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Monday, 06 June 2011 08:29

"The purest statement" An interview with Elizabeth Cook

"The purest statement" An interview with Elizabeth Cook Sara Finke
Written by Nick Cowan
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Elizabeth Cook is performing on June 8 at Twangfest 15, her third appearance at the festival. Her music can be witty, contemplative and everything in between.

That sentiment is true for all of four of her albums, the most recent of which is 2010's Welder. She's received quite a bit of press and accolades for that record. That’s just one of a few topics she and I talked about on the phone as she traveled down California's I-5 freeway this past Memorial Day.

Nick Cowan: How's it going?

Elizabeth Cook: It's going fine we're driving down the I-5 in California, so, I can't really be sure about my phone.

I'm glad your're taking a few minutes out and helping us get the word out about Twangfest. You were recently nominated for a number of Americana Music Association Awards. Welder got a nomination for Album of the year, "El Camino" song of the year, and you for Artist of the year. That's pretty cool.


This is a clichéd question but how does it feel to be recognized on the same playing field as Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams?

I feel kinda dwarfed by giants but I'm glad that I made a record that people thought was in the game.

And a lot of that record, too, was inspired by your relationship with your dad, right?

Yes, his life, over probably the years since the Balls album. Just life.

You performed here at KDHX last year; one song in particular, is "El Camino." And I was wondering, there's gotta be a story behind it.

Well, no, not really. I'm sure metaphorically it speaks to my reality. But, no I just made it up. Just sitting' on the tailgate of a truck, daydreaming, zoning out. I wasn't really trying to write a song or, just had a pen and paper, and wrote that out. It seemed entertaining to me, and just put a one-chord riff on it, and there's the song.

Awesome. Do a lot of your songs come like that, or do you find yourself struggling sometimes to find a bridge section, or how to end the song. Is that an easy process for you?

No, it's not. I don't have the patience for that battle. You know, I wish I did -- I'd be a more disciplined writer.

Are songs like "El Camino," that or more upbeat, flow out, or do you spend more time with ones that might be more somber. I'm thinking of "Heroin Addict Sister" from Welder.

You know, it depends. I wrote that one pretty fast. It doesn't seem to be that's one that's somber and one that's not. It's how fast the lyric comes out, how easily it's unfolding. That song is just conversational prose, kind of, and we spend most of the time arranging it, going back through it after, just sort of making it a little tidier. House cleaning.

I've heard other writers say that it might take 10 minutes to write something and then 4 hours changing it.

That's true for me.

Speaking of songwriting, I like the humor in your tunes. Kind of tongue in cheek, a little sarcastic, still nice. Do you sit down and think, "I want to crack people up," or does it develop naturally?

I don't ever sit down with that objective. I usually have to have the idea that makes me laugh, one that I think is funny, so I might sit down and might write it out and run it by people around me, see if it's got steam or not. Then it goes from there...or not. I always like to laugh and kid around, my daddy is that way.

Do you think that helps draw people into your music?

There's more dimension to my experience. I feel lucky to be able to have that much color in what I see and write about.

Folks seem to appreciate that they aren't one dimensional.

I hope so.

Are you your own worst critic?

Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Definitely. I'm hard on myself all the time. But I knew when I walked out of the studio from making Welder that I had made a really good album. I knew it. So if it had never gotten airplay by the great stations that I’m indebted to, or all the great press, I still knew it. And that was really important for me. Of course the other stuff helps makes it a helluva lot easier!

You've been around for right at 10 years now, right?

Yep, my first record came out in 2000.

And you put out your first album independently?

Yeah, it was really meant to be like a little mock, kind of demo album to try and get a big time record deal because I was working with a publishing company down on Music Row. It was a really cool group of people and we had a very clear vision and we we're going and cutting these demos, trying to cull a record from it. That did happen, we got a deal from Atlantic, (which became Warner Brothers) and then we got asked to play the Grand Ol Opry with that record. It's funny to listen to it now, because I definitely see some of the quirks and stuff that would become my writing eventually.

Do you listen back to those now and think, "Oh, I see where I was trying for that," or are there any songs you skip past?

You know, I don't. I probably went through that for a little bit. It's frustrating trying to get your voice formed and to have it translated in a way where it doesn't sound awful, and it's really hard because there are so many variables at play. And, so, I look at it now it's probably the purest statement other than Welder. Some of it's pretty green, but it was pure at the time and I didn't have the constraints and pressures and filter of expectations that were on me in the middle there.

Is there a little bit of that pressure now with the success of Welder, and your overall profile?

Yeah, in a way I'd hate to let anybody down now but I feel as long as I keep working to please myself like I did with Welder I'll be ok. I'll probably lose some folks along the way and pick some more up.

That's livin' though ain't it.

It might be the best record I ever make, it may not. (brief pause) I hope not, but it might be. (laughs)

A few more questions for you. Were house concerts a big way for you to promote yourself? What's your take on that?

It was very important early on because it was so hard to get a club promoter to take a chance on you. And people that tend to do house concerts really have their finger on the pulse and undercurrent of what's going' on and they'll book you. And so it gave me a way to work a little bit. I needed more than I had, but I had a few, and it was just barely enough to string together to keep going until I was able to get my first proper tour a year ago, really. The house concerts I had, which wasn't a lot, I do remember the one there in St. Louis. I'm really grateful for the people with such a deep love that they do it.

How are your recent gigs going?

I'm growing a whole lot with my live performance I like to think. I travel mostly as a trio, with Tim Carroll and Bones Hillman, kinda that Tennessee two thing. It's a lot of fun and it took getting tours on the books to where you could go and really iron stuff out.

How did you get involved with Sirius Satellite?

I got that because I was on the press tour for the Balls album in 2007 and was in NY doing interviews with the Outlaw Country channel. They asked me to do an audition for a radio show, which I didn't think I was really interested in. But, after the interview I recorded it on the spot and they offered me a gig. Started off one day a week, then two, now five. I do it from the road.

Welder's been out for a year, 10 years, four albums. What's on the horizon?

A few projects brewing, some music some not. Nothing solid.

That's cool. Elizabeth, thanks for calling in from the road. Glad your cell phone didn't fall out. Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Safe travels.

Thanks for taking your time, it's a holiday for you too.

Elizabeth Cook performs at Twangfest 15 at the Pageant on June 8.

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