who is always writing, how was it splitting your focus between being prepared for any new original ideas you might come up with, and really digging down to bring out the best in these cover songs? Was there something or someone that helped you to manage that well?
Cooper: With the team of people I regularly collaborate with, you know, (for) some of them it’s mainly just a live music thing. (For) others, it’s writing and producing music. I have a secret weapon in the name of lady called Hannah Vasanth. She’s a producer and an incredible keys player. I’ve worked with (her) quite a lot on all of my projects up until now. And she is, well, she’s German for a start. And she has this German kind of, ‘Let’s get things done’ (quality).
She literally wanders around the studio with a notepad (and) she knows exactly where everybody needs to be. So I’ll go in, and I spent a couple of days with Hannah in her little studio in East London, and we’ll talk about everything. And she’ll mock up, like, little arrangements. you know, for the last (project) we did, we had a harp player. (S)o we’ll sit down at her keyboard, and she’ll pull up a harp sound, and we’ll arrange all of those pieces. I see her as like one of these old school producers. So it’s not all about making beats in the box. It’s like, you’re dealing with the musicians(.) And she’s so underrated. Like, she’s still yet to have her like, big moment. I feel like a lot of it is being a female in the (music) industry, you know, it’s hard for her (but) I feel like she’s gonna happen; she deserves to be in great studios with big name producers.
And so she’s just incredible, you know, she comes in, she works alongside me. And she makes it very easy for me to just turn up and enjoy it. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity these last, you know, six years, I’d say I’ve been like a professional musician, to build these relationships and find this little dream team that I’ve got that I’m really, really excited to kind of share with people.
AS: It’s the day you’re scheduled to record The Beatles’ iconic “Let It Be.” What direction did you see yourself taking the song and what are some of the specific things you did or told yourself, in order to get into the best place to achieve your desired performance?
Cooper: I really wanted to do something that I wanted it to really feel like, like a hymn in a way you know? I playing around, singing it at home, just as I was walking around the house or whatever and there was something really powerful about (the song) starting off a capella. There was a there was a loneliness to it, you know, in this kind of…being in this time of trouble. And (it was) almost like a prayer. And I don’t think I’ve ever started anything a capella. And I’ve not really done much even live where I’ve done an a capella thing. I thought that there was something really special (about doing that). And, you know, I knew that the room, the studio, Abbey Road, I knew that it was going to be a beautiful room to sing in.
So I thought, ‘How about we just allow the vocal to really breathe and the lyric to breathe, and to give the room for that delivery?’ Obviously, that comes with a little bit of pressure. But I knew that it was going to really be a case of what happens in the moment, happens in the moment, you know? if I sang it again, it wouldn’t be exactly the same. It was kind of, ‘We just need to capture that one take that feels like there was magic happening.’ And, again, I think because I love the people who I’m working with so much and that they…it’s funny, you know, like, there are certain people that when you play with them, it’s like you can access this extra like 10 or 20% of something in your own performance, just through pure inspiration in the moment. And I guess I just knew I trusted that would happen at some point in the day. The rest of it was just to allow myself to be relaxed enough to enjoy it, which is a big thing that I’m trying to learn at this point in my life because I spent so long just being so judgmental of myself and so much of a perfectionist. As a result of that I’ve never stopped and like you said earlier, to kind of smell the roses. And yeah, that was the main thing, was with delivering something in that a capella way that really allowed for the lyrics to speak. And I think, you know, the times that we are in at the minute, I think really are a lot of people that will resonate with (this) song.
AS: What are some of the newest objectives and-or changes you found necessary or beneficial to yourself as an artist, following the making of this EP?
Cooper: When I first started making music, it was with human beings, it was with a bunch of friends in a room who played different instruments, and we’d get together and we were all a part of the process.
A lot of the way that modern music is made these days is is you get into a studio and you you have all of these instrumentations at your fingertips via samples or, you know, synthetic kind of instruments and things that you can lay across a keyboard and you can play them. And so for a while you find yourself in that situation, and (those elements) end up being the final productions. You might call up a guitarist to add some parts or this and that and the other. But I think getting back in the room with people like this…it’s made me realize how much I miss producing music from a live perspective, like the way that it used to be made back in the day when people would go into these iconic studios with players and with orchestras and all of these things and they would create a record. And I feel like less and less – especially in mainstream – with commercial music, is that approach being taken? And it’s ignited a little fire in me to get back to those human experiences with real people, those recordings where you can hear the four walls, and you can hear people’s fingertips on the bass guitar. And (the music) isn’t just compressed and made to sound incredible on the radio. There’s real humanity and soul and a story in every single, you know, press of a key or strum of a guitar. Every single part of (the music) has life within it. And I have this real hunger now, you know,
So that’s kind of something that I’ve learned a lot from over the last year – having the opportunity to stop and think about where my joy is, and where I can find more of that. And also, like, where I think I’m getting the best out of myself. And I think a lot of it is working with multiple people and players and gifted individuals. And the experience at Abbey Road just kind of solidified how good that makes me feel and how proud I am of the outcome of it. So (I have) a lot to think about (and) a lot to work towards.