It seemed fitting that when I opened the Google Meet window to talk with Phil Cook, he was back in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, supremely bundled up. We’re talking winter jacket and stocking hat indoors in mid-November. As much as his music in recent years has pulled from the rich traditions around him in North Carolina, the cold Wisconsin winters are what first drove Cook to the piano.
Alongside his brother—the sought-after producer and bassist Brad Cook—and lifelong friends like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Cook used his seemingly endless positivity to build an open, community-minded approach to music. It’s why he can now so seamlessly transition from fronting bands like Megafaun and The Guitar Heels to touring with Hiss Golden Messenger and The Blind Boys Of Alabama, and from sharing the stage with American icons like Mavis Staples, John Prine, and Bruce Hornsby to composing for Kanye, then still somehow find the energy to release critically-acclaimed solo records like 2015’s Southland Mission.
I caught up with Cook on the eve of the release of his beautiful new instrumental record, All These Years. Through an unwavering smile, he talked about the importance of a fertile cultural landscape, how the label he just started is anything but, and why he decided to release a solo piano album now. | m behrends
Aquarium Drunkard: I want to start with Eau Claire. So much great music comes from there. Bon Iver, Megafaun, Amateur Love, Aero Flynn, S. Carey, Laarks, Shouting Matches, Field Report, the list goes on. That family tree of musicians doesn’t have a ton of branches, but it’s so strong. What do you attribute that to?
Phil Cook: Just take the climate. Winter shows up in a major way up here. So when I grew up here, I had to reckon with this vast amount of indoor time. As indoor kids and kids who are more inclined towards music, we have this natural shedding part of the year where we’re inside, hunkered down. There’s just a lot of hearth in our social situations. There’s also a big fostering of jazz here. So there was a lot of that pursuit of virtuosity instilled into a lot of my friends—all the people you just mentioned. At the same time, this jazz thing sparked a love of play with music, a love of exploration in art and expression in these masterful ways. We quickly got hungry and branched out to see where those things could show up in other kinds of music. Because we were inside all the fucking time and you either get a hobby or a habit.
AD: These communities don’t just happen. Was it this open-minded exploration that allowed you to surround yourself with such a strong community in North Carolina?
Phil Cook: Yeah, I think naturally that joy in exploration is kind of an invitation. An open door. It creates a situation where there can be magnetism and more of a pole. Once you find a little bit more of your true north, you tend to find your people. And then it was cool to find that true north as a collective (with Megafaun), and then meet other collectives that had brought their own experiences.
AD: How did moving to the South change your approach to music?
Phil Cook: Moving to the South very much involves me moving closer to the world I was looking at from a telescope in Wisconsin. I got to be in proximity with traditions and tradition bearers that I otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity to where I grew up. As somebody who has always sought mentors in my life, it’s been vital to my growth. The actual relationships that I’ve been able to build with these people in North Carolina has been essential to my understanding about the reverence and the dignity and the history and the cultural landscape. These sites seem like cultural geysers. Eau Claire is one for sure, and I do believe that Durham, where I’ve moved to, is also one. It’s an energy, creatively and culturally.
AD: Is your new label, Spiritual Helpline, you trying to spread and share that energy?
Phil Cook: The way I look at Spiritual Helpline is as a platform for collaboration and connection. I think being able to meaningfully build relationships in this kind of official way, and have a way to support and structure some of these relationships that are built with people. Not only helping artists with visions they have about how they see their music in the world, but giving them the runway to execute that. It’s been so rewarding, so beautiful. This film that we just released, Stayed Prayed Up, went from this small idea of making a record with a gospel group, The Branchettes, that had never made a live record in 50 years. That happened to turn into this entire film over the course of the process. It was confusing at times, it was invigorating times, it was heartbreaking at times. It became this really deepening journey. I mean Mother Perry, The Branchettes—they are such a cultural cornerstone. They’re also indicative of this vast under-swath of richness that is so fertile and abundant in the area that we live. It humbles me every day, dude. And music is the bridge.
AD: I want to shift gears to the record you just released on Friday, All These Years. It might feel like a left turn to a lot of people. Why a solo instrumental piano record now, in 2021?
Phil Cook: My friend, Michael Perry, who is an author up here in Eau Claire, said about 2020, “It’s a time of sorting.” That’s a beautiful, simple truth. So the layers that broke down from that for me are: I think we can all agree that white dudes should be thinking about making a lot more instrumental music these days. [Laughs]
AD: We’ve said enough.
Phil Cook: On a second level, the piano was the first relationship that liberated my soul as a young child. It helped me wake up to music. How I coped and how I navigated through middle school was with the piano. That was a really explosive time for me. Fast forward all these years later and everyone who’s known me that long aren’t seeing it as a left turn. They’re saying, “It’s about goddamn time you put out a piano record.”
AD: What was the process of writing it like?
Phil Cook: I had to get real small while we were in quarantine. I was in a small house with my wife who works for herself from home and our two children. So my time was not my own in a way it had never been before. I was in nature taking walks with my kids every day just to get outside and do something. That daily commune with nature was huge. It’s such a simple human act, but how you process things is by movement. It can sometimes be very public, or sometimes can be very, very private. So for me to have this daily commune with nature also meant that I needed to have this daily commune with music. The only chance I had was with my headphones on, at the keyboard, from 6am until 7:30. That was my time. That became my daily meditation. These quiet early dawn hours were so private and so personal for me to just get back into this relationship and have the piano carry me, yet again, through another tumultuous part of my life.
AD: It was a powerful thing.
Phil Cook: Yeah, in that time of sorting. And in the process of that I got to make a record with my first cousin, Brian Joseph, who is an absolute beautiful soul. He’s also a Grammy-winning recording engineer who I just happen to be related to. We spent a good, collected two months together in 2021. Pre-production, taking walks in the woods, taking saunas, and just doing every single thing around practicing the piano. Just really developing a space between the two of us because, ultimately, that relationship that created All These Years in that church in Durham was built around the space that Brian and I had created with each other. That safe space was just vast and wide open.
AD: Was that relationship what inspired the songs themselves?
Phil Cook: I happened to have an old dog who has been on the cover of a ton of my records, Willie. I mean he was in the room when we mixed, “Find Your Mark” (the first song off Megafaun’s debut album in 2008). When we did all that shit back in the day. He’s in the credits. And then I had to put Willie down the day before we started this record. All These Years is really a reference to Willie and all these chapters that he has been with me in my life. But it also pans out to all the other aspects of my life. These relationships that I have. You know, I’m in my best friend’s house right now with all my best friends over in the next room. We’re still fucking hanging out and doing what we’ve always done. It’s a beautiful thing to take all of that in. And of course, the loss of Willie really is devastating, but at the same time it was like a shedding. A very spiritual process. And I was grieving on the piano. I think when you hear the tenderness and the somberness on the record that shit’s fucking straight raw. I just played piano for about six hours every day. Some of the songs had general sketches. The rest of was all spontaneous and just me feeling and playing that piano. So Brian and I listened through everything and found the purity out of all of it. We found the purity in the music, and that’s the record we released.