Feature: Phil Cook – My 5 Biggest Influences

Continuing with our brand new feature, ‘My 5 Biggest Influences’, we’re talking to some of our favourite upcoming and established artists, and delving into their greatest influences and inspirations, to see how bands, records, tracks, friends & family, hobbies and even environments have impacted on their work and music.

Our latest guest is the wonderful Phil Cook, who released his new album People Are My Drug in June earlier this year, and is set to play London’s Omeara this Saturday on September 1st. More about the record and gig below, but first, here are Phil’s 5 Biggest Influences…

The Chippewa Valley, West-Central Wisconsin

This is where I was born and raised. My childhood was spent amongst rolling hills split by wide rivers and clear lakes, chaining all the way up to Canada. I swam in the summers and downhill skied in the winters. It was here that I discovered and developed my love of music and many folks helped me along the way. My father played piano, both by ear and by reading, constantly. He had a deep vinyl collection, with Chicago blues, British rock, jazz, motown, soul, New Orleans and classic pop records. It was these records I learned from.

It was the winters that kept us all inside, kept us focused on our craft. We had incredible passionate and generous band instructors and piano teachers. I joined the jazz band in 8th grade. I went to a local Shell Lake jazz camp and met who would become my lifelong best friends. Friends who shared the love. Shared their knowledge. Shared their journeys. We learned everything from each other. Mostly we learned about the power of friendship and pushing one another deeper and farther down our paths. The Chippewa Valley is also where Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival happens each year. It’s my primary influence.

Bruce Hornsby

As a classically trained child, I had constant technical support for my craft. I was also a drifty young lad and off in my own world most of the time. The piano grounded me to earth, invoking my presence and focus. Finding Hornsby’s The Way It Is record was a revelation. It gave me something to learn. Something to tackle. I figured out the whole record my 6th grade year and ended up playing The Way It Is for my school talent show. Then, that next summer I met the man himself at a festival near my hometown. He spent way more time with me than he need to, answering questions, signing my CD’s, telling stories and assigning me to listen to Keith Jarrett. On the way home in the car, I told myself I was going play music for the rest of my life.

James Booker

The piano journey was never boring. I was all in, constantly listening and discovering. The sounds I began following from Hornsby had beckoned me further and further south, further and further back in time until I found New Orleans. New Orleans gave birth to America’s music, which would eventually change the whole world. It is what I have come to love most about my country. It is music invented and reinvented by African Americans living in the American south, which connects me to other people everywhere I travel. Who can’t agree on Otis Redding? Who can’t agree on Muscle Shoals?

New Orleans is a piano town. One can trace the city’s musical lineage through innovations made on the piano by various figures in the 20th century. Many set the bar, including Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint. But the deepest of all was James Carroll Booker III. He was the most gifted, the most daring, the most varied, and the craziest one of the lot. His music can be an acquired taste for some, but endlessly rewarding to those who commit to stick around.

Aretha Franklin with James Cleveland and The Southern California Community Choir – Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings

The voice that was there all along. The greatest culmination of everything that came before and the brightest beacon lighting the way for all to come. I got this recording while in college and it never left my discman or car for over a year. James Cleveland was a legendary gospel producer, composer, arranger, and songwriter. He almost single handedly influenced the music’s harmonic depth as well as its broad shift to the flat keys (Db, Eb, Ab, Bb) Cleveland arranged vocal harmony in a way that caught my ear. I began to obsess over his voicings and techniques. How he unified the four parts (SATB) and how he split them was totally fresh for its time. Add to that genius the most expressive voice alive. The highlight for me, Precious Lord/You’ve Got A Friend still raises the hair on my neck and puts a lump in my throat. Every time. Every time. All the majesty of staring out over the infinite ocean and the laughing humility of touching an ancient 1500 year old redwood tree.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama – Fall Tour, September 2013

In a whirlwind of circumstance I found myself acting as both producer and band leader for a Blind Boys recording session in the deep Wisconsin winter of 2012. In a way, nothing prepared me for this. In another way, I’d been preparing for my whole life. Through it all, I learned a great deal in one week. Namely, I learned that a shared desire to make great records is a supremely uniting desire. I learned to trust myself and follow my instincts in a way I never had before. Friendship were forged. Friendships remain.

The best schooling I’ve ever had in playing gospel has been in my short and sporadic stints as their organist for the last five years. The first of which, was the fall of 2013. The leader of the group, Jimmy Carter or “Jimster” as everyone calls him, has been on the road since he was a child in the 1940’s. Jimster will go a whole day without saying more than 20 words but when he speaks, all listen. I would occasionally find myself sitting next to him for a van ride or a roadside meal. I’m utterly humbled by him and don’t say much. (My old friends will tell you this is rare ;) One day he told me something that I carry with me always – “Phil, when it comes times you play, you play it how you FEEL it, you understand?” I did understand it very well, but that day it sunk in harder; permanently hanging in the air around me every time I play ever since. Listen. Listen and breathe. Play it how you feel it.

People Are My Drug follows Cook’s first solo album, 2015’s acclaimed Southland Mission. Where Southland Mission illuminated for listeners what Phil Cook hears in his head, this record lays bare the way that music makes him feel.

With community as a driving force behind his musical mission, Cook has brought along various folks on this adventure. He enlisted brother Brad Cook as producer, along with his band The Guitarheels (comprised of drummer JT Bates, bassist Michael Libramento and pianist James Wallace). Cook and company recorded and mixed the album in both his home state of Wisconsin and his newly adopted home of North Carolina, finishing the record in ten days. The result is a spiritual tour de force, delivered from the gut with open arms. The composition of the record plays as a love letter to Phil’s greatest inspiration of all: People.

Cook crafted every track with reverence for each players’ artistic brilliance. He imagined vocalist Tamisha Waden (Foreign Exchange) soaring above Steampowered Blues and turned to collaborator Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso) to co-write Miles Away, a plainly honest song about the complexity of emotional proximity. While paying tribute to some of his New Orleans heroes in the song Life, Cook tapped Richmond’s No BS! Brass Band.

Cook has been involved in a number of projects, including psych-folk band Megafaun. He is a recording and touring member of Hiss Golden Messenger as well. He has collaborated with Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, performed with Mavis Staples, been Musical Director for The Blind Boys of Alabama and much more over his evolving career.

He is now set to head over to the UK, playing London’s Omeara this Saturday on September 1st, before heading back to the States for further shows – all dates below…

SEP 1 – Omeara, London
OCT 8 – Mothlight, Asheville NC
OCT 9 – Neighborhood Theater, Charlotte NC
OCT 10 – Eddie’s Attic, Atlanta GA
OCT 11 – One Eyes Jack’s, New Orleans LA
OCT 12 – ACL Festival, Austin TX
OCT 13 – ACL Festival, Austin TX
OCT 14 – ACL Festival, Austin TX
OCT 16 – Hi Watt, Nashville TN
OCT 19 – Turf Club, St Paul MN
OCT 20 – The Jamf – Confluence Center, Eau Claire WI
OCT 21 – Schubas, Chicago IL
OCT 23 – Bowery Ballroom, New York NY
OCT 24 – The Sinclair, Cambridge MA
OCT 25 – Boot & Saddle, Philadelphia PA
OCT 26 – Capitol Ale House, Richmond VA
OCT 27 – The Ramkat, Winston-salem NC
NOV 2 – Colectivo Coffee – Prospect Café, Milwaukee, WI