“Gimme Heartbreak” the first single from David Cook’s recently-dropped EP Chromance, jumpstarts with stuttering synths and percussive claps, building momentum with a subtle electric guitar chug and layers of keys until it erupts into a fountain of drum thumps and his unmistakably big voice on the chorus.
The season seven winner of American Idol has tinkered with electronica before, albeit melted atop his more typical alt-rock roots on his last studio album, 2015’s Digital Vein. As he settled into the studio to start work on a new project, he made a calculated move to dig in a bit deeper.
“I think after the last record, Digital Vein, I felt like I needed a new challenge,” Cook explains during my recent conversation with him. “I didn't want to get to the point where my records felt like paint-by-number. And I was thinking 'okay, how can I attack that? What are some things I could do?' At the time, I was kind of orbiting around the first Halsey record, Badlands, and I love some of the textures on [it]. I loved how dark that record is. At the same time, listening to Howard Stern [laughs], I found this artist Aurora and a song called 'Running with the Wolves.’ It kind of fell into the same vein, a dark pop song.”
Although Chromance’s ambient landscape pays homage to those moodier inspirations, it doesn’t go so far as to obfuscate Cook’s melodic sensibilities, nor does it constrain his stadium-sized vocals. Instead, it adds new colors to his palette without jettisoning the approach that has helped to build his musical career over the past couple of decades.
In fact, Cook may be making an even bigger gamble this spring as he trades in his six-string for stilettos in the principal role of Charlie Price in Kinky Boots on Broadway, playing opposite actor Wayne Brady and Pentatonix vocalist Kirstin Maldonado starting on April 3rd at the Al Hirschfield Theatre.
Meanwhile, Cook released Chromance’s second single “Ghost Magnetic” on March 1st, a haunting ballad that effectively showcases his penetrating tenor. After his Kinky Boots run ends on May 5th, he’s scheduled to appear in Washington, D.C. at Race for Hope-DC.
Grant Walters: You’ve discussed that Chromance is effectively a bookend on the first part of your music career. Tell me how you committed to this new sonic direction you wanted to pursue once you got in the studio to record.
David Cook: I sat down and just tried throwing stuff against the wall to see if anything stuck, kind of free writing. I started to look at the guitar a little differently. I'd always grown up on rock bands, and so the guitar was always the instrument. So I thought, 'what if it were just an instrument? Just a piece of the puzzle?'
I think that just kind of immediately opened the door for me. Not long after I made that decision, I went into a writing session and knocked out “Gimme Heartbreak” in about an hour. So, we were off to the races and the record came together rather quickly after that. And then it was a matter of getting in the studio and really getting nit-picky about what sounds we wanted to use to tell the story.
GW: When you were ready to start exploring those sounds, was it you spending a lot of time independently experimenting on synths, or was it a collaborative process?
DC: Some of it was just me sitting at home in my studio and noodling around with a lot of synth sounds, or saying 'you know, I've got this guitar part. Maybe it'd sound good on a Wurlitzer, or maybe it'd sound good on a Rhodes.' And literally just doing that, trial and error, trial and error, trial and error. The guy that engineered this EP, Andy Skib, who also engineered Digital Vein, was in my band for a long time—we were in a band together before Idol. So we kind of have this shorthand communication, and so I was able to go to him and say 'alright, I can't figure out how to get this sound, but this is kind of what I'm hearing.'
He and I have that line of communication open where he understood what I was saying and was able to help me get there. Andy's been a huge part of my music career over the last decade, certainly, but especially these last two records. He's helped me reach my creative vision a lot.
GW: I know a lot of people have been asking you about the cover of Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” on this EP, so I’m not going to focus on it specifically because I think it mostly speaks for itself. But you’ve mentioned you wanted to record it because of its social conscience. I get the sense from listening to your material that inclusion is important to you.
DC: Yeah, listen, I grew up on 90s alternative music, so I don't really get my rocks off playing music that doesn't have anything to say. And so I've always been on that wavelength in the music I listen to as a fan. Not to disparage this kind of music, but I don't go to clubs, so the music that talks about going to clubs doesn't really resonate with me [laughs]. I love songs that take you somewhere else, you know? I love songs that make you think, and so when I'm going after a cover, whether it be Phil Collins or anything else...we did Chris Isaak's “Wicked Game” on Digital Vein...
GW: Oh, man. “Wicked Game” is such a phenomenal song. I love Chris Isaak’s music.
DC: It's been dissected and covered twenty different ways, and I think that's the sign of a great song: when you can turn it on its head and it's still a great song. To touch on the Phil Collins song, I think it's such a topical thing right now. I mean, you watch the news for five minutes now...it just felt like it needed to be put out there either by me or somebody else. I think opinions in our society are manifested by the arts, and I've always believed that. If I can put my stamp on something and put it out into the world, and it gets someone a little closer to zen, then why the hell not?
GW: Let me expand on that a bit, then. What was the first song you heard where you were consciously aware that it was trying to communicate something deeper on a societal level? For me, it was Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and it made me stop and think ‘why is this person singing about poverty? Why is she trying to get me to think about that?’
DC: Man. For me, it was “Streets of Philadelphia,” the Springsteen song. I think for whatever reason...what's that phrase...'it hit me in the feels,’ I guess? [laughs] It just opened me up to another level of storytelling in song, and really building a sympathetic character to rally around. And to me that song was so co-dependent on the film [Philadelphia], as well, so I think they just made for natural bedfellows. I feel like that was the first song where the narrative really hit home.
GW: And let’s talk about Kinky Boots for a minute. What an amazing opportunity. I saw the show when it was on tour in Columbus a few years ago and I loved it. I think you’re going to be great as Charlie.
DC: Thanks! I hope so. We've been kind of circling each other for a couple of years. I think the first dialogue started right around the time that Digital Vein came out. The scheduling just didn't work. I thought the opportunity was gone, but then, I want to say maybe five or six months ago, I was having a conversation with management and we said 'you know, we should reach out. You never know, maybe there's an opportunity to try something again.'
So we [did], and they seemed super interested. I went and auditioned and it all happened real quick. But we were just talking about narratives and stories behind songs, and that show seems so topical right now. Inclusion and acceptance...that alone makes me excited to be a part of it, let alone the aspect of it being a new challenge. Which it is! Just to be a part of a collaborative, creative effort, and to be a part such an amazing cast from top to bottom, and to get to tell that story is a pretty big feather in my cap. So I'm definitely looking forward to it.
I just have to figure out how to dance in high heels, so we'll see how that goes [laughs].
GW: [laughs] Well, that’s what I was going to say. But you’re a performer, so even though this is new, you certainly have a lot of transferable skills to bring to the stage. What work do you envision you’re going to need to do to transform yourself from David Cook, the rock musician, to David Cook, Broadway star?
DC: [laughs] You know, I can sing and play guitar in front of any size crowd and it doesn't really bother me a whole lot anymore. But I have a huge social phobia of dancing in front of people. I have always had it, and I was somehow able to suppress it enough to get through the group numbers on Idol. I mean, even at weddings we're talking instant panic attack. So that's going to be the big test, if I can do that and not throw up and/or pass out.
GW: [laughs] I hope for your sake and the audience’s you don’t do both on stage. People will likely ask for their money back.
DC: [laughs] I hope not, too!
GW: [laughs] I can just see the reviews: “David Cook gave an excellent performance as Charlie Price, until he spontaneously vomited on the audience and fell down face-first…”
DC: [laughs] It was an artistic decision!
GW: I was talking with Lee DeWyze a few weeks ago about his new album and how the elements of storytelling and story arc figure into the equation when you’re crafting a record. Thinking about Chromance as a concept, was there something purposeful in the big picture you were thinking of as you constructed it?
DC: It was a conscious effort to make an EP rather than a full-length, really because I'd never done it before. I'm a big believer in albums. I really love having the time to really be able to tell a story from top to bottom. And I've been pretty adverse to EPs traditionally, and I was talking with another musician buddy of mine and I said 'you know, I don't know about [them], man. As a listener, we always want more.'
And he brought up a good analogy when he asked me 'do you read books?' And I said 'yeah, on occasion I'll be able to grab a book and finish it.' And he said 'well, an EP's just a short story, you know? It's an essay if you read a newspaper.'
That struck me. And all of a sudden, I got really excited about it, looking at a record like a short story. It allowed me to kind of trim the fat a little bit, oddly enough, going into the creative process. I felt like, 'alright, I want to get to this point as quickly as possible.' And so that kind of changed my perspective on the process a little bit.
As far as the track list, I knew I wanted “Circles” to close it. Everything else was malleable and could have gone a million different ways. But I felt like “Circles” had to close the record because I loved how that song made me feel. The end of that song falls of a cliff and it's so, by design, a little disjointed. It certainly doesn't feel like there's a resolution. As a listener, it would make me want to go back and listen again, even if just to feel some sense of ease. I love how that song leaves the listener just a little left of center.
After that, it just sort of came down to 'okay, what feels like a good lead-in?' So the order sort of worked backwards, which is unusual for me. Typically, I say 'I know how I want to open, and then we'll figure it out.' So this was kind of the mirror opposite.
GW: Alright, my last question is usually one of the toughest for artists to answer. But since our site is enamored with the album as an art form, what five records would you choose as your favorites?
DC: Led Zeppelin IV is on there, absolutely. I love, love, love, love that record. It's a compilation record, but I've been listening to it ad nauseam for the past month: The Very Best of Don Henley. I love The West Wing, and the episode where there's the shooting and Josh [Lyman] is shot and they play 'New York Minute'...
GW: …from The End of the Innocence! I love that album and that song.
DC: Just the minor chord progression, and there's a mono-synth note that kind of lives underneath. I love that song. So, there's two. Three more. Man. Anna Nalick has a great new record out right now called At Now, which is kind of rootsy, but I love it. I say that as if “rootsy” is bad. It's rootsy and I love it, how about that? That's better. Purely for work purposes, I'm listening to the Kinky Boots soundtrack a lot right now [laughs]...
GW: Well, that makes total sense. That’s research!
DC: Yeah, yeah. Just sort of to get my ducks in order. One my particular favorites, I listen to it for awhile, and then I go away from it, and then I end up coming back to it is Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails. That's far and away my favorite Nine Inch Nails record.