Many of country music's legendary artists – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and on down the line – have used the hard times and hard luck once present in their own lives as a crucible to create great music. What Elizabeth Cook has been through in recent years can stack up against what any of those figures had to endure, and what she's done with it, on new album Exodus of Venus (Agent Love/Thirty Tigers), is equally stunning.
Since the release of her previous full-length album, 2010's Welder, Cook has seen close family members pass away and her family's farmhouse destroyed by fire, been divorced and diagnosed with a pre-bipolar condition, and gone to rehab (more because of stress than any specific addiction, she told Rolling Stone Country). But Exodus of Venus also addresses her new relationship with Dexter Green, who was her boyfriend before signing on to produce the album, in the rollicking honky-tonk tune “Straitjacket Love.”
Musically, Exodus of Venus is also the sort of album where the most upbeat song is probably the jazzy, sarcastic “Methadone Clinic Blues,” a continuation of Welder's “Heroin Addict Sister.” Elsewhere, such as “Broke Down In London On the M25”; the raw and erotic title track; or “Tabitha Tuder's Mama,” about a girl from Cook's neighborhood who went missing, it's often brooding and atmospheric, drawing much more heavily on rock and R&B than Welder or 2007's much more country-sounding Balls. The tone also is a stark contrast to the bubbly, off-the-wall personality Cook shows off on her Sirius/XM program, Apron Strings, which airs 3-7 p.m. CT weekdays on the Outlaw Country channel, or on her numerous visits to David Letterman's old late-night show. But as Cook recently told The Wall Street Journal, as her life kept changing, so did her approach to songwriting.
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“I think my sense of prose or poetry or narrative or whatever you want to call it is always indirectly related to my experience,” she says. “That's just my particular style. Maybe I just don't have much imagination, I don't know [chuckles]. But I saw myself commenting on the real world and my place in it.”
“And I think it's been the greatest source of therapy for me, just the expression,” she says. “Some people journal, and I guess songwriting is my form of journaling. It's just a way of processing.”
Although the reviews have been glowing, nothing new for Cook, more gratifying to her here has been her fans' reaction – “everyday people listening and digging it,” she says. Promoting a record that captures and comments on such a difficult and tumultuous time in her life presents its own set of challenges, she says.
“I'm just starting to enter that zone,” admits Cook, 43. “Because of doing a lot of press, the sort of having to reflect a lot is kind of making it sink in on another level that it hadn't before, because I hadn't had time.
“It's just slow, and I'm still in shock in a lot of ways,” she adds.
However, Cook says she wrote most of the songs on the album relatively quickly once settling into her new home. (She had already written a few.) The basic tracks were recorded very quickly, in three days, she adds. Besides Green, an alum of the Manhattan School of Music Cook had known around Nashville for years, the cast of musicians includes bassist Willie Weeks (Eric Clapton, George Harrison); drummer Matt Chamberlain (Edie Brickell, Pearl Jam); steel guitarist Jesse Aycock, on loan from friend and frequent touring partner Todd Snider's band, Hard Working Americans; and, on keyboards, Ralph Lofton, who spent 12 years on BET's Bobby Jones Gospel. Cook found Lofton (whom she calls “just boss”) at a church in north Nashville, while Weeks and Chamberlain had never met before working on her record.
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“When you have musicianship at the level that we had, it just doesn't take long,” she says. “There's no repetition trying to get a magic take. Every take is a magic take when you've got that cast of musicians.”
Monday, Cook's schedule allows her a rare mid-tour day off. After playing McGonigel's Mucky Duck Sunday night, she'll be at Tomball's Main Street Crossing on Tuesday. She knows exactly how she plans to spend it, too.
“We will be at a spa in the Houston area,” she promises.
Elizabeth Cook performs at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, and 8 p.m. Tuesday at Main Street Crossing, 111 West Main in Tomball. See respective venue sites for ticketing information.