Andy Cook turns a corner with the ultra-personal All Turns Blue
- By Andy Downing
Throughout, Cook, 28, wrestles with heavy concepts like aging (“Weighted down and slow/ It seems that age is only heavy bones,” he offers on “The Grave and the Cradle in Bloom”) and death, a presence that looms particularly large on the shattered “Willow Boy,” which the musician penned in remembrance of his mother, who died when he was a child.
“Now, even in the dead of night you hear him call her name,” he sings atop a delicate acoustic strum, his voice registering just above a whisper. “Under the willow’s shade, weeping over her grave/ What can a child do when all the world turns blue?”
“I was 10 when she got in a car accident, and when I was 12 she passed away. She was in a coma about two years,” said Cook, who performs at Brothers Drake on Friday, Feb. 27, in a mid-February interview downtown. “A lot of my friends pushed me to write that song … [and] I spent a lot of time with it. I must’ve had twenty-some drafts just changing words around. I wanted it to hurt, and I wanted it to be ugly and out there. That’s why it’s the one song on the record that’s just me and an acoustic guitar. I don’t know if I’ll ever play it live again.”
The songs on All Turns Blue first started to take shape in 2010, not long after the musician released his solo debut Sing, Dionysus! — a period of great personal turmoil that included the death of an aunt and a grandmother, and the unravelling of a romantic relationship.
Initially, the music matched this shattered mood lock-step, with the singer crafting tracks as sunless and oppressive as any black hole. But, given time and space to heal, a sense of resolve and a grudging optimism gradually bled into the recordings.
“It started off with me having this overwhelming feeling, like, ‘Why does anything matter? Why am I even here? We’re smaller than we could ever imagine, and we’re all just going to die off,’” Cook said. “Then, since it took me so long [to write and record the album], I came out of that slump, and a lot of [the songs] came around to more of a positive message.”
Such is the case on “Somethin’ to See” where, following a long, dark night, the narrator awakens “looking for the sun.” Even “The Grave and the Cradle in Bloom,” which traces the arc of life from birth to its inevitable end, feels anything but morose, with Cook applying lessons learned along the way as a means to maintain solid footing.
“Find yourself a steady course/ Down the river to the other side,” he sings over a surprisingly buoyant backdrop of jangly guitar and loping percussion.
According to Cook, music has always served a therapeutic role in his life, a function of both his history (he started playing guitar shortly after his mother’s accident) and his family lineage (the singer grew up outside Oberlin surrounded by all manner of self-help tomes and psychology texts, thanks to his therapist father).
In recent months, however, Cook’s songwriting has started to take on radically different form. He now adopts a far more methodical approach, often spending days at a time laboring over a single line — a marked shift from the past, when the creative process was akin to purging. “Before, this stuff was just running screaming out of me,” he said.
The musician has also started to embody various guises in his songs rather than penning verses from a strictly first-person point of view.
“My writing was always in this [autobiographical] vein … and now that I’m a little bit older I’ve been thinking of what comes next,” said Cook, who was introduced to the likes of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley by his music-loving father. “I’m not going to keep writing about the horrors I went through. It’s not relevant to me anymore, and going back would only be opening up old closets I don’t need to go through. This album felt like a huge closure and pivot point in my life.”
Regardless, Cook doesn’t believe his music will ever take on an overly chipper tone — “[The songs] tend to stay really dark even when I’m happy,” he said — and he assured he’ll continue to force his writing into uncomfortable places even as he becomes more settled in his day-to-day.
“That’s where the biggest challenge is coming from now,” said the singer, who prefers to maintain a degree of unease in his personal life (he and his artist/writer girlfriend opted not to move in together to avoid settling into what they’ve jokingly coined “the obese cheese nest,” a lifestyle marked by too many evenings of comfortable-yet-creatively-bereft television viewing). “We both see the easiness we’re falling into, but we still want to push and be artists. It’s such a struggle … but I can’t put something out there that isn’t real to me.”
Photo by Meghan Ralston