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Published: 2016/04/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Phil Cook’s Long Arc

Phil Cook’s career arc was already long and windy before he stepped up to release a solo album. Along with his brother Brad, drummer Joe Westerlund, and future Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon, Cook spent his early years studying jazz and experimenting with jam in snowy Wisconsin. Eventually, the four musicians formed their first great project, DeYarmond Edison, in 2002. Blending woodsy Americana with more modern elements, the members of DeYarmond Edison collectively moved from Eau Claire, WI to Raleigh, NC in the mid-Aughts and built up a local following. Vernon eventually split with the band and the rest of DeYarmond Edison reorganized as the psychedelic indie-folk outfit Megafaun. The trio rode the psych-rock revival wave for several years—touring with The Mountain Goats, covering Phish’s “Icculus,” and even getting Prince to a show by their R&B side-project Gayngs—during what Cook describes as his “grad-school” years. In 2012, Megafaun went on hiatus as the members of the trip focused on other projects and, though the trio has regrouped a few times, the project slowly faded into the background.

Cook has remained busy during that time, blossoming into a noteworthy producer and sideman for the likes of Kathleen Edwards, Amy Ray, The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E. White and many others. He also worked with Vernon on The Blind Boys Of Alabama’s 2015 release, I’ll Find a Way, which reconnected Cook with the gospel music that inspired him to play music in the first place. In a direct way, those Blind Boys sessions helped spark Cook’s solo career, giving him the Southern transplant confidence to truly lay claim to his surroundings. His proper full-length debut, Southern Mission, which follows 2011’s instrumental EP Hungry Mother Blues, is a love letter to his North Carolina home, using elements of blues, rock, folk, indie and Blind Boys’ approved gospel as a backdrop for his deeply personal lyrics. Shortly before hitting the road for swing through the club circuit, Cook reflected on his new recording, Megafaun’s impact on his music and his recent collaboration with Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison on The National’s Day of the Dead album.

Let’s start by talking about your new solo album, Southland Mission, which is the first true full-length album to come out under your name. When did you decide it was time to make your own record?

Basically, a couple of things just happened. Toward the end of Megafaun, in 2012-2013, I was starting to write some songs that I just wasn’t bringing to the group. I think I was holding them for some reason. My grandfather also passed away and left my brother and I a small amount of money, a couple thousand bucks each. He wanted us to do something musical with it. I bought a nice mic and a preamp and a bass—the first recording gear that I ever really bought – and with that I started to do some things on my own. It took a long time for it to get to the point that it was really something. I was mostly just sitting down and mic-ing myself up and practicing. Ideas started to trickle down, as they do, and I found that it started to feel real when I started showing some things to my friends and family.

After that, I felt like this wasn’t just me screwing around. There was something actually happening there. So, at that point, I just started to take it a little more seriously. I realized I was making demos for a record. They all seemed to have this thread going through them that felt really, really good—like a Southern, gospel, soul and country music coming out every time I would write something. It just felt like it was cohesive. It was great. I also know one of the greatest fiddlers in North Carolina, my buddy Bobby Britt, so in the meantime, I had him one over and play.

My friend Andrew Marlin came over and sang some harmonies with me one night, and we were like, “Woah, this actually sounds great.” Once that happened, it was about finishing these demos and making something. I think my wife probably was most likely the one who said, “Hey, you better do something with this,” so I did.

I went up to Galax, Virginia. We have a family friend that has a cabin up there up in the mountains—an incredible peak up there—and I just brought all my guitars and my dog, Willie, and I was up there for four days. It was the longest time I’ve ever spent by myself. I was 35 at this point, and I’m like, “Woah! I’ve never spent more than two days by myself.” That was hilarious. But what was cool about it is, I just slept about four hours a day and sweated the whole thing out of me, and I didn’t look back until the last day. I was just putting down parts from the gut and singing lyrics from the gut. It was all very much about getting into a headspace that felt like I just kind of got out of the way of myself.

Once I stepped back and listened to it at the end of that weekend, it was really powerful. It was the first time I ever made anything musically that moved me in a real way. I think I finally said “yes” and gave myself permission to go to some places that I never thought I could go and had never gone before because I was uncomfortable, or I faked a couple of things, or whatever it was. There was just a real honesty at the core of it that I just thought was beautiful, and I never thought that about anything I’ve ever made in my whole life. I thought, “Okay, well, I guess this is really something.” After that, it was just all about putting it together, rehearsing, going into a studio, and making a badass record.

Sometimes all you need to do is remove yourself from other people to look inward, and that perspective comes through on the record. It feels like you are looking into the mirror.

A lot of people have figured this out way earlier, of course. I think I just keep waking up to the fact that I’m on a long arc. [Laughter.] People have got to be patient with me, and I’ve got to be patient with myself, because every time I try and rush anything it just blows up and falls apart. That’s part of it, too—I’ve just got to wake up to some realities and give myself real space to make something when I need to do it. I’m 35 and I’ve finally figured that out.

There’s an actual arc happening when you reach your mid-30s. There’s a part to the arc that’s realizing there’s a momentum and there’s a gesture that you are enacting as a human being that’s in the act of becoming. Enough so that you can change some of the momentums of what’s happening, and some parts you can start to kind of be like, “Oh, this is me.” There’s this feeling of, “I guess this is kind of who I am.” It’s this acceptance and it’s also an acknowledgement that starts to happen in your 30s.

Relix recently debuted the video for your single “Lowely Road.” Can you talk a bit about what makes that song, in specific, stand out?

“Lowely Road” was a song that to me, more than almost everything that I’ve ever done—and that includes all the Megafaun records—had something that was directly and indirectly a tribute to The Staple Singers on it. They made my all-time favorite music. It was about making a song that was really a tribute to how their songs make me feel and gathering messages that they sung about in their songs, just observing them and thinking about them for years and what I love about it. So that kind of boiled down to a really loving tribute to The Staple Singers, namely, absolutely, the most unsung Staple Singer, which is Cleotha. She was the oldest, and she sang the highest harmony, and she was really never interviewed or spotlighted—it was always Mavis and sometimes Pervis. But Cleotha was absolutely my favorite, and her harmonies were my favorite harmonies on all the songs. So I created a special spot for Cleotha-style harmony on that record, and all of that. We got a great crew live and it ended up being the most special moment of the show: we sang at the front of the stage in the auditorium, really kind of hushed with no mic. It was so rad, man, it was so cool. It ended up being pretty great.

Your music is the product of two distinct cultural regions: You’re from the Midwest, but you’ve called the Southeast your home for just over a decade now. Was there a point where you felt like you were writing like a Southerner instead of writing like a Midwesterner who’s living in the South?

It’s hard to say if there was a moment or anything like that. I think I always feel a little bit like an outsider. I think there’s an act of looking in from the outside where sometimes, on the inside, you don’t catch some of the nuances that people who just arrived see—some details. It’s kind of amazing that there are a ton of Canadians throughout history that have gotten something right about the swing and swagger of the Southern thing. Everyone’s in a band, and there are tons of incredible musicians that couldn’t be further from the South! They’re all the way up there in the winter.

But I think that, like anything, you just sit and listen and just pay attention to what your body wants to hear, what resonates with you. Certain music is going to resonate with you and your experiences more truthfully, and you don’t really have control over that to some extent. If you deny it, you’re denying yourself the flow. That, to me, is part of my transition in moving to the South, and something happened with the flow—I think I just always wanted to be able to create music from within that lexicon and that canon that felt still removed from it. I just felt like I didn’t have permission to do so or I would never have permission to do so. What I realized, at some point after working with some of my heroes, is that I am going to do the things that I am going to do and that you need to step out of the way of yourself and let them happen. I just had a great little rehearsal that I was just at with a 43-year old gospel group from Raleigh, North Carolina. It just put me in a great mood.

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