'Vessel of Love,' due January 26 on Merge, is a collection of abstract, reggae-leaning love songs, born from a period of anxiety and depression.
Photo by Ollie Grove
If you ask Hollie Cook what kind of singer she is, the UK polymath will simply say “pop.” Cook, whose newest solo album (her third), Vessel of Love, comes out on Merge Records this Friday, doesn’t seem terribly concerned what people call her but she knows the industry well enough to know that if you don’t define yourself, people will do it for you and someday their snap judgement will be in your obituary. So Cook decided years ago, that her genre was “tropical pop” and that’s the prism through which she’d shine.
The easiest touchstone for Hollie Cook’s sound, though Vessel of Love arguably being a departure, is reggae music. Mojo Magazine listed Cook’s 2014 album, Twice (that’s the album’s name…it wasn’t listed twice), in its top reggae albums of all time. When I asked her about that inarguably impressive accolade, she lightly says, “Yeah…well remembered. I may have been around 199. That’s cool. That’s pretty excellent.” She was number 31, and one of the few women (and frankly, one of the few living musicians) on the list. But Cook’s modesty doesn’t ring false. If she’s not going to worry about boxes people may put her in, then it’s only fair that she not take the praise to heavily either.
“I don’t know exactly where I fit in to the reggae thing but I do think I fit into it somewhere,” Cook says. “But I feel like that about all areas of life. Socially, musically, I’ve always been somewhere between all of the things that I’m into. I guess I fit into the reggae category…as well as any other.”
As with most of her answers, she laughs immediately after saying this—not in an apologetic way, more to express that the songs exist, what else can she say? She pivots a bit, saying, “I also think, maybe more with this record the diehard reggae fans would not consider me to be reggae. With the main sound, it’s got way more electronic influence. Way more synths…but while I’m saying this I could say that about my last record so I don’t know that it’s a departure…” She laughs again. “I’m making this up as I go along.”
Vessel of Love almost didn’t happen. After years of straight touring, Cook was feeling entirely devoid of inspiration. “I wasn’t feeling very creative—[I was] starting to feel a bit hopeless and sorry for myself,” she says. “I just stopped. I said ‘Ok. That’s fine. I’ll listen to myself. There’s clearly not the right time.’” But eventually she gave herself the time to naturally regroup. “When you’re done with [touring], you want to sleep for a while and collect your feelings and emotions,” she explains. “I guess I was feeling anxious and depressed. I had to ride that out.”
It took Youth, the man who, among roughly a million other essential releases and collaborations, co-produced The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” coming on as a producer to invigorate the process. “With my songwriting—as with probably all my actions or feelings—I store them up for a really long time and then I blurt them all out in one go,” Cook says. “It got to the point where I felt I was ready to make an album. I really didn’t want to for a long time. I was feeling lost for lack of a better word. I didn’t know where I was going to go next or who I wanted to work with. That posed a problem. Process starts when I’ve found a collaborator.”
Once Cook had her working partner, the album took shape in the course of just a couple months, with the help of Cook’s touring band of the last four years, General Roots, and some of biggest names of ‘80s-till-now dub, reggae, and post-punk. “A few of the songs, I don’t mind saying, were Jah Wobble cast-offs that he didn’t end up using so I stole them and wrote music over them instead,” Cook says. “An accidental collaboration, so it makes sense for him to play bass on those songs also. Keith Levine on one (“Stay Alive”) of those songs as well….I’m basically Johnny Rotten aren’t I?” Unlike many artists who feel the need to deny any sharing of the work, lest they get written off as mere faces, Hollie Cook proudly and generously shares credit. She practically delights in the talents of others. Even the drums on Vessel of Love are credited to a Prince Fatty/Horseman drum package (here’s the link if you want to make your own Hollie Cook album), tying Cook’s newest project with the beloved work of past collaborators. She calls the drums “truly glorious.”
Cook says this album represents her at her “truest self.” New Wave and rocksteady and dub collide with Cook’s love of ‘60s girl-group melody backed with Sade-esque melancholia. Skittering snare punctuates but never punctures heavy dub bass. When the album skas, it’s more the romantic, mournfully stripped down but sophisticated ska of The Specials “Ghost Town” than any third, fourth, or, god help us, fifth wave revival. This is lovers rock, so leave your full sleeves and neck tattoos in Orange County thanks. Synths waver over the rhythm, conjuring up multiple meanings of “space.” In Cook’s world, there’s a fine line between dreaming and walking on the moon.
Not wanting to fall into the condescending trap of other journalists, I hesitate to ask about influence drawn from being in the last incarnation of Ari Up’s The Slits. But Cook is delighted to talk about her time in that band. “I was about 19 to about 24. I don’t know if it’s conscious but I think everything about being in The Slits has led me to where I am now and my general approach to how I proceed and write music,” she says, “Every now again I think ‘What would Ari do?’ The question has to be asked. It comes up for me, inside my own head.”
What Hollie Cook seems most loathe to discuss is the exact traumas behind Vessel of Love. She alludes to being depressed before the album’s writing a number of times, but seems unwilling to bleed in print when the songs might suffice. This is a very unfashionable approach to being interviewed. “As humans, we’re all riddled with these weird idiosyncrasies I wouldn’t say this album has cured me but it’s a product of having gone through a pretty tough time emotionally,” she says. “I just tried to be as honest about that as possible. It’s the most honest record.”
I, of course, ask her about the pressures to sing about What Is Going On in 2017/18 and, she, again laughing, responds in a manner either respectfully guarded or totally honest. “There’s so many other things that you can write about that, somehow, I choose not to, whether that’s conscious or subconscious I’m still not sure," she says. "I’ve found a subject matter that works for me, that I’ve found enjoyable to express and interpret in different ways. I don’t set out to write love songs and even if they’re not love songs, that’s still how they’re lyrically executed. I’m just so full of the stuff. I don’t feel pressure to do what is expected. It doesn’t really matter what other people think…”
Hollie Cook doesn’t have to pin herself down. She takes what she needs from the aural landscape and gives back what she’s able to. She is a pop singer who makes songs for people to love or cry or just dance to. There are few choices more generous.