Americana singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook plays The State Room on Sunday, October 9. Last month she talked with Salt Lake magazine by phone from Nashville to discuss her new album, rehab and feminism.
SLM: Good to talk to you, I’m a big fan. I wanted to talk to you about Exodus of Venus because it feels different than your other albums. Do you feel like it’s different?
EC: I feel like it’s way different. The passage of time and everything that happened in my life just sort of reset me artistically and that’s what happened.
SLM: How would you define the change? I’ve read reviews where they call it dark, but I don’t think it’s dark. I think that’s a mis-categorization. I think maybe its more grown up.
EC: I think that’s fair. And sometimes life gets heavier as you go and you take more blows. It’s all part of the process.
SLM: You’ve gotten a lot of attention for this album. It was kind of like you burst onto the scene and got a wider audience than you have for some of your previous work.
EC: That’s good news. (laughs)
SLM: So last time I saw you, and I think the last time you were in Salt Lake, you were playing with Todd Snider.
EC: That’s right, I remember that.
SLM: And you’ve done a lot of collaboration and a lot of touring with him. He’s got kind of a cult following, it’s fair to say. Do you feel like your audience is often the same as his?
EC: There’s some crossover. It’s not exactly the same but there’s some crossover because he’s been so kind to introduce me to his audience so many times as I’ve played shows with him.
SLM: In the Rolling Stone interview you did when your album came out you said something funny about how people think the two of you just do drugs and sleep together but you’re actually creative partners.
EC: You know, above all else we’re just friends. We get together and we talk shop and we commiserate over the music business and ex-husbands and ex-wives and show each other songs that we’re starting. It’s really a lot of that.
SLM: I always think it’s so interesting. I don’t know if Emmylou Harris has ever had an interview where people haven’t asked her about her relationship with Gram Parsons.
EC: Right. Like no one believes that that relationship could have been platonic.
SLM: Or like she hasn’t done enough on her own to not be asked about him every once in while.
EC: (laughs) Right.
SLM: But on the same note, I noticed when I was pulling things together to prepare for this interview that a word that’s used a lot—even in the subheading of that Rolling Stone interview—is outspoken. And I thought to myself, how many times is a male singer-songwriter called outspoken?
EC: True. There’s a different set of standards, a different set of rules.
SLM: I have this idea for a thesis paper I’m never going to write about country music and feminism and how country music is full of these strong female characters—you have Loretta and you have Dolly—and you have all of these women who are strong, but you have an audience who would never, ever identify themselves as feminists.
EC: Right. I’ve heard it said that Gretchen Wilson, she’s someone who came on to the scene in country music really fast and we all thought she reset everything in terms of what females were doing, and then she drank from a whiskey bottle and it was over. It was just over. No country radio shows were letting her in the door. There were suddenly like, “No. We won’t have our women carrying on that way.”
SLM: I find it fascinating. I’m from the south and all the women in my family carried on more like the outspoken women of country music than the others. My family is more Loretta Lynn than Tammy Wynette. But it’s interesting to me at the end of the day who audiences are listening to. And there’s definitely a theme of strength in your music. And sometimes it’s really on the nose, like “It takes balls to be a woman,” and sometimes it’s more subtle than that when you talk about the strength of a mother whose child has been abducted. And I just think it’s a fascinating topic and an interesting peek into American culture.
EC: It is. I’ve always thought it was interesting too, that Tammy Wynette sang “Stand By Your Man” but she was divorced and Loretta Lynn is the one who sang about leaving and threats all the time, but she was the who stayed with her husband through all those years.
SLM: A lot of that is public perception. We package ourselves as something you aren’t necessarily and it cuts both ways. So, as a follow-up to that, how do you feel like you package yourself?
EC: You know, I let the music dictate how it seems to be branded. I really am not that calculated with it. I might be better off if I was but I just sort of let the music do it and however that’s perceived the rest follows.
SLM: I think your radio show (Apron Strings on Sirius XM) does a lot to brand you authentically without a huge marketing machine behind you.
EC: That’s definitely true.
SLM: So people who didn’t come to know you through the stuff that you did with Todd Snider, and this follows up with the radio stuff, you were on Letterman a lot. And Letterman did more for Americana music than any other platform when he was on air, I think. So I wonder if you see anyone who has taken that—is there a show now or a personality who is carrying that torch of bringing that music to the masses.
EC: Well, I think there are several who are doing a little bit, but not to the extent Dave did. Like Conan dabbles in it. Colbert dabbles in it. Fallon dabbles in it. But I don’t sense there’s the hardcore fandom that there was with Dave.
SLM: And you said in that Rolling Stone article that I keep referencing that you still speak to him, that you sent him your new album—he’s still paying attention to the scene even if he’s not bringing it to the rest of us.
EC: He’ll ask me, “Who should I be listening to? Who should I be checking out right now?” And I enjoy sharing that.
SLM: That’s a question I always asks everybody I interview, too. Who should I be checking out right now?
EC: Lydia Loveless—she’s so good and she’s so young. She’s going to do great things—and Robert Ellis is good.
SLM: So with regard to influences, you grew up in a musical family, but what were you listening to, outside of your family’s music?
EC: I had the cultural experience of MTV coming on the air when I was like ten, 11, 12 somewhere in there. And it really opened my eyes and ears to a whole other genre of music that I didn’t know existed up until then. They were playing Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.
SLM: So you were listening to rock while the rest of your family was still listening to more traditional country?
EC: When I came to that age. Yes. My sister left a few cassette tapes in her closet. She’s 11 years older than me, so I was pretty young when she moved out of the house but she left and Eagles cassette tape and a Creedence Clearwater Revival cassette tape, and I think a Lynard Skynyrd cassette tape.
SLM: That’s all you need! That’s the southern rock anthology.
EC: It’s still some of my favorite music ever made.
SLM: So when you songwrite, you obviously draw a lot from your personal experiences in that song writing.
EC: True. My lyrics come from my journaling.
SLM: How often do you journal?
EC: Every few days.
SLM: So how’s that process work, you journal and then every so often you go through it and pull stuff out? What’s it look like?
EC: Right. That’s exactly it.
SLM: That definitely puts you in a place of vulnerably, if it’s literally from your diary. That’s really just leaving it all on the stage.
EC: It would just feel inauthentic to do it any other way.
SLM: Is it cathartic? Is it useful to you to process things that happen to you through that lens?
EC: Very Much, yes. It’s my greatest incentive on doing this.
SLM: I thought one of the most interesting things I read about you while doing my research was that you went to rehab even though you didn’t think you were an addict because you thought there might be something you would get something out of it. Did you get something out of it?
EC: You like to think that everything happens for a reason, but it was a very tough experience and I lasted like, 11 days. I felt like the treatment I was getting wasn’t helpful for me at that moment. I was in for an eating disorder as well and I was losing weight because I wasn’t getting enough food. They highly regulated my calorie intake and I was hungry all the time.
SLM: So, do you think the people who staged this intervention and told you they thought you needed to go to rehab thought they were acting in your best interest. So it’s such an interesting thing to read to your story compared to the New York Times and New Yorker stories about Jason Isbell when he went to rehab. Because it sounds like the genesis was the same. It was people who love you coming together and saying this is something you need to do, but the outcome was very different.
EC: Right. That was the greatest impact. He had a chemical substance addiction.
SLM: So, I’m a single mom and I talk to my other single mom friends and we’re like, sometimes a forced vacation sounds like it maybe wouldn’t be so bad. Like, maybe it would be nice to have someone take care of us at rehab.
EC: There were people in there doing that! And that’s sort of how I looked at it too, you know, I thought well, we’ll go and we’ll find out. I’m definitely not in a good place. Maybe I do have some problems that I’m not identifying. And it’s fair for me to go and I was under a lot of pressure to go from people who love me. They cancelled a tour I was supposed to go on. But once I got in I didn’t find it relaxing.
SLM: It wasn’t all spa robes and flip-flops and talking about your feelings, then? Maybe I need to find a different vacation.
EC: Right. Yeah, do that. This one was really good at looking resort-ish. It had a fountain and a koi pond. I never got to go by the koi pond. I never saw the koi pond one time
SLM: Maybe you get the koi pond on day 12.
EC: They were treating hardcore addicts and people in crisis. I was certainly in crisis. But not the same way they were tailored to assist in.
SLM: So you checked out of the rehab that you didn’t need in the first place, but because you were still in crisis, you obviously found something that worked better for you at that point.
EC: I needed one-on-one therapy and time.
SLM: And journaling!
Elizabeth Cook plays The State Room on Sunday night. Tickets are still available here. Lee Harvey Osmond opens.