David Cook is back. With his first album of new material in four years, released via PledgeMusic, and a tour that kicks off Sept. 30, the season 7 winner of American Idol is ready to return to the Billboard charts.
The title of Cook’s latest album, Digital Vein, circles back to the name of his pre-Idol debut set, Analog Heart. Billboard sat down with Cook to talk about the genesis of his latest release, how he feels about going out on the road and his thoughts about American Idol coming to an end.
When did you first come up with a vision for Digital Vein?
I moved to Nashville in 2012. I’d done a little bit of writing prior to moving to see if I still enjoyed it and, on the off chance that I did, to keep the creative wheels spinning. I started writing for other people for a while. David Nail’s song (“Kiss You Tonight,” a 2014 release co-written by Cook that peaked at No. 17 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart) was my third co-write after I moved there, so I hit the jackpot pretty early. I remember thinking I’ll start writing with a record in mind and see how far I get, knowing full well that I might not finish. I think [the 2011 album] This Loud Morning was, in hindsight, such a huge undertaking, on top of all the personal stuff with [my brother] Adam dying. I didn’t enjoy making This Loud Morning as much as I could have. So I wanted to get back to music being fun. Digital Vein was an experiment to see whether or not I had it in me. And I’m glad I did.
Did you ask yourself how you were going to make this album different from your previous albums?
Yes, I wanted this album to feel different. I wanted to take my musical sensibilities and then push the envelope. That’s evident in the first single, “Criminals.” There’s a lot of programming that really pushes the pulse of that song. Two records ago I wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to do that. When people ask what genre is this record, I say it’s pop/rock and it’s probably more pop than anything I’ve done but it’s still 60-40 in favor of rock. It’s just me trying to write another chapter of the book. I didn’t want chapter three to read like chapter two.
What was the writing process like? Did the songs flow, or take a long time to compose?
Every record has these stories of the one song that came together super-quick. And another song that you had to have three writing sessions to iron out. “Home Movies” came together pretty quickly, and I think that was because I had a lyrical concept that was inspiring to me. I knew where I wanted the music to sit sonically. And I wrote it with [Better Than Ezra’s] Kevin Griffin, who I’ve got a rapport with, so the how-do-you-do’s got pushed aside and we went right to work. Songs like “Broken Windows” came together pretty quickly, although that’s the song that changed the most from demo to finished product. The demo was acoustic guitar-heavy; the final product is not. “Heartbeat” took a little while, more so in the production process than the writing process. Being the album opener, it had to be perfect. I’ve never worked harder on a record, not just in the writing but this time wearing the producer hat and having to take the vision that I had for each song and see it through even when you’re hitting brick walls. Ultimately it is such a gratifying record for me because I enjoyed it. It revitalized my desire to want to make music for a living, which I think I needed.
Did you know from the beginning that you were going to produce the album?
There was a discussion about bringing on other producers. I think ultimately a little bit of the control freak in me came out. I really wanted that challenge, having not produced a record on this level before — I co-produced my first solo record before Idol. I was lucky that I had the experiences with Rob Cavallo and Matt Serletic, and I looked at producers that I admire, like Butch Walker and Aaron Sprinkle.
Was there anything about producing the album that surprised you?
I like to work quickly and get it done. And then I’ll go back and tweak things. But producing a record is an immersive process. Mentally, it was one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done, because you can’t have “shiny keys” syndrome. But ultimately we got Digital Vein. I’m so proud of the end result because I know how hard I worked and I know how hard my engineer Andy Skib and the writers worked. To pull the curtain back and see how hard it is to make a record, and to know that we have a finished product, is big.
What was the time frame from start to finish?
The first song that made the record was written in 2010-2011. We started principal production in 2014. We did drums with my drummer Nick Adams at Dorian Crozier’s studio in Franklin, Tenn., and then at my studio in Nashville.
You have a deep and passionate fan base. Do you consider them when you’re creating an album?
I hope fans can find something in this record for themselves the way that I did. To be able to connect with these songs was something I put a lot of importance on, like I do every record. My fans have been so supportive and loyal the last seven or eight years, I really wanted a record I could give to them and that I could be proud of and hopefully they can be proud of. It takes a lot in an industry that is constantly moving to commit to something like this and I don’t take that lightly at all.
When did you know “Criminals” would be the first single?
It took a minute. I wanted the first single to be the perfect door to open to the rest of the record and I think of “Criminals” as that. It’s got the perfect tempo to it — the song had some energy right out of the gate. Some of the programming elements in the song represent where the album is at. Sonically, I think every song has its own identity, but that song felt like a good introductory paragraph.
I wrote “Criminals” with Blair Daly not long after I moved to Nashville. The demo is OK, it was like a really clean guitar part doing the main gallop riff, it built a little, but nowhere near where the finished product ended up. When we had the demo we felt like maybe it would make the cut, and as we got into the production of the song, something came out that none of us anticipated. It kind of snuck up on us, in the best way possible.
You mentioned “Home Movies,” which is such a personal song. What inspired the lyrics?
It’s a small moment but there’s a poignant memory I have of Adam, my little brother [Andrew] and my dad traveling through Indiana. We had an opportunity to see Adam at this hotel parking lot off the highway. That’s where the first line comes from, “Chasing ghosts in a hotel parking lot.” The idea of watching home movies and being nostalgic and looking back on your life as a family, your life as an individual, the song comes from that. I was inspired by the idea of looking back but not in a melancholy way, I think more in an appreciative way. My family and I lost Adam over six years ago and I don’t know that you ever come to terms with it. But every so often as you go on the journey, it’s nice to put a flag in the sand and say, this is a moment. “Home Movies” is a flag in the ground. This is my opportunity to look back and feel good about it.
Digital Vein includes a remake of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” How did that track make the final cut?
That was a big hurdle for me. Historically, I’ve never been crazy about putting a cover on an album. Andy Skib and I reworked that song purely for a TV sync. I had no inclination to put it on a record. We finished the song and I love how it ended up. I listened to a lot of stuff as inspiration for this record, like Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack, and what I loved about those acts specifically is that they created moods for each song. Especially with Nine Inch Nails, the mood almost wraps around you. It’s a really immersive experience for me listening to that kind of music. When we finished “Wicked Game” it felt like that to me. And then I thought, can I write an original like that, can I top it? That’s the thing about great songs. You can rework them and they’re still going to be great songs. That song is a prime example. Sonically, it’s different from Chris Isaak’s original version.
Your tour kicks off on Sept. 30 at one of my favorite places in the world, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. What do you think of their theater?
We’ve been lucky enough to play that room a few times. It’s one of my favorite rooms to play. It’s great acoustically and sonically. The audience they bring in is always super-intense and super-invested. If you walk through the museum quickly, you’re going to see some cool instruments. But if you really immerse yourself in the museum, you realize that each item they have on display has a story behind it that is integral to where music is at now. To be able to start our tour there is awesome. It’s fitting. You walk through that place and you can’t help but love music. This record has reignited my love for music, so to be able to start a tour there and tie those things together, is apt.
Are you looking forward to the tour?
The initial run is going to be two months, then we’ll go out again. I like being on the road. I think the days of me going out for a year straight are probably over, but never say never. I put a lot of myself in the music that I write and then to take that work and present it and get some feedback on it, is an important part of any process. I’m not hugely into the idea of being famous, in general, but I really do enjoy being famous between stage left and stage right. The other stuff is peripheral but I love being on stage and being able to entertain people. Without that aspect of this, Digital Vein doesn’t get finished.
Finally, how do you feel about American Idol coming to an end in 2016?
It’s obviously sad. It’s a bummer to see a platform like that go away. But it might be time to step away for a while, reassess and allow people to miss it. Hopefully it could come back and be a platform again. What it’s done for me and countless others, I don’t think that can be quantified. The industry has shifted from when I first got into it seven years ago, to where it’s easier now to get people to listen, but it’s harder to get people to pay attention. Idol was a way to get people to pay attention and give people a voice who may not have had the opportunity before. What it did for people like me is impressive, and that’s such an understatement. I have a career doing something I love because of that show and that is not a small thing.