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When David Cook moved to Nashville in 2012, the expectation was that this singer-songwriter from the Heartland would emphasize the rootsy side of his sensibility, and sure enough, he had immediate success co-writing country tunes, including the Top-20 single “Kiss You Tonight” for David Nail in 2014. But new album Digital Vein is something else entirely, with Cook’s powerful voice and dynamic guitar work knifing through vibrant soundscapes that boldly juxtapose man-made grooves and electronic textures.
“Working in Nashville opened me up creatively to trying different things,” Cook explains. “Writing for country acts has been freeing in the sense that I can bring out that side of my creativity, and it brought some freshness to the other side of what I like to do. So I ran with it, going into the creative process with the blinders off. I just wanted to try things, and there was no formula. Honestly, I didn’t even know if I was gonna make another record; I decided to just write and have fun and see what happens.”
As an experiment, Cook applied what he’d learned from working with Music City craftsmen in that time-honored narrative vein to the material he was writing for his own use. “It was fun and a new challenge to try to attack my own songwriting in that way,” he begins, then says with a laugh, “In hindsight, what the hell was I thinking trying to take this on? But it ended up being an amazing process, and it led to a record that I’d put up there with my prouder moments.”
Asked why he decided to title the album Digital Vein, Cook explains, “My last independent record, back in 2006, was Analog Heart, and after my major-label journey, with circumstances being what they are, this record is certainly a progression. I don’t think it’s very much like Analog Heart at all, but the process of putting it together was similar in the sense that I worked with a very small team, and I put a lot of myself into every aspect of it. It felt like a throwback in that regard, so I wanted the two records to be connected, if only in name.”
Analog Heart and Digital Vein bookend a tumultuous decade in Cook’s life and career, as, after fronting a Kansas City-based bar band for 10 years (“We’d be lucky to get 10 people,” he quips, “and most of them would be family members”), he accompanied his younger brother Andrew to auditions for American Idol, auditioned himself on a whim and wound up winning the competition in 2008. Released later that year, his self-titled major label debut album sold 1.5 million copies, and though the follow-up, 2011’s This Loud Morning, debuted in the Top 10, he wound up as an indie artist once again. As one door closed, another opened, and Cook forged a new career as a songwriter after moving to Nashville in 2012, but he continued to tour as well, as his personal songbook grew thicker. In 2014, he began the process that led to the recording of Digital Vein.
Cook recorded the new album in his home studio, working with his longtime friend and onetime bandmate Andy Skib, who engineered, and the rhythm section from his touring band, playing the bulk of the parts himself. “The whole thing,” he says, “was an experiment to see if (A) I could make a record this way, and (B) if I could enjoy doing it this way. I’m a control freak, and to have this level of control has been empowering. It was definitely a different process for me, but I can’t recall ever having more fun making a record.”
The project was funded in part by contributions from fans through a highly successful PledgeMusic campaign. “We’ve had an awesome experience with PledgeMusic,” says Cook. “The best part is that fans have become a bigger part of the process than in records past. The hope is that, by continuing to build those relationships, we’ll be able to hit the ground running, and ultimately get this music into more people’s ears. I was a little apprehensive about that dynamic at first, but it turns out that it’s a great way to humanize yourself to your audience. It’s nice to tear down that wall, because the end game is that people hopefully will feel more connected to the humanity in the record.”
Humanity pulses through Digital Vein, from impassioned opener “Heartbeat” to the haunting metaphysical question of “Where Do We Go.” On the first single, the rocking “Criminals,” written with Nashville song-smith Blair Daly, Cook presents his own take on the classic theme of lovers on the run, a notion that has long transfixed the American consciousness, from Bonnie and Clyde to Bruce Springsteen. “We started with a Wallflowers ‘One Headlight’ kind of groove and went down that path,” Cook points out. “It’s a story that’s been told before for sure, the idea of young lovers trying to beat the odds – it’s you against the world, and you’re gonna make it work, no matter what. That’s what I wanted the cover of this book to look like.”
There’s a duality on the album between ardently devotional love songs and others shot through with a dark undercurrent, enabling Cook’s subtly intense cover of the Chris Isaak classic “Wicked Game” to function not simply as a vocal showcase but also as a thematic link between these two vectors.
“Everybody goes through experiences of love and loss, and I’m no different,” says Cook. “In that regard, it’s natural to pull from that database for inspiration. But what I enjoyed the most was pulling from outside sources, like reading a newspaper article or seeing a painting that just hits a nerve. There are songs on this record that have to do with subject matter that I’ve never personally experienced, but things that have inspired me all the same. When I pay attention to the peripherals, it leads to records like this one.”
Another highlight, the languid yet propulsive “Better Than Me,” was written by Chase Foster, but Cook fully inhabits it, delivering the self-lacerating lyric knowingly and with beguiling nuance. “Killer song,” says Cook. “It had been on my radar for a couple years, and we were finally able to get it cut.”
The album’s most personal song is the poignant “Home Movies.” As Cook recalls, “Not too long ago, I had the chance to look over old photos with my family, and that brought back memories of my brother Adam. The experience got me in a certain mindset, and I consciously wrote that song about growing up and spending time with my older brother, who passed away of brain cancer in 2009. He’s been a part of every record I’ve made, but with ‘Home Movies‘ especially, there’s a tangible aspect.”
Since Adam’s death, David has devoted himself to fighting the disease, to the extent that philanthropy is now as important to him as his music. “I think I would have been involved either way,” he says. “But seeing what he went through, and what his wife and his kids all went through, touched me deeply. And that’s another avenue where the fans have been insane. We crossed the million-dollar threshold last December, which is unfathomable to me still. Records are going to sell or not sell, but raising that money for cancer research puts everything in perspective – it makes you realize what really matters.”
Cook becomes reflective as he looks back on his journey, with its ecstatic highs and devastating lows. “I have no regrets,” he says of his Idol experience. “It has ultimately let me do some amazing things in the last seven years, culminating in this record. Who knows where I’d be right now if weren’t for all that. Prior to the show, I was tending bar to pay the rent, and I was a really bad bartender. So to have the resources that I have now – to be able to make a record this way – it’s huge. I’ve still got a platform and an avenue that most don’t. So, yeah, no regrets.
“Redemption is a weird term,” he continues, “but I don’t think that’s really what this record is. I see it as a different chapter. The best way I can sum it up is that, succeed or fail, I’m going to fall on my own sword – which is nerve-racking as hell, but it’s also super-exciting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It may sound like lip service to say it, but I really do love this record, and if I loved it any less, I don’t know that I’d be putting it out. I’m treating this record like this is it. Every album from here on out could be the last one, so I’d better swing for the fences, and that’s what we did on this one.”
For Jillette Johnson the journey has been as integral to her musical experience as the destination. Jillette, who began taking music lessons and penning songs as a child, has been performing live since she was 12, captivating audiences with her sultry, thoughtful piano-driven tunes. The musician, now 23, has spent the last decade cultivating her sound and defining her unique perspective. When she moved to New York City from her small town of Pound Ridge, NY at 18, Jillette was already familiar with the city and its clubs, from Sidewalk Cafe to The Bitter End to Rockwood Music Hall.
In early 2012, Jillette inked a deal with Wind-Up Records, who were drawn in by her standout track "Cameron," an inspirational number that explores the struggle of a transgendered person. The song appeared on the singer's five-track EP, Whiskey & Frosting, which came out in August 2012, a prelude to her debut album Water In A Whale, out June 25, 2013. Culled from six months worth of recording sessions at Wind-Up's New York studio, the album traces Jillette's experiences and ideas about living in the city and being young in today's society. She finished the album fall 2012, just before going out on tour, and as it turned out those weeks on the road shifted the musician's sensibilities.
"There's this funny thing that happens when you go on the road," Jillette says. "Because you're not around the people that you're normally around and you're in a different environment and you're constantly being creative and putting out things. Your voice starts to change, both literally and figuratively. I just started growing really rapidly and my perspective started changing a lot. I got back two weeks before Christmas and I knew that we had to have everything done by the first of the year. So I had six months to make the record and two weeks to change everything. A lot of artists don't get that opportunity, to be able to have the album that they made and come back and make tweaks. That's pretty rare and I got to do it."
The final album, which features the five tracks found on Whiskey & Frosting, centers on Jillette's soaring vocals and the sparse, haunting piano lines she wrote to accompany them. Produced by Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne) and Michael Mangini (Joss Stone, David Byrne), the album reveals Jillette's pensive reflections on the world around her, all of which lead to a deeper understand of self-identity. "Cameron," the disc's lead single, was written both from personal experience with someone the musician knows and from the idea of what it means to grapple with who you are. The glowing number focuses on what it means to be authentic to one's self, a universal theme.
"I do have someone in my life that's transgendered and I've learned a lot from this person," Jillette says. "But I think I actually wrote 'Cameron' more about myself and about that feeling of being alien in your own skin. It's been really awesome to play that song around the country and meet people who share stories that may have to do with being transgendered or may have to do with feeling a little bit different."
The real power comes from those songs about the musician herself, however and the rest of the album follows in tone. "When the Ship Goes Down," a hushed ballad, plays with the idea of the immortality you feel when you're young while the sultry "Bassett Hound" offers an unbalanced account of unrequited love, based on, as Jillette says, "every time I showed too many of my cards and wanted someone too much." The ethereal "Pauvre Coeur" treads similar ground, excising the anger the singer felt about a relationship that started to "devour" her. "True North," a soaring and epic number written in that urgent two-week period last winter, touches on what it means to return home, a fulcrum for the musician's ideas about her identity. "It's about coming home and accepting the failures that you endure along the way," Jillette says. "And realizing that you're gonna have a place to come home to, and that's the home inside your own head when all the other voices go away. Because they're not you so they don't care enough to stay that long. You're still going to have your own voice and that's what coming home means to me."
Jillette, who's toured with Delta Rae among others, brings her impassioned live aesthetic onto the album, infusing each number with a sense of intimacy and fervor. The songs shift from light-hearted buoyancy of "Bassett Hound" to the heavy urgency of "Cameron," showcasing a viable array of musical – and lyrical – inspiration. For Jillette, whose years of experience and practice have set her up for what's to come, the goal is to bring these songs to life for as many people as possible.
"The next year or two I think are wide open, in terms of what amazing things could happen," the singer says. "And I think it's just up to me to work hard every day and have a lot of luck. I hope to really build my live show. I can't get to hung up on what exactly will happen. It's really just about every day playing my heart out and connecting with fans over human experiences."
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