In 2019, Bill Hader appeared on 92nd Street Y to discuss his HBO series, Barry. Throughout the lengthy conversation, the acclaimed actor and former Saturday Night Live cast member discussed his impressive career, as well as his struggle with anxiety. It was this particular segment that hit David Cook in the heart. “He was talking about his relationship with anxiety and how he navigated it while he was on SNL. He referenced that he acknowledged it almost as if it were a separate entity. I found that interesting,” says Cook.
His song “Reds Turn Blue,” released last summer, encompasses his own ongoing battle with an anxiety disorder. The cornerstone to his upcoming EP, The Looking Glass, out April 16, the rock-flecked track “was a bit of an experiment for me,” Cook tells American Songwriter earlier this year. “I had wanted to touch on it for awhile. I felt like it was something that I wanted to put out there and acknowledge it. The song morphed into this letter from my anxiety to myself.”
Through being emotionally honest, the flood gates opened wide for him, creatively. “Before, I had written more stream of consciousness. I would write in bursts without really focusing in on each word or phrase and trying to say the things I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say them fully. Having the extra time with this pandemic allowed me to live in the details a little bit more than I had been able to.”
Even more, such psychological work extends to the “seismic shift” happening deep within him, at least in terms of his relationship with anxiety. Cook was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years following his 2008 American Idol win, and despite having the world at his feet, the crushing weight never dissipated. “I acknowledge this might not have been the healthiest thing for me to do at the time, but I tended to shut off. The sheer level of everything at that point was difficult. Now, being able to disassociate from it and acknowledge as something else other than me would have been very helpful at that point. As with anything, over time, you learn new tricks.
“I’ve always been a textbook overthinker. Everything certainly got amplified once I was on ‘Idol.’ At that point, the show was such a massive thing, and it was hard to compartmentalize it on a week to week basis and realize ‘ok, I’m looking at this camera and on the other side of that camera are millions of people,’” he continues. “Then, your brain plays those tricks on you like ‘are they supporting what you’re doing? Or are they waiting for me to trip and fall.’ Then, you’d have external stimuli like not feeling confident enough in having the lyrics down a particular week. And that would just spiral out of control. There were small things that would trigger it, but then it would grow into this massive monster.”
A December 2020 survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau, indicated that 42% of those surveyed revealed anxiety and depressive thoughts, a hike from 11% the year before. Many have suffered deeply over the last 13 months, and in his own experience, Cook notes a further shift since the pandemic started. “I’m certainly aware of what’s going on outside the walls of my house, and I want to keep myself and my wife safe here. And I want my family to be safe. Those things have really taken the forefront more so now than ever. As a result, if there is a silver lining to it, it’s allowed me to reprioritize what I allow my anxiety to focus on. I can’t always control it, but I do feel a sense that some of the more trivial things don’t seem to trigger it as much as they used to.”
With his song “Strange World,” Cook peers through his window blinds to observe the “dumpster fire” that was 2020. Watching the outside burn like a effigy, he sings over indie-pop static. “My wife would point out if I was watching too much news. It’s just a bombardment of negativity,” he says. Instead, he “shut all that off and focused on the good things” right before him. “This is the longest I’ve been home in a huge stretch since we got married. Being able to spend time with her and the dogs and be more present at home has been awesome. There are all these things we put aside and forget about just to keep up with the machine that is the world outside.”
“Reds Turn Blue” and “Stranger World” slip onto an EP that feels, if anything, far more “observational” than much of his previous work. “This whole process has allowed my brain to slow down a little bit. It’s something I didn’t even realize I needed. I don’t think people are going to listen to it and feel completely like ‘whoa, he took a huge left turn.’ It’s not like fusion jazz or anything, but the content is a little different. That’s just a by-product of this record having unique and different stimuli from any record before it.”
A new song called “Make a Move,” a glistening nostalgic piece, finds Cook wandering back to his days in college and “leaving the nest for the first time,” he says, “and taking those chances you take when you’re young. And then you look back and think ‘thank god that worked out ‘cause that was really stupid.’ A kid in suburban Kansas City, I was always wanting more than anything to expand my world beyond that.”
The follow-up to his Chromance EP (2018), The Looking Glass flickers between intimacy newly-recovered (“Fire”), as the world goes up in flames, quite literally, and lamenting the current state of affairs (How did we get here? he ponders through cosmic vocoder on “Going Back”). “From a social standpoint, it’s all the scars we’ve gained as a country and a planet,” he says of the overarching theme. “It’s impossible to look outside the window and not feel changed by it.”
Photo by Bobby Quillard