David Cook is a proven champion.
On his new EP, The Looking Glass, the American Idol winner offers us a window into the private world and public ambitions of someone whose greatest competitor has always been himself.
The first song, "Champion," expresses Cook's determination to speak out and win against any and all odds. It's the perfect track to listen to while, say, training for your first marathon or plotting your path to world domination.
Cook's vocals have always been standout, but here he takes his penchant for hard-hitting rock and roll to new levels, with gritty guitars and a driving beat mirroring lyrics about his refusal to stay silent or hold himself back for any reason.
Written completely in quarantine, the album veers between sunny, nostalgic, Springsteen-esque rock and roll on "Make a Move" to subdued, slow-burning, anthemic pop romanticism on "Fire." Cook's music touches on rock, country, and even pop-punk, but it's always pure pop-rock at its heart, and every song is a potential anthem.
These are songs about limitlessness, possibility, adventure, and the furthest reaches of human feeling, emotion, and potential. Here, you can feel them bubbling everywhere, electric and alive. All in all, the album seems tailor-made for the euphoria that's sure to ensue when concerts finally resume.
Despite its overarching sense of energy and momentum, there are moments of deep introspection. On "Strange World," Cook laments the bizarreness of a world in turmoil while asking his lover to shelter in place with him, an experience many of us found ourselves in during this time, clinging to those we lived with while the world fell apart outside.
The refreshing "Going Back" is a fitting closer. It's a battle-worn requiem for a lost world, as well as a resolution that in this new world, where so much has changed, we won't repeat the mistakes of the past.
If "Champion" marks the beginning of the competition of a lifetime, "Going Back" is a seasoned champion looking back at the aftermath of a great struggle, questioning his purpose against the broader scheme of things and also looking to the limitless possibilities of the future.
Cook is no stranger to the weird limbo that comes after a great victory, nor the strangeness with finding stillness after running full force ahead for a long time. After his American Idol win, thrown into a hectic world of constant performance and production, he began struggling with anxiety, an experience he addresses on "Reds Turn Blue."
Ever-grateful and humble, Cook never paints himself as a victim and instead expresses only gratitude for the opportunities he's been given, but on "Reds Turn Blue" he takes a hard look at the actual challenges of anxiety from the outside, gaining some profound perspective in the process.
Altogether, the EP is a journey through every stage of a great competition, from youthful ambition to determination to doubt to wisdom and perspective; whether that competition is a singing contest or life itself, the release has a song for every moment.
We spoke to Cook about life and music in quarantine, his new music, and his hopes for the future.
POPDUST: So, you wrote a quarantine EP. How did the pandemic influence these songs?
DAVID COOK: I think "Make a Move" is a pretty good plot synopsis for this past year, having more time to sit and be introspective and assess. At the time I was writing it, my 38th birthday was on the horizon — and you start thinking, I'm going to turn 38, and it's crazy how time has flown.
I was thinking about how I grew up in the Kansas City area, and as a kid I was chomping at the bit to expand my worldview and my experience outside of Kansas City. I moved to Oklahoma and later Los Angeles and Nashville and got a chance to explore the world and play music for a living. But I still find myself chasing that feeling of home, at all times. I don't know I would have stopped long enough to internalize that and write about it had I not written a record during this pandemic.
It is interesting how the pandemic forced so many people to return home and to think about what that means, outside of the constant momentum that we — and especially musicians — live in. Where are you based now?
Nashville, Tennessee. So I've been home for longer than I think, ever, certainly since Idol. We've kind of been relegated to our little few-block bubble, which honestly, I think, has some positives. It's given me the opportunity to stop, reset, reassess, and reaffirm what I dig about my job and why I appreciate being to do it.
To take the opportunity to be more present at home. This is the longest my wife and I have gotten to spend with each other uninterrupted, ever. There have been little silver linings, though I'm sort of chomping at the bit to get out and play these songs the way they were written, with those performance elements in mind. Very much looking forward to getting back out.
What inspired some of the songs on the EP? Were there any formative moments that led to the songs?
A lot of it was... I'll use the word "serendipitous," though I don't know if that's accurate or not. A song like "Strange World" began in this extra bedroom that we utilize as a gym; and when I say utilize, I mean there's a treadmill that we don't use. And we have this one window there, this oval window, and for some reason the shape of it just seems very fairy tale-ish.
I was laying down in the gym, not working out, just looking through it, and it struck me that it had just been so long since I'd been on the other side of the window and experienced the world. Little moments like that — having the ability to slow down and internalize things more easily — sort of allowed me to go down this rabbit hole.
I realized, I don't understand what's going on outside of that window; I don't know what's good and what's bad. "Strange World" talks about embracing some of those kinds of nuanced things about this pandemic.
It's a cliche at this point, but it's cool how art and music and TV at this point were so fundamental in getting us all through this.
I said the other day, Netflix could have tripled their price and I would have gladly paid it.
"Strange World" is such a gorgeous song, and it's so appropriate for the times. I think I went around saying, "It's such a strange time" to everyone I spoke to during the first, like, six months of this pandemic. Were there any pieces of art that helped get you through this time? What were you watching or listening to?
For the most part, I tended to skew towards escapism — stuff like The Office for the umpteenth time and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. We also watched Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and it really wasn't till the last few months that I've started to get back into things like that HBO documentary Q: Into the Storm, which is really interesting. Particularly lately, I've started to delve back into more current event-related stuff.
Always good to have a balance. What kind of music were you listening to while you were making the album?
I typically subsist on a steady diet of Big Wreck and Nine Inch Nails. I don't know I deviated too much on this stuff; and to be completely honest with you, I typically listen to more comedy podcasts. You brought up the word "balance," and that's really been something I've strived for, particularly in this past year. I had so much downtime to focus on my creative process and writing and doing all that stuff, so when I did want to listen to something purely for enjoyment I would go with something a-melodic.
I know it made a lot of people reflect and think more than we normally do. You have a song "Reds Turn Blue" that you've said is about anxiety. Was that something that came up during this time?
I got diagnosed with an anxiety disorder not long after Idol, and it's been a process of adding tools to the toolkit to coexist with it since then. "Reds Turn Blue" actually started as a therapeutic exercise. I'd watched a Bill Hader interview, a long-form interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York, where he talks about how he navigated his anxiety when he was on SNL and how he almost acknowledged it as a separate entity altogether that was traveling with him.
So "Reds Turn Blue" snowballed into a letter from my anxiety to me, and what it did for me was it allowed me to personify my anxiety as something else. That's been an interesting tool to use, particularly this last year — to acknowledge it and to understand that I don't have to be it. I don't have to live with it. I can acknowledge it as. I can say, "Hey, I appreciate that you're here — can you hang out for a second, because I have to do this?"
That's really interesting. I've heard that before, that when you name something, even just an emotion, it disarms it. Was that what you were trying to do with the song?
I think so, yeah. Anybody who's dealt with an anxiety disorder can tell you that it's all-consuming, so the ability to personify it in an external sense can give you a little bit of a distance from it, even if that's just temporary. It's been helpful for me. There's no destination with it; it's just constant ebb and flow, navigating it and learning new ways to navigate it that hopefully in the long run make things easier.
I know you said that it came about during your post-Idol years. What was the transition from Idol into where you went after creatively? Was that a difficult time? I'm sure there was so much going on.
Sure. It was all very exciting, but there wasn't much balance. That was the lesson I had to learn on the other side. I think of it like this: You get raised a certain way, you get wired a certain way, and then something completely unique and unrealistic, really, like Idol comes along, and even when you're on the slow you're in a fishbowl. You're kind of cut off from the world a little – or you were then, I think now it's a little more open. Then you come off the show, and you have to rewire on the fly.
I got off the road in the end of 2009, and that was my first moment to breathe. I went right into writing sessions for the record, and I was trying to process the last year, and for me it was just super chaotic. I think the way that wheel was spinning at that point certainly didn't lend itself to a positive experience with my anxiety. I'll say that.
That totally makes sense. I've always been curious about what happens after you become the American Idol. Did you feel a lot of pressure to mold your music into a certain shape, or were you given creative freedom?
I don't know that I felt pressure. I don't know that I had time to feel pressure, though. I think that particularly with that first record after Idol — I had three days off that whole summer, and they were travel days.
So I don't know that there was much time to think about anything, which might have been a blessing, in hindsight. I think whatever pressure I ever felt was kind of self-imposed. I've always kind of lived by the mantra: Whatever anybody else's standards or expectations for me are, I'm pretty sure I'll exceed them all by myself. I put pretty high expectations on myself, so if I'm meeting mine, chances are I'm meeting and exceeding everybody else's.
That's good, though a lot of pressure on yourself.
It's not the healthiest way, I will say that.
I understand that though, for sure. How do you feel like your music and approach to creativity have changed since then? Has it changed a lot, or do you feel like you've been on the same wavelength all along?
I think as I've gotten further away from the initial kind of bolt of lightning, I've grown more comfortable in my own skin as a songwriter. You take the blinders off, and there's more periphery. I think the best word I can come up for it is that I think it's gotten a little more comfortable.
I still try to challenge myself and find new ways to say things and new tones and sounds. I think the idea of one-upping each release is kind of how I've attacked it. I don't ever want to be an artist that lives statically. If I ever make a record that sounds exactly like the last record, that probably means it's time to hang it up.
Your music definitely shows evolution, and this next one is its own special thing too. You can hear that on all your subsequent releases.
They're all snapshots. The hope is where I exist right now is not where I'll exist in 10 years.
Are you looking forward to getting back on the road? Any plans for that?
So much. I've certainly been fortunate this past year to have live-streaming shows. I can play acoustic shows from here at home and that's fine, and it certainly bridged the gap, but I appreciate the vibe of getting people in a room and playing music and having a shared experience that only people in that room are gonna get. Whatever has to happen to get us back to that as soon as safely possible, I'm onboard for it.
Well, it seems like we're slowly moving towards a better summer. Knock on wood — I don't want to jinx anything.
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