To keep herself sane during the pandemic, London-based singer and songwriter Hollie Cook used writing and exercise as a way to maintain her sanity. “It was a distraction and therapy and a nice way to stick one’s head in the sand and enjoy this weird time as best we could,” Cook tells American Songwriter. “I ended up having a really nice time actually, which I feel a little bit guilty to say.” Tending to her home garden and herself, Cook completed a collection of songs emitting more light in darker times.
Co-produced with her General Roots band members drummer Ben Mckone and keyboardist Luke Allwood, who she’s been playing with for the past eight years, and executive produced and mixed by Youth (Martin Glover), who also worked with Cook on her previous release, Vessel of Love in 2018, Happy Hour is layered through Cook’s distinct Lovers Rock—the lovey-dovey reggae that hit the 1970s and early ‘80s London beat—and intricately woven lyrics. Happy Hour is the collage of the music that bred the British artist, daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and Jeni Cook, a former backing vocalist for Culture Club—and Hollie’s godfather Boy George.
In Lovers reggae and hypnotic harmonies, Happy Hour kicks off on the sultrier swoon and longing for love —I’m trapped, I cannot move / Swimming is cool, but there are sharks in the pool / I’m a prisoner locked in a dream/ But thing are not what they seem / And I know what it means /You’re never coming for me, baby—on the title track before uptempo “Moving On” and celestial and physical unions of breezy “Full Moon Baby.”
Coming to Cook while she watered her plants, the more fortified reggae of “Kush Kween” marks a first for the artist, featuring Jamaican singer Jah9. “I wanted to keep ‘Kush Kween’ very feminine and fertile, and I love Jah9’s rich, powerful vocal energy, so I reached out to her on Instagram to see if she would like to join me on the track,” says Cook, who has rarely brought in artist collaborations. “We had met briefly before and the energy was right in person, and it’s magic on this track.”
Lovers rock pioneer and producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell slyly joins Cook on the closing reggae sermon “Praying,” still wandering around the what ifs with Cook gently imploring somehow we’ll make it through.
Piqued from tracks Cook had initially written in 2018, Happy Hour began forming around “Unkind Love,” with the remainder of the album predominantly written in 2019 while Cook was in Los Angeles and fleshed out the songs with Mckone and Allwood into early 2020.
Indulgence is the overriding thread throughout Happy Hour, the title even ringing out around the universal ceremony of celebration. “I already knew that I wanted the album to be called ‘Happy Hour,’ so I was striving towards this happier time and focusing on positivity,” shares Cook. “I guess there’s still a lot of melancholic themes running through my music, but I’d say that this is probably my happiest album. It was just a very natural progression as far as where I am and in my life and in my thoughts.”
Cook adds, “It literally was grasping at joy and happiness as the world lived through trauma. I also experienced some quite harrowing experiences with some friends about a year before [the pandemic], so I did also lean honestly into the harder times that I’ve been through. It’s just pure indulgence and cathartic.”
Wanting to capture the live element of the band in the recording, Happy Hour plays out like a freestyle show, further refined by the assistance of Youth. “He’s good at completing things,” says Cook who worked remotely with Youth, who worked from his studio in Spain. “He just makes things sound so great, and I knew that the combination of our style of recording with Youth’s executive ideas and production and mixing would be like a very happy sonic space for me to be in. Having the experience of someone of that caliber you can’t really take for granted what advice they have and what they bring to the table.”
More than a decade since her self-titled debut, and the 2014 follow-up Twice, and even longer since she joined the pioneering punk band The Slits with late singer Ari Up in 2006—so much has shifted for Cook as a songwriter. “I feel like from the first album, feeling inhibited because I had less experience,” shares Cook. “Now there’s a bit more consideration and more self-consciousness these days, and having previous work to one-up yourself, which is what it’s all about…trying to improve.”
Nowadays, writing feels less engineered for Cook. “I can see that there’s change and development with how I write but also never trying to be too contrived with it,” she says. “I’m just always trying to do what’s best for the song without overthinking and keeping it as natural. I still remember how I felt at that time and how I feel now, and I’m happy with the journey.”
Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle / Merge Records