To know Hollie Cook is, for better or worse, to start with her family tree, although she gets tired of talking about her parentage.
"The most boring question is probably about my dad," she tells me via phone, moments after I'd asked about her family. "I get it; I understand that it is something that interests and intrigues people, but I just don't think it is hugely relevant to what I do or how my music career has gone. Especially because it is the first thing people ask. I'd rather people ask me 'Oh, how are you?' or 'What did you have for breakfast?'" she says.
So who is her dad? He's Paul Cook, the drummer of the Sex Pistols. Her mother is Jenni Cook, who was a backup vocalist for Culture Club. Her godfather is Boy George himself and Johnny Rotten is a close family friend.
However, because of her musical friends and family, there was no doubt she'd go into music herself. Interested in performance, dance, and songs from a young age, it didn't take long for her to realize that music was her passion. She's always eschewed any nod to her familial roots, claiming that "making reggae was a subconscious attempt" at striking out on her own. "It was quite unexpected for whatever reason," she says, laughing.
It was another family confidante that got Cook into the recording studio. When Cook was nineteen, The Slits' Ari Up asked her to sing on a track. From there, Cook joined The Slits, touring with the band and contributing her song "Cry Baby" to their 2009 record, Trapped Animal. Through that experience, Cook gained the confidence and knowledge to launch her own music career, and she's been on the rise ever since. In 2011, her eponymous debut received high praise, as did her 2014 album, Twice, which landed her in Mojo Magazine's "50 Greatest Reggae Albums of All Time" list at number thirty-one. Cook was not only one of the few women on the list, but one of the few living artists on it.
In January, Cook released her third LP, Vessel of Love. She says the record came out of a dark emotional time, but she broke through anxiety and heartache and released a group of songs about positivity and affection. The motivating "Angel Fire" kicks off the album, proclaiming, "We're feeling proud/we make lots of sound," painting a picture of people who will not back down. "My heart's desire is strong and true," she repeats over a laid-back reggae beat layered with bright trumpet, glittering chimes, and rolling drums. On "Together," she sings, "We're rising higher/we cannot fall. There is no room for the enemy" while echoing synths and drum machines swirl around her gentle voice. "Together we are powerful," she reminds listeners. The positivity emanating from her songs, along with her fresh approach to reggae, makes Vessel of Love essential for anyone facing burnout from the turmoil of any issue, personal or political.
Cook credits her current success to forging her own path rather than succumbing too heavily to the influences of her parents or her peers.
"Stand your ground and believe in yourself. It can be really hard, especially when there can be so many people around you," she says. "It's a hard balance knowing when to trust others and yourself."
But sometimes, maintaining that balance of trust requires a change of scenery. After working for more than seven years with the label Mr. Bongo, she moved to Merge Records to release Vessel of Love.
"It's a real different experience with an American label that's really cool," she says. "They haven't figured out that I don't belong there yet. I'm not cool!"
With the new label behind her, Cook's sound has expanded beyond a more traditional reggae classification, including electronic elements, synths, and more. Much of her new sound is owed to producer Martin "Youth" Glover, who has worked with Paul McCartney, the Verve, Depeche Mode, and others. The album feels like a hopeful reassurance in dark times, which Cook says was fairly unintentional. She often starts writing with a melody or instrumentals, adding lyrics to fit the atmosphere of the song later.
"The songs wound up falling that way. It's funny because this album came out of such a dark emotional time. A lot of the subject matter isn't necessarily light and joyful," she says. "The process of making the album was therapeutic and cathartic and necessary. I was healing myself at the same time."