North Carolina-based musician Phil Cook, who has played in bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Gayngs and Megafun, decided to take an unusual approach to his first full solo album and assemble a massive supergroup of musicians to fill out his band. With help from members of Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Blind Boys of Alabama and more, Cook churned out a wonderfully honest record about American life. We chat with the newfound songwriter about his studio team, the major life changes that led to the creation of this record and the magic of “Amazing Grace.”
You played with a lot of different musicians on Southland Mission. How much of the songwriting process for the album was collaborative?
They’re all my song! They’re the first nine songs I’ve written in my life. They represent my first 36 years on this planet. It’s all my stuff. Basically, long story short, I had parts to the songs for the last few years and then it all kind of snowballed when I went to a cabin in Virginia for four or five days and ended up demoing the whole record. When it was time to bring everyone into the studio to record, the parts were done, but everyone still played like themselves, which was what I wanted.
How long had you been writing some of these songs for?
I can trace some of the guitar parts to piano things I wrote when I was 14. There are some things on there that are so old that I forgot about them. That being true, it’s not like I’ve been writing this record my whole life. A lot of things collided at the same time to start the ball rolling. One was that I had a kid, and in that process a lot of things became clear about what my purpose on this planet is and I got a lot more serious about some things. The second was that I got to be bandleader on the Blind Boys of Alabama record. Working with my heroes and then getting to be in their band for a few weeks, that process was really huge for me. For whatever reason, I just started saying “yes” to a lot of things that were in my head, and I guess in the past I had mostly been saying “no.”
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
I would say that it’s probably not traditional compared to a lot of songwriters. For me, the process starts on the back end. Because I’m an instrumentalist and piano player at my core, most things started on piano and then I transferred them to the guitar or vice versa. I hear harmony a lot and that usually offers up a pretty good melody that goes on top of it. I don’t know how traditional that is, but hey, I’ve only really written nine, man. I’ve been a part of writing songs my whole life but I’ve never put my own name on them.
How different did this feel from writing with the other bands you’ve played with?
Great and terrifying. I’ve never had the waves of self-doubt and terror that come with being responsible for the whole thing. The first step was getting confident enough to step up and say what I wanted to say. The second was surrounding myself with musicians that would help me execute the sounds I had in my head. That was the really, really crucial piece and I knew I had to find the best musicians I’ve ever met and assemble them to make this record. Almost all of them are from North Carolina, and almost all of them are actually from Durham, but they’re all from different scenes, like the gospel scene and jazz scene or the rock scene.
Who played on the record?
Matt McCaughan, who has spent the last few years playing with Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger; my brother Brad Cook co-produced with me; James Wallace on electric piano; Brevan Hampden on percussion; that was the rhythm section, basically. Then I had all these bluegrass musicians that I loved – Andrew Marlin plays mandolin; Bobby Britt plays fiddle and is, in my opinion, the best fiddler in North Carolina. Then I had Trey Pierce from the Blind Boys of Alabama singing bass and playing some bass, I have a girl name Tamisha Waden, a gospel and jazz singer, a girl named Jeanne Jolly, a girl named Amelia Meach, she sang a whole bunch – she’s in a band called Sylvan Esso. Cameron Halston played bass on the last song. My buddy Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] sings the low harmony on the first track.
Are all these songs about your own life?
Oh yeah. It had to be about my life. I think it had to come from a real place. I’ve been in this game for 20 years, but this is the first thing I’ve ever done. That’s how I’ve been looking at it. It kind of eclipses everything I’ve done in the past in terms of how relevant and important it is to my life. The songs totally come from where I stand on my wife and my son and my family and friends. So yeah, I know all the subject matter very, very well.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
MC Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger, who is one of my best friends in the entire world. Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. I really like D’Angelo. I love Curtis Mayfield. Gillian Welch…. it’s hard to knock her.
What do you think the best song ever written is, and why?
Going off of just how long a singular song has been vibrating through the fabric of our culture and remained relevant and relatable to all kinds of people, I would have to say “Amazing Grace”. It’s been sung so many millions of time and has crossed every single social and cultural line on the planet and has totally translated to all of it. It’s given so many people strength in times of hope and despair for so long. It’s easy when you think about it in terms of longevity.