Elizabeth Cook: going it alone, but keeping the twang
The scene was an audition for the reality show “Nashville Star” – first prize, a major label recording deal. Elizabeth Cook was there to support a friend; she didn’t need to audition herself – she already had that deal. And while the young hopefuls around her dreamed and fought for their chance at fame and success, Cook was slowly realising that she needed to give it all up.
“I was looking around thinking all the people in here clamouring and hoping to get what I have,” Cook says. “I remember feeling very alone in that room and almost like I was sitting up on top of a pole in the corner looking at the scene and realising how I didn’t belong in it.”
After only one record for Warner Brothers in 2002, Cook asked to be released from her contract and set out to make her own way as an independent artist. It’s a decision she’s never regretted, from an artistic standpoint but also, perhaps more surprisingly, from a financial one.
“These companies spend a huge amount of money, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s post-Garth/Shania era, making the records, making the videos, having multiple photo shoots, plus they pay themselves exorbitant salaries – it makes a hole so deep for an artist that if your first record doesn’t start digging you out, you never will dig out,” she says.
“I’m not a trust fund kid. If I was going to do this, I had to figure out how to feed myself. I like nice things and I like good food. I had to look at it from a business standpoint. ... And at least the failure or the success of it would be on me, and not because one A&R staff didn’t get along with my manager, or somebody used to sleep with so and so and they fell out and now they can’t work together.”
Since striking out on her own, Cook has made three albums. She’s still living in Nashville – though in the more bohemian world of East Nashville – and she’s doing something that not too many people have attempted: making a name for herself as an independent artist singing out-and-out country music.
“ There’s indie rock bands, and folk artists are inherently indie, but there’s not a big indie country music scene,” she says.
“It’s a great source of pride for me. I don’t sound like anybody else. Maybe I don’t fit into the mainstream. Where I do feel like I fall in and maybe have peers in the Americana world and the folk world is a connection to roots music and a realism when you’re performing, that you are representing yourself and not someone’s concept of you built on a bulletin board and songs written for you, or that you wrote with two other staffers on Music Row.”
Cook, raised in Florida the youngest of 11 children, recognises that her style of music may not suit all members of an indie crowd, but she’s unrepentant about that: “I realise that a lot of people have an allergy to twang and I understand that and accept that as part of my reality. It’s not something I’ll ever, ever, ever be able to get rid of, and I don’t really care to try.”
Cook’s third album, Welder, was released last year to wide critical acclaim. She is still amazed that she found herself on lists of the best albums of 2010 in Rolling Stone and Time magazine, alongside artists like Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
“I think I must hold the record for the greatest rankings to least albums sold ratio,” she laughs. “But it was great to be recognised.”
Cook keeps up a busy touring schedule – she’s been in the UK twice in the past year – and is beginning to think about her next album, though it’s not even in the planning stages yet.
In the meantime, she’s found some new creative outlets, including doing voices for cartoons and video games – you can hear her in “Red Dead Redemption”.
“I love this kind of work, it’s fantastic,” she says. “You don’t have to fix your hair to do voiceover work.”
She also took her first steps into full-blown acting, and started at the top by landing the role of God in the indie film “My Fool Heart”, which also stars Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley and Justin Townes Earle.
Cook, who is married to fellow artist Tim Carroll, says she’s happy with where she finds herself at the moment and is happy to sit back and wait to see where things go next.
“I never know what the good Lord’s going to throw my way, because it’s been a very random, wild ride thus far and I expect it to continue. I’d be a fool to try and predict it.”