Country Singer-Songwriter Elizabeth Cook Proves Never Too Late To Break Big (INTERVIEW)

It was just in her DNA that Elizabeth Cook would end up standing behind a microphone and singing. Her mother sang honky tonk and her father played stand-up bass so music was always a part of her life. She sang as a child but it wasn’t until later on as an adult that Cook would propel her southern accented compositions into mainstream country.

Her major label debut, Hey Ya’ll, in 2002 played up her sweet Florida charm and Dolly Parton witticism but it was her sass on 2007’s Balls that really caught everyone’s attention. So much so, that even while fans were eating up her “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” single, country radio was hesitant about playing it and the Grand Ole Opry banned her from singing it onstage there for ten years. Balls was followed in 2010 by Welder, a more personal album produced by the great Don Was featuring stellar artists such as guitar player Buddy Miller, bassist Bones Hillman, keyboardist Tim Atwood, Dwight Yoakam and Rodney Crowell, who had produced Balls. Cook was nominated for Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year (for “El Camino”) by the Americana Awards and Rolling Stone ranked it #23 on their Top 30 Albums of 2010. Things were looking good for Cook.

But then life made a U-turn and started heading south. Cook got divorced, her father died, there was a fire and some rehab. Following an EP of gospel music, she didn’t release anything until 2016’s Exodus Of Venus, a darker, troubling album that harkened a more mature Elizabeth Cook, all the way around. Her lyrics were better, her vocals were stronger, her perkiness simmered down into an emotionally vibrant beacon of truth from reflection.

Cook’s evolution continues as she prepares a new album for a possible 2019 release. She is doing a tour, playing in Baton Rouge on Friday, followed by shows in Texas, Oklahoma and further up north. She’s getting to know a new puppy, after losing her beloved Boxer a few months ago, while enjoying life in Nashville, a town that once wanted her to glamour up more into a songstress, a la Faith Hill, to which she just said no.

Glide chatted with Cook last week, while the puppy was“currently content chewing a stick,” about her career, the influence of Carlene Carter, songwriting and taking control.

Why don’t you catch us up on what you’ve been up to these days.

Well, a little bit of everything. I’m mainly working on writing a new record, which I hope to record this summer and be out in early 2019. Now don’t hold me to it (laughs). A lot of things still have to come together.But that’s been my main thing. I’ve been touring and then working on the record.

You haven’t released a record since 2016’s Exodus Of Venus, so what are these new songs sounding like, what are they expressing?

I’m still trying to get my head around it. I really don’t know until about two years after I’ve put a record out what it was all about and where I was. I’m sort of blind feeling my way through things and then I can look back and go, “Oh, that was what was happening there.” So I don’t have the distance and perspective from it to really know. I know that I’m in a different place than I was when I was writing the Exodus material. I think that was a very dark, heavy time and the older you get, the heavier life can get and the things that happen to you in life.So I think I’ve still got that weight to the material, as where when I was younger it was much more light and fun-loving and now it’s more a little naturally darker and insightful as you start to suffer some blows. But a lot of reflection.

Exodusdefinitely had a darker and heavier vibe than your previous records. So as a songwriter, do you have to go to those darker, more personal spaces to write about emotions like that? Do you have to feel them all over again when you write that song?

Yeah, you do but I don’t set out to do that. It’s just the only way I know how to do it. It’s always personal. I don’t know how to write anything worth a crap that is outside of my own inner perspective. So yeah, you do, and I’m beginning, beginning, beginning to work on a memoir and same thing there. You have to relive it and it’s all just a tool to try and process things for me. It’s not about getting a song, it’s not about making an album, it’s not about meeting a release schedule. All those things are another part and of course they have to happen too and of course that’s on my mind, but that’s the business of processing things musically.

How do you edit yourself? Do you just write and let it all come out and then go back and say, I don’t really want to tell people about that?

Yes, I do. I edit over and over and over and over again. I am a brutal, relentless editor on myself, before I let anybody see anything. Like, I can remember for some reason I tallied it that “Heroin Addict Sister” was six pages long, front and back, before I went through and culled outlines that I felt like were the most effective, the best ones, and then tried to piece those together into a song, like a Rubik’s Cube. I think I’m a little more concise now so it’s not quite as janky (laughs), for lack of a better word. I’ve got one now that was ten verses and I’ve got it down to six and I think it might stay at six. Aaron Lee Tasjan was like, “You should do all ten!” (laughs)

When you’re out playing, do you try songs out on the crowds?

Absolutely, I have to do it to know how it feels and bounce it off people; you get a deeper reflection, I think, a more intense reflection. So that’s really part of what makes tours that fall like when this one does, because people will really see behind the curtain with a lot of really fresh songs, that I have to do them and part of the reason I make myself do it, as uncomfortable as it can be and as risky as it can feel, is because when I go to record it, I want to know that song the best I possibly can. If I could go back now and record songs that I’ve been singing for a few years then they’d probably be better recordings cause I’ve gotten into all of the layers and really perfected phrasings and notes and things that really helped deliver the song. I don’t know how other artists work but it takes me many, many, many passes to get that type of familiarity. So I have to jump off the cliff with them. This tour falls right in that window where I am going to have a couple of handfuls of songs that I’ll be sitting up and talking about and trying to get to know myself.

Is that just a perfectionism part of you?

Probably … or the child of an alcoholic probably. But I can’t even edit if I don’t have the right color pen and the right pen; and sometimes certain edits and processes and where I am with a song just need a certain pen and I have to have THAT pen. So yeah, whatever that is, I have that (laughs).

What made you actually sit down for the first time and write a song?

I didn’t sit down to do it. I just probably was driving in my car by myself and just started singing something. I mean, that’s always the jumping off point and I’m doing it to soothe myself somehow or express myself somehow. So if I’m feeling happy and rocking or lonely and pensive or whatever, that’s always been the way for me. It’s always been a natural way for me to express myself. I get tired of talking, you know. I like to write and I like to sing. My dog’s brother is deaf and my manager got him, so we’re learning sign language, so they are both trained with sign language and it’s just wonderful, just really a great peaceful way to communicate, that just gives talking a break.

What about singing?

My mother described when I was little she heard me out through the window of the house, down in Florida, out on my swing set and I was like two and a half or three years old, and I was just singing. I was singing to myself on my little seesaw horse thing. So it’s always been a sort of natural source of self-soothing thing to do when I feel really a lot of turmoil going on emotionally or with anxiety.

What about when they put you onstage so young?

I hated it, I always hated it.Still not my favorite part. I’m at peace with it, it’s an occupational hazard, but it’s a difficult thing for me to do. I don’t love to do it.I don’t want that to sound like I dread touring and all that stuff. Sometimes I do dread even leaving my home but I enjoy the people, I enjoy the fans and I enjoy connecting with people. I really like that part. But performing has always been, I don’t know, I used to be really nervous about it. I can remember just being gut-sick and shaking.It doesn’t come natural. You see those kids that are just natural showbiz kids, they just love to show out, it’s a great time for them, it’s play for them; it never was that way for me. I don’t like the attention, I don’t like doing things and then anticipating applause, sort of almost because of the pageantry of performance and the natural ceremony protocol of it: you finish the song and then people clap and then you’re supposed to do an encore at the end.And I don’t like all that expectation on me or on the audience. I just don’t like it (laughs). I know some artists that live for that and I feel guilty for making people clap for me even if they want to (laughs).

But it’s gratifying to do the work and probably the best parts of touring. I love meeting fans and having a moment together and I love that part of it. And it’s gratifying to have worked hard on a song and have something you really want to say and you really want to sing and then knowing that people connected to it, which isn’t always gauged by the applause-o-meter or whatever. You never know when you’re resonating with people, and it’s heavy and it’s intense and it’s quiet.

What songs do fans tend to come up and talk to you about the most?

You know, a lot of people relate to the songs I have about addiction, because they have a relationship with a person like that and they feel like the songs humanize those people, besides just calling them an addict or, “Hey, I’ve got this addict person in my life and doesn’t that suck.” But ones that like paint out the details that humanize that person and show the love and the complications of the relationship and they appreciate that understanding. I get that one a lot.

“Dharma Gate” is the one that keeps coming into my head right now off Exodus. So much of Exodus, people think that that record is about, you know, I’d been through a series of deaths and divorce and a fire, but I don’t really sing about any of those things on that record. I’m singing about getting into a really intense relationship in a moment where I had just been through all that and knowing that the relationship is doomed because I’m not in a place where I can navigate that in a healthy way. And I was right. But Exodus was very much about that, about that relationship.

One of my favorite tracks on Exodus was “Cutting Diamonds.”

Oh yeah, that’s cool to hear and yeah, me too. I’ve got to resurrect that one. That was the past previous relationship not going well and not ending well and then being in the new relationship and sort of sassing back about it. You know what it is, it’s a scorned woman. It’s a song coming from when you feel like you’re a scorned woman because the relationship ended, the marriage ended, you’ve got friends that go, you know, his team or her team, and then the ex gets a new significant other and you get a new significant other and there’s all this sort of tension and drama in just the whole sort of landscape of people that you know socially. So yeah, I want to do that song again.

”Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” has been around for ten years now. How do you think it’s held up?

You know, it’s funny, that song just continues to have wings because people still keep discovering it.It’s like my whole career really, it’s like a slow burn.But I think I was a sassy, lighthearted girl when I wrote that song. And now I’m a much, I don’t want to say more sophisticated, but more complicated woman now that has lived a life. I probably wouldn’t see it in such a lighthearted way now but it’s a sassy, funny, lighthearted song.

Did you ever see yourself as a more traditional country singer?

No, I never did. You know, I never was just completely married to that. I know a lot of that comes from doing the Opry so many years, which I love to do and I love traditional country music and I love to sing it. My mother was playing honky tonk bars pregnant with me with her acoustic guitar upside my head (laughs). I know and love that music and it’s part of the fabric of who I am.But the first time I was a teenager and got my hands on a Beastie Boys tape, I lost my mind! I was so happy!

Just like everybody coming up in sixth grade, my first non-country concert was Madonna on the Like A Virgin tour with the Beastie Boys opening. I loved Prince and I loved Madonna and all that eighties and nineties pop rock; Michael Jackson. I got way into all that stuff. But I love music, I love all of it, and there are certain artists that I adore in probably just about every genre. I’m completely obsessed with Cardi B right now; absolutely love her and the work that she’s doing. Of course Beyonce is like a no-brainer, Kendrick Lamar, a lot of that world.Then there’s indie bands, Jim James, Kevin Morby; so many good indie bands coming out of Nashville that are doing great, inspired work. I love the Decemberists, I love Modest Mouse; so much good music out there.

When you love music, it’s such a gift. And I don’t brand myself to one style of it. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve never really given a shit if music was country or not. And I love a lot of country music, get super stoked to listen to like Keith Whitley and Vern Gosdin and then further back to Buck Owens and Hank Sr and then further back to Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells. I know all that music and I absolutely love it and can get down to it. But I can also get down to Kendrick Lamar.

One of my friends is a huge fan of yours yet he is a complete metalhead.

You know, I’ve had a few guys like that. It’s not necessarily about sonics. It’s about perspective. Music can also be just about the perspective and if somebody feels like they can relate to you, for how you see things and how you sing it and how you put it out there, they relate to you. And if the guitar has distortion on it or not, who cares (laughs).

You’ve worked with Carlene Carter.What kind of an influence has she had on you personally and professionally.

You know, it used to be professional and I didn’t know her. It was purely for what she did, like putting her lineage aside which is super heavy – she’s Carter Family, they invented popular music as we know it, across all genres, and that is heavy. Her legacy is insane. But look at what she did, a true artist, and that sometimes skips a generation or two; not in Carlene’s case. Looking at her taking her musical gifts, her musical inclinations and because of her travels and worldliness, her artistic perspective, to put an eighties punk edge on country music in the eighties and have hits! Her fashion, all of it, and arguably country.Just fantastic. So she is inspirational in that way.

When I first met her personally, my mother had just died and it was like another strong female presence entered my life. And she said as much, she said, “You are surrounded by a covey of powerful women.” And I felt like when she said that she meant the women in my family, she meant the Carter women.She gave me a pair of boots from the “I Fell In Love” video and has since passed on a lot of clothes to me, including a pair of her mother’s shoes – I have a pair of June’s pumps that I’ve worn on the Opry. So it’s a very, very special relationship and there’s that aspect of it.

Then what sort of popped the clutch on the professional part was watching her still punch through the paper bag artistically to this day; she’s still doing it. She was just starting to toy with the idea of doing the Carter Girl record and she learned Mother Maybelle’s parts on the guitar cause she’s talented enough to do it; but she was intimidated by that, cause it’s quite a feat to hold that up. So to watch her still be challenged and still overcome the fearlessness that she has, it’s hugely inspiring.

You worked with producer Don Was on your Welder album. What did he bring in helping you make that record that maybe wouldn’t have been there if his influence wasn’t there?

Protection, unequivocally. He threw a cloak over me and an arm around me and let me make my record. Because he was there and he was present and everybody knew that ultimately he would keep me from wrecking the ship, I wasn’t questioned. That’s why I feel Welder is the first truest expression of a record I ever made, and probably still is the truest, in terms of having the least outside influence.

And usually a producer wants to put their mark on a record also

Don’s mark is that he is the purest of filters, because I feel like he is able to look at an artist and look at the material and know what needs to happen. When I came in with Welder, I had all those songs ready to go, I had players I wanted to work with, he had an engineer he wanted to use, he had a studio he wanted to use, and from there I turned it over to him, but it was the songs I brought and the players that I brought. So the part of it I needed to do, I was allowed to do. It was so freeing and I remember the last day of tracking was a Friday and we had to leave for Knoxville that night and I got physically sick and curled up in a ball in the studio in the chair and I thought I was pregnant. I was severely nauseous and he said, and he’s like a shaman, and he looked at me and said I was having an adrenalin crash and I think he was right.

You had Tim Atwood play on that record with you

Yes, his playing is next level because he’s not only an incredibly seasoned Nashville player, he plays with a broken heart and it’s powerful. We’re huge fans.

When they wanted to mold you into this supersexy, glamour Faith Hill type person, did that ever make you resent Nashville?

Yes. Not to get into like jokey Nashville bashing or mainstream music bashing, there is a place for that, there are people that are good at it, there is people that, “Hey, I have this raw talent and if you just help me get like a spray tan and tight enough shirt then I’ll be a country star and everybody will be happy.” There’s people that love music on that level but I just had to make my way out of that world. Now, I’m at great peace with it. That’s not what I do but that is what some people do. I don’t have any problems with those people as long as I have a way to do what I want to do. So there was all this miscommunication and I was young, I didn’t know, and at that time too there was no Americana association and the infrastructure of that scene wasn’t in place so I was wearing vintage clothes and writing weird, quirky country songs and there felt like there were fans for it and places I could go play but I was just like flapping around in the dark trying to move forward with that and it was a struggle. I felt bad too cause they were spending a lot of money on me and none of it made any sense.

How did you take control?

I asked to be released from my contract. I called a meeting with the president of Warner Brothers and I asked to be released from my contract and he was a really nice man. He was almost more like a figurehead and he was such a sweet, gentle older man and he said, “Well, everybody is going to be really disappointed to hear this but I’ll circulate a memo by this afternoon.” And I said thanks and that was it.

That took a lot of courage to do that

I remember it so well. I remember sitting in my car in the parking garage at the label and pulling down the mirror, checking my makeup, and thinking like, what am I doing? And it was right at a time when those shows like, well, American Idol hadn’t really come out yet but Nashville Star I think was one, and I had some friends that were trying out so I had gone up to watch their tryouts and cheer for them.And I remember looking around this giant room with hundreds of people in it, all like on a list and waiting to audition. And the prize for this contest was a major label record deal. And I thought, all these people in here are trying to get what I’m trying to get rid of, and how ironic it was.

Some people I think are just not specific enough about their inspiration, that they are more driven by just doing it than how they do it so that fits them. Like, I am a blank canvas, market me to thirty-five year old guys that drive trucks and like, boom, got it, got a team of guys that write songs for that; here’s what you wear, cool, got it, and it all just jives. I just was never able to find that mold. I think I wanted to make my own mold.

To you, what was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?

Grand Ole Opry, for sure. March 17, 2000 or 2001, I’m not sure exactly which year, and I was mortified. There is a picture of me coming off stage and I look like I’ve seen a ghost, or I probably did see a lot of them. A lot of artists, even when they get out there, they’re like, “Oh, I’m soaking up this moment;” and to me, it all was just shocking. So I wasn’t able to really process the nostalgia and the career milestone and all those things that everybody else says they’re able to do. Some of them I just think they’re full of shit. I think they’re just saying what they think they’re supposed to say, because for me, I found it completely overwhelming, absolutely shocking. I cannot honestly say that I was genuinely having all of those emotions simply because I was absolutely overwhelmed.

Who was the first real country star you ever met?

Tammy Wynette. I was a little girl and my mother heard that Tammy Wynette was going to be signing autographs at the Winn-Dixie grocery store in Lakeland, Florida, and we got in the car and drove down there and stood in line like we were buying groceries, but we were just standing there waiting to get Tammy Wynette’s autograph.You know where the grocery store checkout counter is? It was all very funny to have a line of people going down but nobody is putting groceries on and nothing is getting rung up. It’s just Tammy Wynette sitting where the cashier usually is. So it was really bizarre. I remember her hair, just how beautiful. For me, it was like meeting a First Lady, like meeting Grace Kelly or Jackie Kennedy. That’s how she felt, that was her vibe and I’d say that rung true meeting her in person.

Do you still have that autograph?

I do, absolutely. It’s an album and I know where that is and it’s going to see a better light of day than where it’s at now. But it’s ridiculous, I have the program from every Opry show I’ve ever played and that’s over 400!It’s ridiculous how many Opry programs I have (laughs).

Have you ever just shot the shit with Loretta Lynn?

I have! She’s amazing. The first real conversation with Loretta one-on-one with no one else in there listening was at the Opry.She was playing the Opry that night and her daughter Patsy was walking up to the side wings where she was going to go on and I was loitering in the wings so I could watch, and she needed to go talk to a stagehand so she put Loretta in my care. She said, “Mama, stay here with Elizabeth and I’ll be right back.” So I find myself sitting on the bench sidestage at the Opry house with Loretta Lynn and she was really sweet and probably could tell I was pretty starstruck. But she is so unpretentious, she just launched into conversation and started asking me questions about my music and my record.

I had just made Balls and I told her it got banned from country radio and she said, “Honey, I had nine songs banned from country radio.” And that was super encouraging to me in that moment because I wasn’t even allowed to sing it on the Opry. I did get to do it for Jeannie Seely’s fifty years on the Grand Ole Opry [in 2017]. But that really was an encouraging thing for me to hear from her. Then she went on to talk about, just out of nowhere, talk about the misogyny and the problems with men that she had had and who all was bad. She mentioned one in particular that she said was the worst of them all, worse than Monroe, and I believe she was referring to Bill Monroe. She said worse than Monroe was Jim Ed Brown and I suffered at his hands as well. It was probably three to five minutes that I sat there with her but a lifetime of therapy happened for me in those three minutes. It was validating and encouraging.

 

Photo by Jim McGuire

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