Elizabeth Cook embraces psychedelic rock, country, and many more traditions on her most recent album … [+]
In a quick succession of tragedies, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook’s father died, her mother-in-law died, her brother died, her sister got a divorce, she got a divorce, and the farm burned down. Cook felt run-down, vulnerable to outside influence. She went to rehab. While struggling with her mental health, she was misdiagnosed, placed on incorrect medications.
But after a disaster — or many disasters — there is a moment of reconciliation. The debris is swept from porches, the air is safe to breathe again. On Cook’s new album Aftermath, which released on Sept. 11 with Agent Love/Thirty Tigers Records, she sings about recovering after disaster.
“As a creative person, you’re never not being inspired or uninspired,” Cook says. “You’re constantly taking inventory, because you’re sensitive to your environment. I look at all the things I’ve gathered and I construct a piece of music out of it. [Aftermath is] a second cutting that you return to the soil. It’s fighting my way through all that fog to take inventory and plant my feet where I am.”
Cook’s inventory comes primarily from personal experience — songwriting is how she processes emotion. She started singing at a young age, with her family’s traveling honky-tonk band. But her father drank often, went in and out of prison. Cook just wanted to be a cheerleader, so she quit. In a brief attempt to escape music, Cook went to Georgia Southern University and took an accounting job. This lasted a mere eight months. She started songwriting in Nashville, and has been stationed there ever since.
Aftermath replants the seeds of many of Cook’s experiences: death and resurrection, familial piety and pain, the desire to construct a musical identity separate from the industry’s constraints. Some critics talk of the album as Cook’s break from country, but Cook envisions her music outside of genre. “It’s sort of like nationalism, it’s like flying a flag,” Cook says. “I’m not that into nationalism, and I’m not that into genre.”
Cook addresses this on “Perfect Girls of Pop,” the track with the most shimmery, pop-adjacent production. Through storytelling, it details the difference between the country-pop star of the “big machine,” and how Cook sees herself. Each song picks bits and pieces from various genre traditions, but keeps a consistent psychedelic-rock thread through the steel guitar and vocal production. Songs like “Two Chords And A Lie” tend toward the country tradition, Cook’s voice fluid like molasses from a spoon, taking listeners to a musky piano bar in Nashville. And the final track, “Mary The Submissing Years,” foils John Prine’s “Jesus, the Missing Years.”
The song, in which Cook centers an experience she feels is “dismissed” in the story’s conventional telling, indicates the album’s other theme: empathy.
“I think I wanted to point out and consider that other people are also having a very intricate experience, not just what they’re sayin’ in your scene,” Cook says of the song. “I think it’s important for us to be able to do that, and be able to step into someone’s skin as a matter of our own survival. I wanted to try and get in her skin.”
According to Cook, establishing empathy is “necessary if we’re going to be a joyful, peaceful world.” She tells stories to give listeners a foot-in-the-door, or, as Cook would say, a root in the ground. But this degree of honesty can be draining, especially since Cook’s music comes from personal places.
“I perform as an occupational hazard,” Cook says. “I love to create music, I love to tour, I love for everyone to check out with me so we can go on a musical trip together. But when I’m doing it right, it drains me. When I jump off a cliff, and perform these songs in front of people, it’s like I get paid to lose my mind.”
The current touring hiatus gives Cook extra space to process the album’s release before she bares her insides on a stage. But hough it’s challenging to let others into your personal disaster, Cook won’t stop performing. “People need to see that,” she says. “We’re all too self-aware.”