Michael Cook is a solo singer-songwriter from England, resident in Winnipeg, Manitoba since November 2002. Interview August-September, 2003.
Q. So, Michael. Where are you from?
A: Well my folks are Scots, but I was born in London, so I'm a "Sassenach", which means "foreigner" in Gaelic, so I'm an outsider even to my own people. I was raised in a town called St.Albans, which is in Hertfordshire, quite close to North London.
Q: Why do you play music?
A: Donato Cinicolo and Liz Milner are two long-time photographer friends of mine in England who encouraged me to get back to playing music again about 1996. The way Liz puts it, for some people doing Art is like breathing. It doesn't work very well under water. You can learn to hold your breath for quite a long time, but then your brain goes all funny. Something like that, anyway.
Putting it differently, to paraphrase John Lee Hooker, if you've got the boogie in you, sooner or later it's got to come out. Some folks just have to do Art or they die.
I guess it's compulsion. I still don't play all the time, though. I'm always taking a break for one reason or another. Once it lasted for about twenty-five years. I had this day job working for IBM. It was fairly demanding.
Q: Where did you learn to play acoustic guitar like that?
A: I got my first guitar when I was seventeen. It was Russian. It had steel strings, a floating neck, and a very high action. It was a painful experience. After a while I figured out that I could lower the action by jamming a lollipop stick under the neck, and after that I could just about play it.
A lot of the people I knew round St.Albans played. There was quite a scene back then, and I learned finger style from several different guys. The first was John Lamont, who was a doctor's son. Later he played at Cousins with a girl called Beverley. She's the woman in the picture on the front of Bert Jansch's second record, "It Don't Bother Me".
I also learned a lot from Chris Robbins, who I went to school with, and Steve Jenkins, who I sang with for a while up to about 1970 or so. Steve went off to form a band called Silver Bullet. Another schoolmate called Ted Godwood introduced me to playing bottleneck Ó la Mississippi Fred in '65, and in the early '80s I took classical lessons from a guy called Stevie Smith in Chichester. He had been a professional flamenco player. Since then I've just been working at it on my own.
Apart from the guys I've already mentioned, and in addition to all the many other talented acoustic players I've listened to over time, I was always very impressed by the dynamics some electric players get with all their bends and slides. People like Clapton, Hendrix, and George Harrison.
In a way, part of what has been going on is me trying to play electric lines acoustically. The same thing happens whenever I listen to jazz. I'm always trying to play what I heard the bass doing.
Q: What's your approach to writing?
A: Basically, when I am working at my guitar playing, a lot of the time I am trying to imitate other players, but I get distracted easily, and I will wander off into new areas, and whatever I am trying to play will morph into something else. I'm rather undisciplined, which always used to annoy Stevie.
But I improvise a lot and I will rarely play a piece the same way twice unless I've managed to record something that I particularly like. Tunes come to me in their own sweet time though. I'll beat my brains out trying to work something out and not be able to get it right. Then, several ages later, I'll suddenly find myself able to play it. That's always a big surprise, and I'm not at all sure how it works.
Occasionally I will get a new tune in my head. Sometimes a piece will actually come together long enough for me to be able to remember it the next day. Now and again I try to record fragments on a little Dictaphone that I have, but usually I try to rely on memory.
I figure that if I can't remember a new tune, that means it's not very memorable period, and therefore not very good. I use this approach intentionally as a sort of passive filter. It's also the line of least resistance. This appeals to me because I am inherently very lazy. Either way, if an idea sticks around long enough, I'll try to work it out musically and make something of it.
More often than not, new stuff starts out as a snatch of a song. New songs, rather than new tunes, happen as a result of a slightly different process. Either I'll just spontaneously start humming or singing a phrase, or else I'll be playing something rhythmic and start singing along.
Now and again a whole song will just write itself in about five minutes flat. "Your Green Hat" happened like that. But usually I start out with a verse or two and the song develops over time. I accumulate words and keep cutting and re-arranging the verses until the piece seems to work, or not as the case may be. This process can take several weeks, months, or even years. I'm always putting stuff away and coming back to it.
I see all this as a very haphazard and accidental process. I spend a huge amount of time just futzing. I wander through my daily life, getting on with computer work, reading the news, and attending to the mundane business of daily living. Then, every now and again, my muse drops in. These days, I have to remember to say hello and pay attention.
Because the way I work is mostly very gradual, granular, and fragmented, most often the results are a sort of collage, or sometimes a cut-up. You can also think of it as a sort of jigsaw puzzle. It mostly happens excruciatingly slowly. I find that most of my songs require a lot of experimentation and rework before they're ready for performance. It's embarrassing when you find out that a new piece doesn't work on stage. Most of the effort goes into the words, though lately I find I also mess around with the music much more than I used to. For example, trying different chords, keys, and fingerings.
Q: What are your songs about?
A: Well, a lot of them are about love, or "lerve" as Woody Allen pronounces it. But I also write songs about all sorts of other situations, such as getting fired ["You Know and I Know"], Bioterror ["The Plague"], people riding on buses, the deer caught in the headlights, and so on. I don't know where all this stuff comes from, I just happen to write some of it down. Blame it on the muse.
Q: So how auto-biographical are your songs?
A: Just lately I do seem to write a few more few diary-type songs. "Blue Horizon" is one of those. I'd just flown back to Toronto from London on September 11th 2001, and it's about what was going on in my life at the time. There's a certain sense of confusion and risk, together with the simpler promise of a new direction.
In one sense every song is auto-biographical, which is to say that in terms of subject matter a song nearly always has its starting point in some real life situation. However, the form doesn't allow you much room to develop characters or do situational exposition. As a result, I often find that I have to reduce the story so much that it becomes impossibly short. At that point fiction comes to the rescue, with rhyme and imagery as it's handmaidens, or infantrymen, or whatever. Some folks have said that they find my songs very visual. Usually the story line jumps from reality to fiction and back again several times.
Q: Can song-writing be bad for relationships?
A: Someone close to me once got very jealous about what they imagined a particular song to mean, or rather about what they thought it described. Actually they got it all wrong. This happened twice over with "Your Green Hat". It's a mistake to suppose that any given song might be purely autobiographical or factual in nature. Most of them have little or nothing to do with the facts, and at the end of the day a song is a song is just a song.
Writing songs helps me to keep my "monkey mind" occupied. It can be less harmful than "acting out", as for example with "It's Raining, Men" ["Glass Half Full"], where the character singing the song considers committing a series of violent acts against the Establishment. I think of song-writing as being like producing an endless series of one-act plays, only with a simpler set of production challenges. Organizing myself is hard work enough.
If other people find my songs interesting or meaningful, that's a happy bonus, but nobody should take any of them personally or literally. Unless they want to, that is.
Q: I've heard you are very money conscious. Are you making money from your music?
A: Money is very important. Jokes about poor musicians are a dime a dozen, and in the last year I've been lucky enough to be able to cover my basic living costs and concentrate on music more than before. I do seem to have a lot of different and conflicting interests though, and I suspect most people would be horrified to learn how much time I spend on my own. But I'd starve if I relied solely on music, and I'd probably go completely nuts if I only did music and nothing else. Call me a dilettante if you want.
On the other hand, I read in "Stylus" magazine [U.of M.] recently that "Art and Commerce are inextricably linked". Somebody asked me in a radio interview recently "It's not for the money then?". I found that surprising, and I still wonder where it came from. It's as if there's a kind of collective schizophrenia around the subject of music and money. Music is Good, but Money is Bad. As if artists can only be authentic if they give their art away for free. Do people really think that you can make a CD for nothing? I'm always surprised when folks tell me that they're copying my stuff. Usually it's because I didn't think the person was quite that stupid.
So far, since 1996, I've made three CDs, had a handful of paying gigs, sold a few records, and been on the radio a total of four times. That's a whole lot more success than I ever expected to have. My total on-stage experience has about doubled since I started playing in Winnipeg in March.
The people that have listened seem to like my CDs, and some even told me they played them quite a lot. Music is a commodity these days though, and I don't think anybody's stuff is so interesting that you're going to want to listen to it for very long, although you might remember it and want to come back to it later.
I've had some very encouraging feedback, and even got asked back to several venues. But I'm still pretty new to the music business. I guess that means I haven't "paid my dues" yet. So be it. Whatever money I have coming in from music is a drop in the bucket. You can't hope to cover your costs like that, but what the heck. Some things you get to write off against tax, but CCRA won't let you keep making a loss forever. The main thing for me is to keep on working at it. Having an audience is very good, and it may even be essential, but I don't think it can really make you happy for very long. Each day is a new opportunity.
Q: Why don't you perform more often?
A: I'll play anywhere and any time I'm asked, within reason. Otherwise, I don't exactly put myself about a lot, and that's something I've been told I should try to change. The world isn't about to beat a path to my door, as it were. I'm quite the social caterpillar though. I recently started trying to get a few gigs on my own, but for some reason I find it very hard work.
Performing is where the juice is, and it's usually a lot of fun almost any place. I've gotten to meet some great people, both here and in Toronto. The most fun I ever had was playing at Manitou Opera House back in March. I'd heard that they had this open stage there, so I drove down. It's a great hall with great sound, and the people down there were just amazing. It was snowing and they wouldn't let me drive back home to Winnipeg. I could hardly believe it. They blew me away.
I feel I'm about ready to get past my "open mike" stage though. You can spend a huge amount of time just sitting around waiting to play, and you never even get warmed up properly. You can also get bumped a lot.
I suppose it's always hard trying to get started, but "The waiting is the hardest part", as the Tom Petty song goes. Lately I'm practicing more, and I seem to be playing a lot of peculiar new chords on the side.
Q: What's your approach to performing?
Unless it's a new piece, I try to play each song exactly the same way as I recorded it. For me, a song is like a little one act play. Each one tells a different story, and each song has its own voice that goes with the tune, the style, and the character that tells the story. That's why I sing in different accents. I must admit that some people don't seem to get it. People are always telling me that's not my voice. Who do they think it is?
I suppose in this respect, together with the imagery and visual impressions, my approach really is like trying to do theatre or even "movies inside your head" using songs and a guitar. It all sounds rather improbable, doesn't it? Since you're doing it in real time and under variable conditions, you can never reproduce a performance exactly, so you just try to do it as well as you can in that particular moment, and let the audience decide what to make of it.
It's great when you get that "flow experience" happening on stage. The thing is, I find that the more I perform, the more elusive it seems to become. I'll never forget the adrenaline jolt I got the first time I sang in public in Toronto. I hadn't been on a stage in twenty-five years. I was scared out of my mind, and totally exhausted after just one song. It does seem to get easier as you perform more, and presumably this experience develops as you get better at it. Like you get more at ease with being on a stage, and with any luck you become technically more proficient.
I certainly hope that I really am getting better at performing, and I certainly wouldn't ever want to get blasÚ about it. But I feel it's never going to have quite the same immediacy if I no longer feel like a deer caught in the headlights.
Q: What about building rapport with your audience?
A: Funny things happen to time when you are on stage, and I still get completely pre-occupied with the performance itself. If not, it's a bad sign and things can start to go wrong very quickly. There are a lot of things to manage all at once. Six strings, breathing, trying to stay on the microphone, and watching your fingering. Sometimes I become very aware of my body and how it feels. The sound off the monitors can be very confusing, and sometimes I feel very disorientated and I will resort to playing by rote. It's not so good when that happens.
These days I try to take my glasses off on stage because then, being short-sighted, I can't see the audience clearly and I find I can concentrate better on sounds and feeling. Unless it's sustained, whatever comes back from the audience is old information. By the time they've reacted, you're already doing something else. I can never figure out whether the audience likes a performance or not, and I always feel very exposed and consequently rather scared. Then, when the song is finished, it's to late to do anything about it, and you have to move on. I try not to talk too much between songs if I can help it.
Q: What genre is your music?
That's an interesting question. Dan Donahue [a Winnipeg producer] told me that playing in lots of different styles "will be my Achilles heel". He was talking in the context of trying to find an audience. There's some blues, some country songs, some folk, what Dan calls "neo-traditional", a few rock tunes, and some light poppy stuff all mixed up together. It's really alphabet soup.
For me, this goes back to the "one act play" storytelling aspect, since each song tells a different story and has its own voice. I understand this makes it hard for people to place me in a discrete category. Perhaps I am some sort of "eclectic" oddity. The word "quirky" comes up a lot, and some folks have told me that I'm pretty eccentric. Maybe I'm just a plain old-fashioned freak. A few people seem to think I'm completely crackers, but they don't know me. You can't please everybody, and you have to protect your own happiness.
Q: So are you trying to find your audience?
A: Well, I understand I "can play", and apparently I write some good songs. I nearly always get some appreciative comments after a performance. Rod McKuen recently came out of hiding after a ten year absence and he said "People often say 'I live for my art.' Bullshit! If you are given a talent it's to be used. It's not in the private domain." If you look at it that way, then you've got to try to get out and find your audience. Where are they? Did they miss the train?
I guess some folks are going to love you, and some will think you're not very good, but you've got to either keep at it or just quit. I think I'll just keep on keeping on. Dan suggested I don't try to change what I do too much, and just keep playing as much as possible.
But you never know what's going to happen next. Liz Milner's approach is to just figure out what the next step might be and to try to work towards it. Right now I figure I should just try to get out a lot more. If that means traveling, sooner or later I guess I'll end up doing that. One step at a time.
Q: What does your real accent sound like?
A: Well, my natural accent is probably something a bit like Michael Caine's. People say I look a bit like him too, what with the glasses and all. I get that quite a lot. Just lately, I started telling people that he's my big brother, and sometimes they get all reverential for about five seconds or so before they realize I'm just kidding. He sounds a bit more London than I do, though. He's from the Elephant and Castle area [South Central London], and I'm from North London.
Q: Are you a misfit?
A: Well, I've already told you that I'm a born outsider. I've also traveled around a lot and lived in several different countries. I guess that makes me a gypsy. You have to work at building relationships, and that's something I am not naturally good at.
People also tell me that I'm pretty quirky, if not eccentric, and that I have a very dry sense of humor. I have this funny British accent, I suppose, and it can sound pretty clipped. I also seem to be terminally tactless. "Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood", is a good line. A lot of Canadians are very soft-spoken by comparison. It's not that it's a bad thing. It's just different.
Q: Who does your web site?
A: I do it myself. Not that I spend much time on it if I can avoid it. It's just some simple information I put together about my music and then my business. The other week this guy told me that my web site is boring. I think perhaps he needs some more stimulation. Like maybe he should go out and buy a copy of "Heavy Metal" or something.
The same guy was also adamant that it wasn't me singing on "Jock O'Hazeldean". I told him it was, but he still didn't believe me. What is the matter with somebody like that? Like you have to sing every song in the same accent, or something?
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: Well, I started writing stories at an early age. I also invented a new card game when I was about seven. It turned out it was a bit like gin rummy. I'm not sure if that means I was precocious. I was rather a late developer in other areas. I had a lot of trouble with Mathematics, for example.
I started composing tunes in music class at school, and I started writing songs after I bought my first guitar. I've also written quite a lot of poetry, though I'm not sure whether it's any good or not. I had a whole suitcase full of it at one time, but it got left behind somewhere along the way. I've also written a few stories, and somewhere I have two unfinished novellas.
In my day job, I was a technical writer for quite a long time, and I've written several books about software. But technical writing is pretty matter of fact, and is usually done very fast. I didn't really start to learn about rewriting stuff until a couple of years ago, when I went back to the Humber School for Writers summer school. I'm sure it shows, but I'm not going backwards.
Q: How would you describe your sound?
A: I've always recorded both voice and guitar at the same time using either two or three mikes, so there's no multi-tracking. Apparently some people call that "live", although to me that would mean "recorded during a stage performance".
Because of recording this way, you get forty to sixty per-cent bleed across the mikes, and there's hardly anything you can do about it afterwards. All my recordings sound fairly raw as a result.
It's also somewhat intentional to try to get a feel that is very "up close and personal". We managed to capture some good dynamics, especially on particular tracks, and particularly on "Orangeville and The Crowded Night". Karen Kane [producer] and I had a lot of fun working together, and we're both very happy with the results as a record of "raw Mike Cook".
I always suggest that people listen to my stuff loud on headphones. That way, you can really hear all the nuances of the guitar and vocals. I also get to hear all of my mistakes of course, but nobody else seems to notice them very much.
The same guy as told me my web site was boring also told me that my voice and guitar were "incorrectly layered" on my recordings. He was playing the "Jock O'Hazeldean" .mp3 on these really tinny computer speakers and comparing it with a clip of Hal Brolund's. I looked at them both on a scope afterwards. My clip is very quiet, and mostly black, whereas Hal's one is peaked out, mostly green, and sounds much louder. I guess I should go and fix that shortly. Getting a really good sound on the radio is something I'd like to achieve consistently. Don't ask me what that means technically, but I know it when I hear it.
On all three of my CDs there are one or two tracks where the sound really seems to have come out just right. Maybe it's down to humidity or the temperature or a combination of several factors. A lot of it's just down to me, though, I'm sure.
Q: What do you think about the music scene in Winnipeg?
A: I've met quite a few people here, and many of them have been very friendly and helpful. I've been really slow about trying to get off my butt though.
Q: So why did you move to Winnipeg from Ontario?
A: Clean air, less traffic, and lower rents. It wasn't for the music scene, although I had heard about it a bit before I came here. There was also a lady involved at one point. Well, several actually, but that's a long story.
Q: Is there a woman in your life now?
A: No comment.
Q: I heard around town that you are gay? Are you?
A: Well, I can get pretty silly on a just couple of orange and sodas these days, but actually not. Way back when I was still a kid, my sister used to think I was gay because I never seemed to have a girlfriend. Actually, I think the main reason for that was the way I used to smell. I'm a bit of a late developer, and I didn't really learn about washing until I was in my mid-twenties. Practice makes perfect, you know.
Q: What other things are you interested in besides music?
A: Logic, empathy, washing, food, good conversation, and women. I also like some books and movies, and I go for a walk in the country whenever I can. I like painting and photography a lot too, but I haven't done much of either for a while.
Q: What other people do you listen to?
A: Mostly the women in my life, whenever they happen to be around. My mother, for example. I'm just like her. Opinionated in the extreme, and always saying that The Emperor has no clothes, if you know what I mean.
If you mean music-wise, I don't listen to other people very much at all these days, and I should do a lot more. It's partly a time thing, and also because I don't listen to the radio very much. These days there's either too much talk or too many advertisements or both.
Just lately, I still like The Bangles, Leonard Cohen, Little Feat, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Emmylou Harris. I think I'm still madly in love with Emmylou. I saw her once down in a field in North Carolina. She was playing on the same bill with Doc and Merle Watson and Bill Monroe. I didn't even know who Bill Monroe was at the time, and I got horribly sunburned.
I used to like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bert Jansch a great deal. I still love Thelonious Monk, the MJQ, Brubeck, and anything by Miles Davis. I never liked Ella Fitzgerald for some reason, although a lot of people rave about her. I think that Lyle Lovett has written a lot of excellent songs, and I used to like Don Williams a lot too. His voice is really something else, texture-wise. And then there's Hank Williams Senior, and Roscoe Holcomb.
Back when we were kids, in addition to the usual suspects, my sister and I really liked Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, The Hollies, and The Zombies. We also loved Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent, and I was always very impressed by Chuck Berry's lyrics, and Bo Diddley's jungle sound.
I went to see Stevie Ray Vaughan in Toronto in 1987 and he was incredible, as was Jackson Browne the same year. They both blew me away in fact. Stevie Ray played part of his set with the lights out, and it was very loud and eerie at the same time. I also remember going to see The Jefferson Airplane and The Doors on the same bill at The Roundhouse in London in about 1969. That was totally amazing too. A real long night of sitting on the floor. The Doors were at their peak, and it was very intense.
I'm still a very big fan of Steely Dan, and I like the Hendrix blues album a great deal, as well as some of Steve Earle's records. Have you got enough names yet?
Q: What books have you read recently?
A: "Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone", "Mac OSX for Java Geeks", "The Stand" by Stephen King, "Zen Guitar", parts of The Bible, and some Shakespeare plays. Right now I'm reading "Matchstick Men" by Eric Garcia, and "Churchill" by Roy Jenkins. Have you read "The Dancer Upstairs" by Nicholas Shakespeare? It's very good.
I also like Michael Crichton, Arturo Perez-Reverte, most of Patricia Highsmith, and almost everything by Robert Heinlein. I am a sucker for any books about The Middle Ages too, for example, "A World Lit Only By Fire" by William Manchester. How about yourself?"