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David Cook

David Cook rose to fame at 26 years old, after winning the seventh season of ‘American Idol’ in 2008. Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in Blue Springs, Missouri, Cook's interest in music began when he took to singing in the second grade when he was given a part in a school Christmas performance. At 13 he received his first guitar, a Fender Stratocaster. He wrote his first song, ‘Red Hot’ when he was 15. Cook originally did not plan to try out for ‘Idol’. He initially went to the auditions in Omaha, Nebraska in support of his younger brother, and then, prompted by his mother and brother, when a show producer noticed him, Cook auditioned himself, going on to win the seventh season in 2008, receiving 56 percent of the votes, with 12 million more votes than his opponent. A week following his ‘American Idol’ victory, Cook broke several ‘Billboard’ chart records. Most notable was his record-shattering feat of having 11 songs debut on the ‘Hot 100’ that week, nearly doubling the previous record set by Miley Cyrus in 2006. Cook's first single, "The Time of My Life" led the pack, debuting at number three on the ‘Hot 100’. Cook’s 11 charting songs also gave him the most songs by one artist on the ‘Hot 100’ and the most of any era since the ‘Beatles’ placed 14 songs on the chart the week of April 11, 1964. Cooks released his latest LP titled ‘Chromance’ in early 2018 around the same time it was announced that Cook would be making his Broadway debut playing ‘Charlie Price’, in ‘Kinky Boots’, returning for a second run of the hit show in July. I spoke with David from his home in Nashville where he took a break from packing for a gig in Oklahoma to chat with me.

Hi Dave how are you?

Good. Yourself?

Not too bad. Thank you!

Where are you calling from?

I’m at home in Nashville. Actually, I’ve been putting off packing all day because I’m leaving tonight for a gig in Oklahoma, so as soon as I get off with you, I have to go pack. 

I’m off to a gig tomorrow in Virginia, so it’s the same for me.

Oh, So you understand.

Your current tour is all Acoustic. In your personal experience, what are the fundamental differences between performing an acoustic set and working with a full band? Do you have to develop different techniques to connect with a more intimate audience?

The differences are plentiful, for sure. I think, to touch on the second part of your question first, there are inherent differences in trying to connect with an audience acoustically because you’re a little limited in what kind of sounds you can come up with and with that you always run the risk of maybe losing an audience’s attention. So you really have to find other ways to engage an audience for that amount of time. The main differences for me are, you're essentially stripping a song to its bare elements and with that in mind, there’s less to hide behind. You really have to be on your game from a musicianship and vocal standpoint. I feel like there are some beautiful moments to be found in stripped-down versions of the songs. As a musician, when you go and play them that way, and then you return to the full band dynamic, it makes the performances of the songs stronger in the long run. 

Compared to your past works, the songs on your latest LP ‘Chromance’ are coming from another place entirely than the David Cook were used to. Listening to the tracks, I could visualize it playing as a soundtrack behind a Sci-Fi or Action movie. Was that intentional?

I don’t know if that particular angle was intentional but I’m glad it came off that way. I wanted ‘Chromance’ to feel like something different. I felt like all the music I put out from my first record, before ‘[American] Idol’, ‘Analog Heart’, to my last full-length LP ‘Digital Vein’, I wanted those to be bookends. I wanted that chapter to close and as such, going into writing for ‘Chromance’, there was a conscious effort to kind of tear down and rebuild my process a little bit and try different things, that maybe weren’t in my comfort zone. I used a lot of synths, programmed beats, and loops. I was really trying to find a different way to the finish line of writing a song. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, to be honest. Just to challenge myself in a different way and try to see if I could make a record where a guitar was ‘an’ instrument as opposed to ‘the’ instrument. That was really important in ‘Chromance’.

With ‘Digital Vein’, musically, you forced yourself out of your comfort zone for the first time in order to be more explorative. Was that the case with ‘Chromance’?

Yes! But it was a different beast entirely. With ‘Digital Vein’, I was taking the reigns myself from a producers standpoint, but it wasn’t a complete departure for me sonically. ‘Digital Vein’ was the record I needed to make at that point. It was certainly an exorcize for me to see if I still enjoyed music. The record before that, ‘This Loud Morning’ had just taken a lot out of me emotionally. I wanted to get back to music being fun again. That’s what ‘Digital Vein’ represented for me. ‘Chromance’ was like, “Ok. I’ve done that, let’s try something different,  let’s take that challenge and extrapolate a little bit.” ‘Chromance’ is maybe my best representation to date of rediscovering the excitement of making music. There’s some energy on ‘Chromance’ that I’d been chasing for a while.

The content on ‘Chromance’  is mainly about love, but it’s a much darker take on the subject, Quite notably, the guitar is not the go-to instrument on the music here. Was that calculated and were there any reservations about not having the guitar strap around your neck, so to speak?

[Laughs] You know, I think there was a conscious effort to reign the guitar in a little bit. I grew up listening to alternative and early 2K’s modern rock, so I definitely became accustomed to, “Alright, when you hit the chorus, it’s was ‘wall of sound’ time.” To really try some different dynamics was important to me. I wanted to go down that path. ‘Chromance’ was important lyrically. There was no direct conscience effort to write a record about the darker shades of love. As we started pooling songs and figuring out what I wanted the record to be, those songs were the ones that jumped out at me.  I’ve always been a huge proponent that if you’re going to make a record, it’s not necessarily about the twelve best songs. It’s about the twelve right songs. I feel like these songs happen to be both. I feel really good about the strength of these songs and I feel like they were the right songs for this project. 

Leading off from that, when writing a new song or album, do you retain any pressure from your past work and successes?

I’m sure, subconsciously there was. I try, at least consciously not to screw with that stuff. If you start pressuring yourself based on the past, I just think you're doomed to repeat it. That’s just never been my bag. I don’t like making the same record twice. To me that’s boring, and not just for me, but for the audience as well. Who would want to buy someone's new record if it sounds just like the last one? I like repositioning and recalibrating the sound and the vibe every time. It’s exciting for me and I believe it’s exciting for the audience as well. 

Why cover Phil Collins ‘Another Day In Paradise’ on ‘Chromance’?

It was not a conscious decision. I was sitting in the studio one night and I was supposed to be editing a vocal for ‘Warfare’ or ‘Ghost Magnetic’, I can’t remember which. I was being lazy and put it off and I was sitting at my keyboard and just started playing that lead riff from ‘Another Day’ and I challenged myself to come up with the rest of the song and wound up playing through it and I built the bones of that track fairly quickly and I just thought, “I feel like this song has got something to it. The energy’s right for it.” It was a topical song that talks about how we’re more alike than we are different and we should be celebrating those similarities and picking each other up in a social climate, certainly here in the states, where it feels like that’s not happening. I’m just gonna put this out in the world, maybe nobody will hear it, but I felt it was a message I just wanted to put back out there as an artist. 

Responding to both of those points, let me state that your ‘American Idol’ cover of Dolly Partons ‘Little Sparrow’ is one of my favorites. Have you performed it since the show? 

Thank you so much! I haven’t in fact. That was the hardest song of that whole season for me. For whatever reason, I couldn’t grasp the lyrics and I kept forgetting the words. In fact, the only time I got that song right from a performance standpoint was when it counted, thank God. At the dress rehearsal, I messed up the lyrics, every stage rehearsal, every time I had to play that song, I messed up the words. I remember that after that performance I had to go to the hospital because my blood pressure spiked because I got so anxious, add that to the fact that I was going to go on national tv and possibly throw up. As much as I love that song and as much as I enjoyed performing it, I think that just being in the moment and being so anxious about it after the fact, I still get anxiety [laughs]. I have not played that song since. 

‘American Idol’ alumni Clay Aiken, has moved on to politics. What do you think the role of Artists, specifically, needs to be in this political climate? Do you think it's better to use your voice and risk losing fans or not say anything at all? Are there boundaries?

[Sigh] I think the role of an Artist, not necessarily in the ‘Trump Era’ but any era is to shine a light on the dark spots. Light is a pretty damn good disinfectant as far as politics go. Man, I got my politics and I believe they ’re mine. I don’t necessarily adhere to the idea that you have to share them. I feel like my actions in the public sphere kind of speak for themselves. I think every artist has an obligation to be truthful with their fans. I think it’s up to the individual artist. The risk of losing fans and the risk of alienating people always exist. Each individual artist has to weight the pros and cons. 

In Second Grade, Mrs. Gentry gave you a part in a school Christmas performance. Did you find music? Or did music find you? Was it a mutual attraction?

Music found me, for sure. I was a shy kid and the idea of singing in front of my peers, well, I would have rather peed my pants in front of everybody to be completely honest with you. The idea of doing that seemed so foreign and so nauseating to me. Mrs. Gentry and to the same extent, my parents, saw something and nudge me in that direction. My childhood and teen years are just riddled with moments where music kind of punched me in the face when I wasn’t really paying attention. It really wasn’t until college when I was like, “Oh, ok! Let’s give this a shot, let’s see how this shakes out.” That road is littered with, “Hey stupid! Pay attention”. While I was too busy playing baseball or chasing girls around.

David. May I speak on your eldest brother Adam?

OK.

Adam was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed in May of 2009. A very personal passion of yours is your work with ‘ABC2’, an organization that drives cutting-edge research and treatments for brain cancer and brain tumors. You’ve stated that “Far and away, that is the proudest of all my achievements.” What do you think Adam would say about your success?

[Long pause] Oh wow! I don’t know… Ah, you’re gonna get me going. I know he was proud of me. I don’t think my brother would have risked his own health back in the day to travel to L.A. the two times that he did if he wasn’t proud of what was going on. Anybody who has had somebody who they look up to like that, a family member or a friend, who you have a close relationship with knows that. You try to make the decisions, even after they’re gone that you hope they would be proud of. I think, at best, where I’m at now, I hope and try to make the decisions that I think he would stand behind. That is a lofty question, way above my pay grade.[laughs] 

If you were only allowed to release only one song of yours that you could share with the world. Which would it be?

Wow! That’s like picking a favorite kid. Honestly, it depends on which way the wind’s blowing. But since that question is piggy-backed off of the question about my brother, I’m going to go with ‘Permanent’, but if you ask me in ten minutes it might be a different answer. I’ll tell you what, I’ll go with the marketing answer… the next song!

15 plus years down the road. Why is performing live still so vital to you at this point in your career?

It’s vital to me because it deserves to be kept alive. It seems like technology is heading further and further in the direction of getting to the point where every band is going to go out on tour for only one night in some space in their hometown and that show is going to be a holograph  at all these different venues. By the way, I’m trademarking that idea right now, [laughs] so whoever is listening, it’s yours for 20%. I feel like there’s nothing like the live show experience. I understand it, but I loathe everybody having their phones up constantly at a concert. I’m pissing in the wind at this point but I believe in that moment. I believe that every show is unique. I try really hard to make our shows that way. I feel like if you’re not paying attention or if you have your phone between you and the show, you’re missing that vibe, you’re missing that energy. You can’t recreate that energy, so yes… shit, I don’t know, but for me, an important part of being a musician is going out on the road and litmus testing songs and meeting your fans and building your fan base. I tell people all the time when they ask, ”What should I do?  How do I get into the music industry?” I say. “Get out on the road, play shows for free, do it all. Sleep in a van.” I hate the phrase ‘paying your dues’ but I think you have to put in the miles. 

In today's atmosphere, most artists rely on youtube and other social media outlets, with the hopes of going viral to kick-start their career. 

Again, as I said, it’s pissing in the wind because that’s the way the industry is going and to some extent, if you want to be a huge, worldwide artist, you’re going to have to ride that wave. I think there’s also something to be said for creating something organic that’s going to last long instead of playing whatever the current flavor is. 

It’s been ten years since you’ve were crowned champion on ‘American Idol’. What surprised you the most about fame? What do you now understand about money and fame that you didn't 15 years ago?

I understand how to save a little bit of money now. I didn’t know that before, I can promise you that. I can’t say I learned anything about fame per say. I learned more about myself and how fame and I interact. I certainly enjoy being on stage. I love being famous between stage left and stage right. Outside of that, it’s not the most comfortable suit in the world, but it is what it is. From a means to an end that sounds really jaded. Fame allows me the opportunity to do this thing I love to do which is create art and to put something that didn’t exist before out into the world. That’s where it begins and ends with me.

What misperceptions did you have about the music business? Did you find that frustrating early on?

Nah! It was kind of exactly what I thought it was going to be. It can be cutthroat and ‘what have you done for me lately’. It can be a lot of that, but I think, ultimately, it’s… listen, man, I get to play music for a living. I get to make a living in the music business and that’s something that a lot of people can't say. So I don’t take that for granted and I don’t take that lightly. No job is perfect, no career path is going to be perfect. I’m sure there are things about this that you don’t like, but it’s part of the gig man and ultimately I love what I do. No complaints, past the obvious. 

What are some of your personal attributes that you’ve brought to the table in order to succeed as an artist in this business?

I try really hard to not be inauthentic. I remember when my wife and I moved to Nashville, five or six years ago, and I did some interviews right after we moved there and I kept getting asked: “Are you gonna go Country now?” At first, it seemed really absurd, just because I live somewhere doesn’t mean I have to do the music that's considered endogenous to that area. Then the more I thought about it, I was like, I guess it makes sense. I could go Country here, but ultimately I feel that would be very disingenuous of me. I don’t necessarily have my heart in that, at least not for myself. I don’t mind writing it for other people. Audiences can tell. Its like if I went out on stage wearing a dinosaur mask and expected people to believe that I’m an actual dinosaur. I pride myself on trying to be as authentic and as true to myself as possible, if I can do that and put out music I believe in, then ultimately, there’s gonna be somebody out there that believes in me too. 

What do you hope or think your greatest impact as an artist has been or will be?

I don’t know it that’s for me to decide. You touched on the charity stuff earlier. I’m certainly proud of that, and if that’s… listen, man, if that’s on my bi-line at the end of my days, great! But I don’t know if that’s up to me and to be honest if I live the rest of my life the way that I believe I should and the way that I can, then whatever legacy or whatever the hell follows that. That’ll be chosen by people above my pay grade. Ultimately I can’t write it so I choose not to care about it. 

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Oh… It was in the spring, I performed on Broadway!

Kinky Boots!

Yea, I got fortunate enough to do it for a second time, which I just finished.

Stilettos! How was that?

Not Ideal. Tip of the cap to anybody who wears them. They’re super uncomfortable. I don’t recommend them.

What do you think is the most Rock and Roll thing you’ve ever seen or done on the road?

The only stuff that comes to mind is stuff I’m going to hold on to for a memoir. Good Lord!

We’re pretty tame, I’m going to be completely honest with you. You know what, we had a bus driver once who clipped the side of a McDonald's drive-thru. I don’t know why we were doing that on a tour bus, and then he drove off. I don’t know if that’s ‘Rock & Roll’. I think that’s a felony [laughs]. We’ll go with that. I won’t say his name, just to keep things on the level.

Thanks, Dave, and good luck with the upcoming tour.

Thanks, Joby. Have a good one!