Sessions: Elizabeth Cook
When Elizabeth Cook dropped by our office to play a session, we knew we were in for a treat. The Florida native, who’s new album Welder was produced by Don Was and features the hit “Yes To Booty,” writes songs that are sassy, funny, heartfelt and soulful. We talked to Cook about songwriting, having the “balls” to work outside of mainstream country, and her love for The Beastie Boys.
These songs were recorded and mixed by Cameron Henry for American Songwriter. Interview by Evan Schlansky.
Would you call Welder a departure from the last record?
I don’t think it’s a departure in that it’s different, but it’s on the same road; it’s just a little further down that road than I’ve been trying to get down. I sort of got cocooned in Nashville pretty quickly when I got here, and it’s taken me a while to break out of that. Rodney Crowell really helped me with the Balls records, and then with Welder, I was at a place, from a material standpoint, to be even less obligated to anybody that needed me to try and produce commercial country music, so as I become untethered from that, I continue to be able to do that, and I’ll keep going and see where it goes next. It’s exciting. I feel like I’m getting away with something.
Where do you see yourself in the country music spectrum?
I don’t know. I think that I’m marginal, to be honest, in the country music spectrum, from the standpoint of how the world perceives country music, but I also know looking back, a lot of times what happens on the fringes of a time during music is some of the most important things that happen. I think that I have a freedom and a responsibility to stretch it and it makes some people uncomfortable, I’m sure, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
How would you describe the vocal style on Welder’s “El Camino?”
I think I’m rapping, but probably nobody’s ever heard a little blonde girl really rap. My first concert that wasn’t going with my mom and dad to see Merle Haggard or Conway and Loretta, was Madonna on the Like a Virgin Tour, and the opening act was the Beastie Boys, and nobody had heard rap music that far down the east coast at that time. I can remember standing in the Orlando Coliseum and everybody’s kind of standing there like, who are these guys jumping around with Mickey Mouse ears on, because I guess they went to Disney World that day, you know, singing all this crazy stuff, “No Sleep to Brooklyn,” “Brass Monkey,” and everybody’s kind of shocked. A few years later I was way into it, had all the Beastie Boys cassette tapes. I’ve always loved good hip hop and good rap. I love Eminem, I think he’s a genius, hopefully not about to become a parody of himself, but I think he’s original and good. So, anyway, on “El Camino” I sort of feel like I’m spittin’ my flow [laughs]. I don’t know, maybe. That’s probably a stretch, but that’s what it feels like to me. We didn’t have any electronic drums. I don’t know how to use those, but I would like to use electronic drums. I’d like to get with the guy that came in on Hustle and Flow, you know and had the little machine, the little nerdy guy in Hustle and Flow that has the machine. He was great in that movie and I would love for him to come in and we would crank out some monster jams.
You have serious songs and you have fun songs. Do you find one easier to write?
No, I think that’s probably just a product of being a very moody person, I’m very moody, and I have moments of elation and humorous times, and then moments of gut-wrenching pain, just like I guess everyone having the human experience does. Maybe not. I just don’t feel very stoic, so I guess that’s why the songs are always have a different feeling behind them.
Are you someone who labors over the lyrics, or do they pretty much come to you quickly?
The best ones come quick, or really fast and usually a lot more than I end up using. I write a lot, and it got easier on this last round because blogging became something that I got interested in a few years, and I was sort of disenfranchised, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I start blogging on my MySpace page, just totally saying all kinds of crazy stuff, and telling stories in that way really honed my attention to detail. I had some people around me frustrated, like you should be writing songs and you’re writing blogs and you have, like five hundred people following you on a blog, and that’s a waste of your writing time and your creative output, but I disagree with that. I think it was an important exercise for me to go through. So blogging was important, and really helped the verbiage, it just came a lot easier, it was a great calisthenic to do for a songwriter, for me, anyway.
What can you tell us about “Yes To Booty?”
I wrote in the kitchen, making a tomato sandwich, I don’t know. Just started thinking about it. Usually, I’ll start writing, the first line I write is the first line in the song, I don’t have a hook idea, or some big idea and I’m, “Oh, I’m going to write a song about that idea!” It’s usually, I start talking, in my mind, and if it has a musical rhythm to it, then that means it’s a song, and I start trying to write it down.
I had the idea and I didn’t think anything more about it and my record company called me one day, or my management company and there was some record company sniffing around, and they wanted to know what I’d been writing and what direction I was going in musically, which made me want to tell them to kiss my ass, but I said, “Well I’ve been writing songs, I haven’t just been writing blogs. I wrote one just the other day called ‘Yes to Booty.’” My manager was like, “Good, okay,” and he’s taking notes so he can communicate that on, so he told them and I didn’t think about it anymore. And then when I met with Don Was, like a year later to start the process of getting material together for the Welder record, I’d listed that as one of the tunes that I had going. But the truth was, I had never finished it, I had like, four lines, and it just keeps on living until we get into the studio and Don’s got all the songs written in his big leather ‘Moses on the Mountain’ producer satchel-binder-thing.
He calls what song he wants us to do next and we get to one point and he goes, let’s do “Yes to Booty.” I had to confess, “I never really finished that, it’s not really a song,” and he looked down at me with those glasses and the hair sticking out of that and goes, “well go finish it.” So, I did. I’d never written a song on the spot in the studio before, but I went into the vocal booth and shut the door, and spent about half an hour slapping out verses, totally under the gun. The guys are all milling about around the coffee machine, catering, and watching YouTube and stuff, and I went and gathered Tim [Carroll, guitarist and husband] up, and showed him and then we pulled everybody else in and showed them and then we cut it. That one was fresh out of the oven when we cut it, the verses were, anyway, so yeah, I kind of got myself in a little trouble by stretching the truth on that song.
That’s a cool story. That sounds like a movie. And you said that men react to it differently to it than women, or some men have.
Yeah, I think that men hear the parts, and maybe it was even fortuitous that this happened in the studio, because on the track the guys do these background vocals, and even my dad, my daddy was there and he walked in, and they were all standing around the mic, drinking beer of course, so Don told them where to yell this line, yell that line. So the guys just hear the lines that they yell on, which are “Yes to beer, Yes to booty.” They’re getting the “Yes” message on the things that they want to say yes, which is on everything. And the women, I think, pick up on the subtleties of it a little bit more. But it seems that everybody gets a kick out of it.
Stay tuned for more videos from Elizabeth Cook’s session.