The first time I saw Ellen Cook perform live was at Foam Coffee and Beer in South City a little more than two years ago. Dressed in a red onesie, she and Langen Neubacher (of local band the Defeated County) were hosting the weekly open-mic night.
Needless to say, I was distracted by this somewhat endearing, adult, red bodysuit that matched Cook's red hair. But after she played a few tunes on her keyboard in between performers, the music overpowered the visuals.
Her tone echoed Regina Spektor, but she sang with a biting confidence that would draw any music lover in within seconds.
This girl was good. Damn good.
I approached her.
"Hi, what's your name?" I asked.
"Ellen," she said.
"I love your music…. Can I find you online somewhere?" I persisted.
"Nope," she replied.
And that was that.
Now, more than two years later on a snowy February morning in Soulard, the 28-year-old St. Louis native sits next to me at a corner table in Benton Park Café. Cook looks different from when I last saw her, when she was a red head. Her now platinum blonde locks are long and streaked with hot pink on the ends. Suitable, I think, for a punk queen like Cook.
Known as Ellen the Felon, Cook released "Bang Bang Bang" on November 16, 2013.
So, I can now find her music online. Everywhere: iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud.
"I think we have 10 hard copies left out of the 600 we started with," she says.
Cook tells me she had a late night at the Iowa Buffet the night before, and orders herself a cup of coffee and a mango boozie. A little caffeine, a little booze….
I like this felon. And speaking of that moniker, essay writer when did Ellen Cook become Ellen the Felon?
"It's a nickname I acquired from high school," she says and laughs, somewhat uncomfortably. She then looks at me in a "I'll shoot it to you in a straight" kind of way. "Okay... I was a goth girl, like, really dark, nasty, goth anarchist, and I set fire to my high school and I actually wound up doing a couple years in [juvenile detention] and state facilities because of it."
The incident is cleared from her record now, however, thanks to her "very good lawyer."
"I regret it," she says, "But whatever. Every kid wanted to do that."
So, while she is no longer an actual felon, she owned the nickname enough to make it her stage name.
She takes a sip of her mango boozie and starts telling me about her background in music theory, which is nonexistent. This is a bit of a shock since her album is full of jazzy minor third and major seven chords and scales ringing from the Steinway she recorded on.
"I'm self-taught," she says. "My mother was a writer and my father was a journalism major. That might have something to do with the creativity."
Cook started playing piano at age 6. By 10 she started composing her own songs, and by 14 she was writing her own lyrics and incorporating them into her compositions.
Acting as Cook's music counterpart is drummer Matt "the Mattronome" Reyland.
Where did he come from?
"From the depths of hell!" she quips. "No, he's my absolute best friend. We've known each other since the sixth grade. He played drums his entire life and was mostly a part of other projects in high school."
Back in 2007, Cook had booked a gig at the Way Out Club in St. Louis. Reyland joined her for a few rehearsals before the gig, and the rest is history. By the time 2011 rolled around, the two began recording 13 of Cook's original songs at Firebrand Studios in St. Louis.
Cook mentions that it was difficult to cut the album down to just 13 tracks and says that she has close to three albums' worth of material. After listening to "Bang Bang Bang" many times over, that is not surprising.
To speak to her talent, this girl knows how to compose a piano melody that will give you chills from head to toe, and write gutsy, uninhibited autobiographical lyrics to go along with it. She tackles human introspection like aforementioned Spektor but has the edge of the late Amy Winehouse.
Cook wrote the album track "Slana Singa" three years ago, two days after the death of her mother, who suffered from dementia, bi-polar disorder and emphysema. Undoubtedly one of her most powerful ballads on the album, the heavy bass notes dropping from her left hand are enough to make your heart do the same. And then she sings the first lyric:
"There might be nights I drink until I cry my eyes out, inexcusably so. Well, the past, it just haunts me."
The song ends with Cook repeatedly singing the lyric, "We all deserve peace in the end."
"It was everything I wanted to say to her," she confides. "All my songs are about boys or angst-y. [My mother and I] didn't have the best of relationships. When she finally died it was bittersweet because she was very sick, and I was sick of seeing her turn into somebody that she wasn't."
"I wrote it, wanting it to be a classic...something that anybody mourning or dealing with death and loss could listen to"," she says. "Everybody's lost somebody."
Cook has dealt with her fair share of loss. She also lost her late boyfriend Dave Hagerty in August 2010 in a car crash, which was what inspired her to write what ended up being the title track on her album.
She says that she felt it was the most appropriate title track because it sounded the best -- and because of the emotion tied to it.
The song's piano and percussion progress as a hard march while a solo violin laments in the foreground.
The first lyric in the song is "I don't know how to kill." She repeats it twice. It's almost like you can hear her having the battle with herself; the emotion is palpable, and it intensifies as she sings "bang, bang, bang, you better run, run, run."
So who is she talking about?
"The only way I didn't punch people in the face every day was by writing a song about physically shooting this mother fucker that hit us," Cook explains.
"I don't know what I would do without music," she adds. "It has been, sometimes, my only salvation, my only outlet. I'm not very...I don't ask for help."
That much seems obvious from Cook's album cover, which features her standing atop a piano engulfed in flames with her arms outstretched while Reyland stands beside a burning drum kit.
"I've always wanted to burn a piano," she says.
Counteracting her ballads are what she calls the "angst-y songs" or "songs about boys." One standout is "Party Girl," where she speaks to people wanting her to be something she isn't.
"I felt like people only wanted me to be their entertainment, or their super drunk, crazy Ellen," she says. "I felt like people weren't taking me seriously. Sometimes I am that, but sometimes I don't want to be. Sometimes I just want to be pissed off."
The song starts with a strong percussive beat and a dreamy-sounding soprano melody. It changes meter one minute into the song. The notes on the piano emulate a sarcasm or "fuck you" attitude towards those who would label her. Needless to say, she gets her point across.
So, what's next? She tells me she is ready to go on tour and play her music for ears that have never heard her. She also plans to be a part of three music videos this year. The details are a bit hush hush for now.
But, details or no details, I'll be waiting to see and hear what Ellen the Felon will do next.