By Ian Krietzberg
David Cook rose to stardom as a contestant on the seventh season of “American Idol,” a singer with incredible range and compelling versatility that was clear from his initial audition with “Livin’ on a Prayer,” by Bon Jovi to his finale performance of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” By U2.
Following his win in 2008, Cook promptly released a self-titled record full of soaring rock ‘n’ roll and driving guitars, a record that landed several songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Since his Idol days, Cook has released several albums and EPs, demonstrating an evolution into a different perspective on the rock music that initially elevated him. He also did a stint on Broadway as Charlie Price in the show “Kinky Boots” in 2018.
In April 2021, Cook released his latest project, “The Looking Glass,” a six-track EP that is experimental and funky, while maintaining a strong rock element and truly showcasing Cook’s powerful vocals.
The Signal spoke with David Cook in a conversation about his career and musical process.
What was your earliest encounter with music and how did that shape and inspire you?
Cook: My earliest encounter with music was really just growing up watching my Dad noodle on the guitar around the house. He had this beat-up, Frankenstein-esque acoustic he’d play on while watching TV. My first active participation in music, though, was in 2nd grade. My Mom had busted me singing to myself while getting ready for school one day, and reached out to my music teacher to let her know that maybe I could sing. So my music teacher put me in the school Christmas play and gave me a solo.
Any sort of realization that I could find a career in this really didn’t occur until Idol. Up till then, I had operated on the premise that I loved playing music, but the chances of it turning into a career were somewhat far-fetched. Life had a different plan, though.
How did your experience on American Idol shape and refine you as a performer, but also as a songwriter?
Cook: I think my experience with Idol reinforced my confidence in my ability. To have something of that caliber acknowledge me as a singer and performer was huge. And so, of course, that confidence carried through into songwriting. I’ve been riding that wave ever since. Not with arrogance or anything. Just knowing that I can bring something to the table, creatively.
Has your ‘08 Idol win hindered you in any way as a musician?
Cook: I’d imagine it has, although I’m relatively unaware of how. Honestly, it seems like a fruitless exercise to try to evaluate it. I’m grateful I get to make music for a living and that’s more than enough.
You refer to “Digital Vein” as the book-end of that “chapter” of your career; can you elaborate on what that means for you as an artist going forward? You describe yourself as someone that used to be more of a rock guy, which is something that you’ve started to move away from — can you describe how/why you started moving away from rock and how you fell into this new musical avenue?
Cook: “Digital Vein,” as a title, was a tip of the cap to my first ever solo record, “Analog Heart.” Those two records felt intertwined in how their recording processes felt. Just pure joy and exploration and excitement. Digital Vein had something in it, sonically, that felt like a path that I had plenty more to explore.
Now, having said that, I don’t think I ever moved away from rock music. On the contrary, I think Digital Vein opened me up to the idea that my definition of rock up to that point needed some expanding. So, I feel like what I’m doing now feels, in a way, more rock than anything I’ve done before.
Can you talk about how your songwriting process evolved from album to album, and how that songwriting process was different with “Chromance” and “The Looking Glass?”
Cook: I learn things from each record, which I then try to utilize on the next one. As far as songwriting goes, I think with each record, you see the blinders open up a little more. There’s more life experience and observation the further down the line you get. And as those storylines and inspirations expand, the music sort of follows along with it.
Do you see “Chromance” and “The Looking Glass” as aspects of the same chapter of your musical career, or was the process and feel of each EP distinct for you?
Cook: Not really, no. I think each record is its own thing. But “Chromance” and “The Looking Glass” do have a connection where I think there were things I discovered on “Chromance” that then inform “The Looking Glass.” Different sounds and dynamics that open you up to completely new musical landscapes. I’m not sure a song like “Strange World” exists the way it does if I don’t learn something from trying new things on a track like “Warfare.”
How smooth or difficult was the writing and production process for “The Looking Glass?”
Cook: Smoother than I thought it’d be. I was worried, once the pandemic began, that it would be too difficult to find enough inspiration to write about. But leaning into that feeling yielded more fruit than I’d expected. And the recording process wasn’t too different. I think the actual process stayed pretty similar. It was more of an issue of being aware enough to pack masks and hand sanitizer as well as guitar cables and microphones, you know?
How did the pandemic influence and shift the project and your perspective toward the project as it was ongoing?
Cook: Luckily, I wasn’t too far down the road when the pandemic began, so I was able to alter course without any real ramifications to the process. Where the big changes were was that it muddied the finish line. I went through the writing and recording process without a real idea of what the end result was going to be. Will this get released in 2020? Next year? At all? What will touring look like on the other side of this, and how will we support this record?
Is there an overriding influence or inspiration for “The Looking Glass?”
Cook: I think the main undercurrent of this record is about hope, leaning into whatever the good things were that existed during these last 15-16 months. I know that in my case, that was the only thing that kept me from being eaten alive by my anxiety and worry.
Is songwriting a part of your brain that you can turn on and off, or are you constantly writing music? How do you know when a song is finished?
Cook: For me? No. Although I do go through bear and bull markets with it. Sometimes I won’t write for a month, and then all of a sudden, It’s 3 songs in a week. I try to just remain open to it as it comes and not try to force it.
As far as a song being finished, I’ll let you know if I ever get there. I think at some point, I just stop working on them. And then, months or years after they’re released, I’ll hear something that I wish I could add or take away.
They’re never done. At least not for me.
Your last full-length album was 2015’s “Digital Vein” — are there plans to get back to full-length records at some point in the future?
Cook: No firm plans, but I enjoy making records, both full-length and EPs. There’s a creative fulfillment to making them that I’m not willing to give up, even if the industry seems shifted back towards singles.
You can listen to David Cook’s latest EP, ‘The Looking Glass,’ here.