Introduction and Interview by Baxter Miller
Almost a decade ago, my friend Helena introduced me to the music of Durham-based Phil Cook. She was on tour with his band Megafaun and snapping some photos along the way. She and I grew up in a small town with what seemed like a dearth of creative opportunities, and I admired the path she’d carved for herself. Her experiences seemed so foreign, so impossible and I was way too afraid to envision these type of experiences for my own life. But I kept listening and in time, this music became the soundtrack of some of the most defining moments of my life, and it introduced me to a world filled with creativity, collaboration and possibility.
This same music became a vehicle for celebration. While at UNC, every chance I had, I sought out Phil Cook and whatever friends he was playing with. Most memorably, after a GAYNGS show at Cat’s Cradle, I walked across the street to a near-religious experience of Phil and Brad Cook, Justin Vernon, and the entire “gayng” hanging around The Station’s old stand up piano belting anthems from The Band. Their version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” embodies those little jubilant moments I’ll never forget.
This same music became a vehicle for grieving. After the tragic loss of a dear friend, listening to “The Longest Day” from Gather, Form & Fly on repeat felt like the only way to survive those first few, very raw days without him. It was the last song we ever listened to together, and the whole album helped me reassemble all the pieces in his absence.
This same music became a vehicle to place. While living in the Virgin Islands, “Volunteers” from Heretofore helped reconnect me to North Carolina and served as a reminder me of the beauty of the place I had left. It’s funny how when the newness of an adventure wears off, you gravitate towards things that feel like home. After a year in the Caribbean, I moved back North Carolina to focus on building a life that meant something. I made a promise to be fearless and creative and dove in head first in exploring my home. Southland Mission, Phil Cook’s first solo album, came along for the ride, embodying place in a way I’d yet to experience.
In these last few years, standing on the peripheral of so many pockets of creativity in this state, I’ve learned a little more about who Phil really is and what he means to so many in North Carolina. He is much more than a musician. He’s a community builder dedicated to creating a thriving and welcoming place in the Old North State. He’s the king of collaborations, big and small. He values the arts for its place in his own life and seeks to foster that experience for others. This is why he is dedicated to supporting organizations like Artsplosure, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that hosts events throughout the year to give all people in our community meaningful and affordable opportunities to experience the arts and enhance their cultural perspective. And it’s why you’ll be able to find him next weekend at the Main Stage at City Plaza for Artsplosure.
As proud media sponsors of the Phil Cook’s performance, we hope you’ll join us May 19th - 21st in Downtown Raleigh for Artsplosure as we enjoy artwork by over 170 juried fine artists and craftspeople exhibiting original works of art including painting, photography, pottery, jewelry, woodwork, and more. Artists’ booths will line Fayetteville Street amongst music, art installations, food trucks, and more – all highlighting superb performing and visual artists. You can find more details on Artsplosure’s website.
In the meantime, it’s our pleasure to introduce you to Phil Cook.
How do you take your coffee?
I use a pour over, usually Counter Culture coffee and take it black. I have a coffee kit that I take on the road too.
Man, I need a coffee kit to take on the road. What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading a history of black gospel music by Anthony Heilbut. It focuses on pioneering movements and unsung heroes throughout the 20th century.
What's on queue on your record player?
This morning I listened to Ted Hawkins "The Venice Beach Tapes." Do you know him? He was a street performer on Venice Beach, played his acoustic with gloves on and sang his ass off. He didn't record material until he was an older man and surely didn't receive recognition for his gift until the end of his life, but he put out a lot of stuff at the end. He does mostly covers and his voice will hit you just right and send you reeling. I treasure him.
I’ll have to check him out. What’s the last album you purchased on vinyl?
I scored some good records the other day in D.C. Some good Herbie Hancock gems from the 70's like Mwandishi and Fat Albert Rotunda. Love that dude.
If you had to wake up as an animal tomorrow, what animal would you choose?
Easy. Dog. A loyal family dog who plays and protects and gives love. Wouldn't that be the life?
Great answer. I guess I know your answer to my next question already: cat or dog?
I’m super allergic to cats. My only allergy. I haven't touched head nor tail of a cat in 30 years. Hard to develop meaningful relations with one who is very presence affects my breathing. So, dogs all the way. I have two, one big and one small, who are a total crime solver dynamic duo.
I hate cats, too. But I’m a big fan of pizza and I’ve heard you are a big fan of Pie Pushers. What’s on your perfect slice?
Man, I'll gladly say that Mike Hacker cooks with his heart and his soul. He has blessed me and my family with his cooking in every which way for years. If the thing you do in life is built on passion and what you'd do for free anyway, it will resonate with people. If you ask my favorite, I get the specials every time because that's Mike composing in real time. Just had one called The Cubano that made me roll over and shake my leg like a dog, so…
Haha. I’m sensing a canine theme here, which I’m totally into. Do you have a mantra by which you live your life?
Family is key. My given family and my chosen family. Raise my kids in a community of good people who give a shit. Having a lifelong passion to pursue like music has made life richer and clearer and undeniably helped me steadily piece together who I am.
Tell me about a visual artist whose work you value, or whose work has influenced your own, and why.
Elise Tyler. She's a photographer from Nashville, but recently moved to L.A. She does direction and production and film, but her portraits are mainly situated in southern landscapes, among the mundane and the decaying urban. Even through a tiny screen in the palm of my hand, it translates. I mean, her pieces shake me up!
Cameron Wittig. A photographer based in Minneapolis. I have several of his pieces hanging on my walls. His works have wonderful composition and shape.
Gemynii (Pieces Of A Gem). Gemynii is a Durham artist/DJ/all around badass. She paints women of color onto old LP sleeves. She a did a piece for me of Cleotha Staples that I gave to Mavis as a gift recently. She's somebody to watch in this area.
Runaway. These folks are straight killing the scene in Durham right now. They're constantly pushing themselves and putting out quality product as well as acting as general cultural filters and tastemakers in a city already known for its arts scene. Love em!
Let’s talk about North Carolina. What is it about this place that drew you in and what has made you stay?
I love the natural beauty we enjoy, from the mountains to the beaches and everything in between. I love the cultural beauty here and all the strong traditions that still feed the innovators. The more I discover about Durham's past history, the more engaged I become to its future. This is a city that has broken many rules. Special people are born here. Things happen here. Just look at music. Art of Cool happens here. Moogfest happens here. Duke Performances happen here. These are national treasures. My friend, Pierce Freelon is running for MAYOR! Why wouldn't I stick around to be a part of that! I love this place. North Carolina is my home now.
Tell me about your ideal day at home.
I'm gone from home a lot so home has become more and more precious to me as time moves on. When I get off the road it usually takes a week or so for my mind to adjust to the shift in routines. If I'm home for over three weeks, we usually arrive at a Saturday morning where the list isn't so long and the ultimate layabout begins. Pancakes, playlists, porch time. Donny Hathaway "Live" is the absolutely the best that music can be. That record has been with Heather and I since the beginning. You need that stuff to get through life. The things we share with other people. Songs. Singing. Laughing. Jokes. Stories. Joy. I come from a family that was built hard on these things. I see the world as a beautiful place because of that. What love makes possible, I've seen it and I've felt it. If we're so lucky, both boys take a nap at the same time (age 5 and age 1) and we get to play a round of cribbage, you familiar? We were both taught by our grandfathers, in Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively, as children and have played ever since. Great game. And then we’d cap off the day with a grill out with our Durham crew and all our families.
I love that you guys are keeping these family traditions going, so far from where they originated. That's what it's all about. So how has North Carolina influenced your art?
I moved to the South a decade ago because of the music. I had already identified with southern music as a teenager, but the south was physically and culturally eons away from where I was raised in northern Wisconsin. It seems all kids form their most essential basic identity through music during adolescence. Music can be a way to fit in for most people, but if you're really paying attention to what moves you there's a great journey that unfolds. It was easier for me to understand the emotional context of history and the facts I learned if I knew the records from that era, you see?
Oh yeah. Speaking of the arts, reflect on the value that arts organizations, like Artsplsoure, bring to a place like North Carolina and the Triangle. Why do programs like this matter?
Music has always been there for me. Always. At points, music got me through the toughest days I've had. I don't know where I'd be AT ALL without my relationship to music, without the ability to have a conversation with my inner self and give rise to my own spirit. It's absolutely sacred. Organizations like Artsplosure help bring healing and inspiration to people, because we all need it. It's what humans run on. We run on the fuel of culture. It's what we fight for when we think of political words like "freedom." Another organization that I love is called Blackspace, a nonprofit afrofuture hub in downtown Durham that shows youth how to create art using music production, media and film editing, and poetry. These are seeds that will give fruit for a lifetime.
I love that. I definitely draw inspiration from arts and culture in our state. I feed off community, too, which seems really important to you and Heather. What do you value in your community? What do you hope for its future?
I value networks and intersections these days. When I moved here in 2005, each city in the Triangle had its own scene that felt more separated, although we were told of past days when it wasn't. Now, we export dozens of artists from all genres across the globe that represent who we are collectively. That helps foster an identity that transcends individual cities. Musicians tend to build community simply because of their shared lifestyle. People play in multiple projects and collaborate and that always builds ties between circles. I play on your record, you play on mine. I open for you today, you open for me the next. After time, all these connections and common goals help us to wake up to a larger purpose of art in general. You can see how these networks can become strong with the right leadership and faith in each other. We have so many incredible talents here, I'm constantly humbled. But we also need hubs for folks to congregate and develop a shared sense of community. I think no place has nailed that more than Pinhook. Everybody belongs there. Shoutouts to Kym Register!
You seem to be the glue among many musical collaborations in the Triangle, so let's talk about collaboration. What's your secret for developing and maintaining meaningful creative relationships?
It's repetitive because that's part my mantra. You have to love it. Love keeps you coming back and gives you strength to make it through the scarcities. I work with people who I feel their existence through their art. I feel that oneness that can only happen when someone is being true to that selves and honoring the fleeting nature of time with their voices. Speaking from somewhere deeper. Singers are always most inspiring for me. Starting right away with The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Those sessions changed my life completely. Put me on the right track. Both Jimmy "Jimster" Carter and Ricky McKinnie took me under their wing and gave me advice that is with me every song day. "You've done your homework. Now play it how you feel it". It's the best kind of advice because its simplicity offers endless opportunity in each present moment. What's more beautiful than what has been created in the exact moment of inspiration? I seek to share moments like that with other artists. I love working with Frazey Ford, Heather McEntire, Amy Ray, Amelia Meath, Tamisha Waden, Sister Lena Mae Perry, MC Taylor and Justin Vernon because they sing from their life. A pure expression. I have many more on my wishlist of course! Who would I be if I didn't follow in the footsteps of giants? They keep me looking up, keeps me practicing. All those things. Would love to work with more gospel living gospel legends, like Rance Allen or JoJo Wallace or Twinkie Clark. Would love love love to work with Cory Henry one day. His last Revival record is just incredible. Talk about a young master.
When you look back at your life thus far, what makes you proud?
I'm most proud of what we've held sacred all these years. By "we" I mean the people I grew up with. I look back on winters where we grew up and it was either get an indoor hobby or develop a drinking problem. We were all jazz kids. Stay inside and practice. During the hangs we're listening to the greats masters and dreaming of other worlds and times. It was all pretty naive and innocent but we held music sacred from the beginning. All the more superficial reasons some people get into music and scenes are strange to me still. But many of those same people don't stay in the game too long.
Alright, Phil, lay some concluding wisdom on me. Why does art matter?
These are difficult times we're seeing. Different than what I've seen in my own life, but previous generations are feeling echoes of the past with this current administration. Difficult times call on the people to rise and that is a path often led by artists. If there is something stirring inside you right now, as you read this, that longs to get out in the open, that may be your spirit trying to break through. Maybe you've denied it before because you felt unworthy, but this is the time to allow it. Honor yourself and thereby honor your community by letting that vibration pass through you, the vessel. For we are merely vessels. And it is all over so quickly, isn't it?