Talk with Phil Cook for even a few minutes, and the discussion will inevitably lead to community and the accompanying concepts of trust and love. Dive deeper, and it becomes clear just how important it is for him to reflect those themes in his music.
"I've got a chance now to show the world not what's in my head, like I did on Southland Mission, but what's in my community. That's what People Are My Drug feels like," he says, referring to his newest LP.
Southland Mission, Cook's 2015 album and his first leading a full band under his own name, was an intensive, highly involved experience for the singer, guitarist, and pianist. He made virtually every musical decision himself. Even then, he asserts that the encouragement of Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath, who was the first person to hear demos for that album, was critical for him in beginning the process. It's indicative of the kind of mutual support that's always been key to Cook's collaborations, in this case eventually leading to co-writing People duet "Miles Away" with Meath in less than an hour.
While that collaborative spirit has long been present in his music, Cook credits the years since Southland for teaching him how to act as a bandleader rather than a director. As his band members learned to perform Southland in their own way, they gained Cook's trust while he recognized that the beauty and soul inherent in their playing was more essential to the songs than any particular technique.
Cook even ascribes the impetus for recording People Are My Drug to keyboardist James Wallace, saying that he'd been "coasting for a bit" when Wallace asked him about a new album over beers with drummer JT Bates at Durham's Ponysaurus last summer. Despite having no material written, the conversation escalated so quickly that, within fifteen minutes, Cook had booked the first week of January 2018 at April Base Studios, the Wisconsin recording home of friend and former bandmate Justin Vernon. While Wallace pushed Cook in this instance, Wallace admits that he rediscovered his love of piano after meeting Cook while working on the 2012 compilation Hymns from the Gathering Church.
"I was really burned out on being the keyboard player in a band," Wallace remembers. "We instantly bonded over the piano, and his enthusiasm was addictive. He showed me this documentary about James Booker called Bayou Maharajah, and it started me off on this tear of learning New Orleans music."
The two began playing together frequently as live members of Hiss Golden Messenger. When Cook tapped his younger brother Brad to produce People Are My Drug, his sibling convinced him to complete the bulk of the recording in just two days, similar to how they had recorded Hiss Golden Messenger's recent Hallelujah Anyhow. Immediately after playing four shows over four days in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Phil and his core band—Wallace, Bates, and bassist Michael Libramento—headed directly to April Base to begin tracking, this time with Phil fully trusting his bandmates to craft their own parts.
"It was like summer camp," Phil says, still brimming with delight over the sessions. "We didn't leave that room or check a mix for the next two days."
Unbeknownst to him, Brad had been noting the best takes of the fifteen songs they attempted—a mix of originals and covers of old gospel and soul songs—and played back what became People after dinner the second day.
"Almost all of them were first or second passes, so all the fuck-ups are on there, but you're also catching that rawness," Phil adds. "I felt like I could live behind it because it felt so real and honest."
The Cook brothers have shared experience, of course, beyond playing together in bands for more than twenty years, including Megafaun and DeYarmond Edison, the outfit Vernon fronted when they moved to the Triangle together from Wisconsin in 2005. Both point to a family upbringing that involved lots of acceptance and vulnerability while cultivating "a deep appreciation for building and nurturing community," according to Brad. When the siblings first began exploring their musical interest, Phil saw how that dovetailed with the tight-knight music scene of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but soon after college, his desire to live somewhere more diverse grew. He wanted to be somewhere with a deeper, richer history of music and culture, so he moved to the South.
Cook feels like it's taken a decade of living in Durham—weaving himself into its fabric both musically and socially—to truly understand the city, and he continues to find ways to venture outside his bubble.
"As a citizen of Durham, it seems like less and less of an option for someone from the white community to continue to be able to live in insulated ignorance," he says.
That mindset closely follows his family's background in political activism: His father was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, while his mother served as a community organizer and worked with the black and Latinx populations in Madison, Wisconsin, during the city's riots of the late sixties and early seventies. His grandparents wrote weekly to their congressmen, and his maternal grandfather was on familiar terms with Senator Russ Feingold. He's naturally following their lead as he uses his craft to forge his own way through the world.
"Especially as a dad, I have a sense of needing to say something in the medium that I have, which is music. When you look back at your life, love needs to conquer over fear for anything meaningful to happen," he says. "It's not what about what you got, but what did you give? I was raised by people where it was all about what they gave, so that's my standard and how you win me over. That's the community I'm talking about—these likeminded people that want to build something and want to connect."
Indeed, People's emotional centerpiece, "Another Mother's Son," features Cook and poet Kane Smego meditating on family and, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, the stark differences between his own experiences and those of black Americans. The track climaxes with Cook joined on shouts of "no more bodies!" by a five-member gospel choir, recruited by Tamisha Waden and recorded on Martin Luther King Day in the sanctuary of Durham's Hayti Heritage Center as the final piece of the album.
"I just reached out to some of my closest friends who I knew would have a vested interest and could do exactly what he wanted for that part of the song," Waden says. "Not just to lend their voices, but to put the emotion and feeling behind it, which was powerful."
Like much of Cook's work, "Another Mother's Son" echoes his lifelong devotion to gospel, soul, and blues music. Cook grew up in a Presbyterian church, where the congregation sang its hymns in an emotionless fashion that he compares to elementary schoolers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But he recalls being moved to tears as a middle schooler the first time he heard the harmonies and power of a big choir during the performance of "Oh Happy Day" in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Despite that earnest, unusual Hollywood introduction, Cook emphasizes writing and performing in a way that honors his predecessors in an authentic manner rather than whitewashing the music's history.
"You just can't subtract black music from any part of the American musical story," he says. His band mates, meanwhile, back up his efforts.
"I respect Phil and love him for wanting to keep the authenticity of [gospel] music alive [while remaining] true to himself. I love the fact that I'm able to do it with him," Waden says.
Though Cook half-jokes that the last hip-hop music he bought was Onyx's hit single "Slam" in 1993, he considers "the most incredible artist making anything right now" to be Kendrick Lamar.
"I can hear a hundred years of musical history in him and how deep and sophisticated and referential it is. That's what I love about music, when it transcends genre." Cook was so captivated by G Yamazawa's 2017 record Shouts to Durham that he began digging deeper into the Triangle hip-hop scene and exploring how it intersects locally with jazz.
"I just want to constantly absorb things and be into all the different ways that I can be part of the trunk of the American tree of music, rather than the temporary leaves," Cook says. "I want to build a career based on how well I listen to others, not what I have to say. We're all in this together and that unbroken chain—staying open to what's happening and trusting people that are making music now. But honoring those that came before and brought their gifts—that's how you become part of the trunk."