Alt-country singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook returns to her Pentecostal roots
Florida-born alt-country singer Elizabeth Cook originally gave up her pursuit of music and decided to try to work a day job when she first moved to Nashville over a decade ago. Frustrated with that experience, she returned to her musical roots and quickly became the talk of town after debuting at the Grand Ole Opry in 2000. Too independent-minded for the major labels, she’s been on an indie imprint for the past five years and just issued a terrific new EP. We talked to her via phone today for a preview story for a weekly paper but could only put a small portion of this interview in print, so we figured we’d publish the entire transcript here.
You had your first band at age 9 and your parents were both musicians. How has that influenced your music?
Probably just in work ethic. You learn little things along the way about the process. When I was young, I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like having a band and having to set up all the equipment. Standing in front of people and singing was horrifying. I wanted to be in the corner with my Strawberry Shortcake doll. I wasn’t as into as my parents were.
Was there a turning point?
No. I stopped doing it. I became a cheerleader in middle school and high school. I wanted to be more normal and hang out with my friends.
What brought you back to music?
I didn’t fit into that world and I had the music in me. I went to this Pentecostal church growing up. They had a big gospel band and it was quite popular and that became my outlet. I would sing and was involved with the music in that band in the church. I was always finding outlets for music and ways to be creative and write in a quiet way. I was never trying to have a career. That was true up until college. When I decided that having a job sucked really bad, I thought I would try to do business out of the music I was making.
Did you move to Nashville or were you already in Nashville?
I was already in Nashville. I took a job offer as an auditor out of college and I could have gone to Atlanta or Nashville with that planted in the back of my mind. It got to the point in summer of 1998 where I couldn’t suppress it anymore. I was writing and was wanting to sing. I felt like I was going to die if I didn’t get back into music in a more broad way.
Was it difficult to endear yourself to the country audience in Nashville?
Before you can get to the audience, you have to go through the industry. I was brought in pretty quickly to be honest. I was 25 and blonde and under 120 pounds. I met the qualifications that they needed. What it took me five years to find out was that musically, I was much too stubborn and quirky and set in my own ways. Being the creator of the music was very important to me. I wasn’t able to reconcile what I was doing with their commercial needs.
Was it frustrating recording for major labels?
But you still made some great records.
Thanks. It was a stumbling effort. I hear them there are parts of it that have merit but I’ve moved way past those now.
How did you end up hooking up with the bassist from Midnight Oil?
He moved to Nashville and moved to East Nashville, which is a very tight circle of musicians. He started hanging out at all the bars. When you’re in Nashville, everyone is juggling musicians all the time. Everyone is juggling a million gigs. I have to have players at every position. When he started playing bass with different people, he was that guy who could play this one gig. We had an epiphany with the trio because he wanted to play upright with me. He felt that was the right instrument. He was interested as a musician and it was challenging. We have this Johnny Cash formula and it’s been really fun. We started working a lot and have been consistently together for three years, which in Nashville is practically unheard of.
Are the songs on your new album Gospel Plow traditional numbers?
Yeah, except for the Velvet Underground song. They’re Southern gospel Pentecostal music.
What inspired the album?
Well, I got asked to play a gospel brunch at a festival. I had to do gospel songs, and I chose to do it in the way that I knew how to do it. I had an electric guitarist and me on a two stick, which is like a washboard, and a bassist who has never heard these songs in his life. It all came out through our filter and it has a grunge grass feel to it. We realized that no one is addressing this genre in the Americana or roots rock scene. It is fundamental to roots rock ’n’ roll. Anyone who knows anything about Elvis knows that. It was extremely influential to him. He would not have done what he did was he not influenced by what he witnessed at Pentecostal churches in Memphis. Everyone regards it as black blues gospel. But there’s a whole Southern gospel tradition. Bill Monroe wrote a lot of songs about it and Johnnny Cash did spiritual songs and Willie Nelson wrote Family Bible for cryin’ out loud. Even if you are a defined sinner, country and roots music is always addressing spirituality and religion. We were doing some material that is overlooked when everyone is overdoing every form of roots rock that you can think of. It felt like this is something fresh.
Are you going to explore these songs further?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m working on the follow-up to [2010’s] Welder and I haven’t dove back into any more spiritual music. I might. I don’t know.
How are you managing the business side of things?
I have a great team around me, and that helps. It’s challenging. It’s hard work. It’s like anybody who has a small business. It’s relentless. The upside is you work for yourself, and you have a creative team around you and get to do what you love and the downside is that it’s not like that job where you clock out and flip them the bird and pull out of the parking lot and not think about it.
July 6 – The Shed – Maryville, TN
July 7 – Rumba Cafe – Columbus OH
July 8 – Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
July 9 – Sportsmen’s Tavern – Buffalo, NY
July 11 – Higher Ground – Burlington VT
July 13 – One Longfellow Square – Portland, ME
July 15 – Green River Festival – Greenfield, MA
July 16 – Club Passim – Cambridge, MA
Jul 18 – Infinity Hall – Norfolk, CT
July 19 – Abbey Bar at ABC- Harrisburg, PA
July 20 – Rams Head On Stage – Annapolis MD
Aug 22 – Space – Evanston, IL
Aug 23 – Historic Rose Bowl Tavern – Urbana, IL
Aug 24 – Shank Hall – Milwaukee, WI
Aug 25+26 – Minnesota State Fair – St Paul, MN