Interview: Gospel Sound Bites with Phil Cook

Recently, guitarist and songwriter Phil Cook (Megafaun, Hiss Golden Messenger) released As Far As I Can See, an instrumental album that served as a follow up to his 2018 record, People Are My Drug. These batch of songs perfectly exhibit the all-round talents of this gifted musician.

Recently, we spoke to him about his work…

Tell us about the differences in your craft, performing and recording full-length works of instrumental music, versus songs with lyrics

The main and only difference is that the instrumental tunes don’t reach the point of adding lyrics. Otherwise, they were composed in the exact same manner. The lyrical songs are instrumental pieces that I’ve completed and they keep tugging at me for something more and I walk and drive around with them on all the time and words slowly emerge. The instrumental stuff feels done and isn’t tugging at my sleeve.

Talk about the formation of Phil Cook & The Guitarheels. How did you connect with all these musicians? Will you ever use that band name on an official release?

I first used the name Guitarheels in a list of joke band names that I’d jotted down. When it came time for me to make a poster for this Ry Cooder tribute show, where we played the entirety of ‘Boomer’s Story’ at a beautiful ballroom, I told them Phil Cook and The Guitarheels. The band that night was insane – Mandolin Orange, Chatham County Line, Hiss Golden Messenger and my dad’s accordion duo Squeeze This.

I loved how the name looked on the poster, so I kept it. The only Guitarheel that remained with me after that was my keyboardist James Anthony Wallace. The formation of the current group of Guitarheels came as a result of a wedding in the mountains of western NC. We had a lot of material to do and I assembled a big band of talented musicians, including JT Bates, Tamisha Waden, Ryan Gustafson, Brevan Hampden and my brother Brad Cook. Maybe someday I’ll use it on a release, who knows? I always aim to at the start.

Recently an in-studio clip emerged on your Instagram story with Sister Lena Mae Perry and the Branchettes. Amongst all of the gospel and blues records I’ve discovered and successfully now own because of all of your social media posts and recommendations, this is a group I’ve struggled to find. How does it feel to be a part of making the first official release in 2019 for a local Newton Grove, North Carolina gospel ensemble that has been singing and preaching their truth since 1973?

It feels humbling and beautiful to be working with them. The Branchettes are a Johnston County, NC staple of the gospel community. They haven’t released much music on a national scale, although they have traveled internationally with their music frequently over the years. We made a live record at their home church in Newton Grove and that was a wonderful experience! We will have more information on that release soon!

You made a comment in your Southland Mission documentary that you feel “so far removed” geographically and culturally from some of your favorite gospel and blues musicians. Tell us about how you discovered and found a love for these genres and artists such as The Sensational Nightingales, J. B. Lenoir and Alex Bradford and how your “far flung upbringing” didn’t stop you from pursuing an unabashed interest in gaining influence from such powerful and deep-rooted styles?

I discovered my Dad’s record collection in the winters of my youth. He had a bunch of Chicago and Detroit stuff, Chess and Motown, etc. Blues piano is a great thing to start playing when you’re young, to find an expression that outlets your awkward dealings in adolescence in middle school. Blues piano led me to compilations and when some cats start putting jazz harmony into their blues, gospel starts to emerge. It’s just a matter of following the music and what finds you as you stay open on the path. I think Gospel harmony, in both the instruments as well as the voices, is the most compelling way we humans emote with music on the whole planet. The key is to stay on the path and keep growing, keep open. Your ears will guide you to the next step.

For more information on Phil Cook, including his upcoming tour dates, head to: www.philcookmusic.com

You can also read about his ‘5 Biggest Influences’, which we discussed when we last spoke to Phil back in 2018.

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