Face to face with James Cook
James Cook is an artist of various talents: singer, songwriter, producer, videomaker does everything he puts his hands on with a great deal of skill. After disbanding NEMO – the pioneering electro guitar band based in London, James moved to Berlin and started a solo career. In Berlin he recorded ‘The Dollhouse’ – a baroque pop album on which he teamed up with violinist and string arranger Anne Marie Kirby. In 2010 Cook’s solo album ‘Arts and Sciences’ followed to instant success of a catchy pop classic. This summer James presents ‘Reverse Engineering Vol. One’ – a collection of cover songs of his favourite musicians. About this album, life in Berlin and being a solo artist James talks in Rock Britain’s interview.
- ‘Reverse Engineering Vol. One’ is ready. How was the idea to record an album of covers born?
- I started playing cover songs acoustically only a couple of years ago, previously I had never been interested in doing this. I was concerned it would ‘taint’ my creativity. When I moved to Berlin and disbanded NEMO I wanted to do everything differently to before. So I started playing guitar, piano and learning other people’s songs, something I had never previously done in the 10 years I was in NEMO. This reopened creativity and my internal musical process. Something I felt i had lost during the previous few years in London. After I made Arts and Sciences, my debut solo album, I wanted to experiment with new musical ideas and processes for my second album, so I used the covers as a way to try new processes and musicians in preparation for the second solo album proper, which is now well underway.
- How did you like covering the tracks from your favourite musicians?
- I love these songs and artists, so it was a real challenge for me to not ruin them! Equally, to do something unique and different was also my main focus. I tried to let the songs develop naturally through my own personal and musical filters, as well as let the sheer joy in performing them shine through. Anne Marie Kirby’s string arrangements of David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ are especially unique and beautiful, I think.
– Have you got any ideas for more volumes of cover albums? Whose tracks would you like to cover most of all?
Yes, I am working on ‘Volume II’ in my spare time. Expect Psychedelic Furs, The Auteurs and Edwyn Collins amongst the featured artists.
– There’s also your solo album ‘Ausland’ due for release at the end of the year. Could you tell a bit more about this record?
- Well the first thing I can tell you is that it probably WON”T be called ‘Ausland’ after all. I have decided it is a very English record, full of strings, horns, guitars and satirical popular culture references. It’s the most personal, political and culturally ambitious album I have made so far. I initially wanted to call it ‘Ausland’ because it was written and recorded all over the world. South America, Los Angeles, Prague, Berlin, London.
But ultimately, it is an English record, and I think I have another title, but I can’t tell you yet, because I might change my mind again!
- Apart from making music, you also produce your videos. How do you like this side of music art? While making videos, what’s your main aim: just to present a good video to your viewers or to highlight messages in a song?
- The video production side of my creativity has always been there, I produced all the NEMO videos before my recent ones, but since working closely with and being inspired by the videomaking skill of my friend Chris Corner (from IAMX) in the last two years I have learnt to become more ‘hands on’ with the video making process. It’s hard work, but very rewarding, and very much a fun thing to do after you have finished producing a song. As long as I can come up with interesting ideas, I will always continue to get increasingly involved in the technical and directorial aspect of videomaking, as well as developing the conception/performance aspects.
I have just shot and directed the video for ‘ASHES TO ASHES’, which will be out next month, once I have edited it! It was such fun to make and I think this will come across when people watch it.
– You moved to Berlin a few years ago. Comparing music opportunities and music scenes in the UK and Germany, what are the main differences?
- Well, when I first started coming to Berlin in the mid noughties with IAMX and later, NEMO, Berlin really felt like a Utopian inspirational land of opportunity and creativity. The last 5 years here have certainly been instrumental in my renewed appetite for songwriting and self-sufficiency. However, I fear it is now becoming over saturated in much the same way that other Western cities have suffered. Media overkill is an international problem, and I have recently discovered that, no matter where you are in the world, you can be poisoned by such negativity. However, rather than let this problem drag me down, I have learnt to follow my creative instincts, and, subsequently, I have found myself using this very problem as subject matter for my lyrics melodies.
- How did moving to another country influence you as an artist?
- It allowed me the time and cultural space to explore my Englishness in ways I had hitherto forgotten.
– As a solo artist who used to be in a band, what do you like most of all about being a solo artist in comparison to being in a band?
Well, I don’t have to run my ideas by three other people for consensual solutions. Although it takes longer to write, I am happier that the ideas I arrive at are a purer representation of my vision.
But, I still get to have a band, It’s just that I am more certain of what I want, so the process is faster and much less combatative. Tom Marsh is a fantastic drummer and arranger, as is my long time friend and collaborator, violinist Anne Marie Kirby. Knowing that i have such great people to work with on the arrangements helps me formulate more ambitious and interesting ideas at the writing stage.
– How did you shape your own sound as a solo musician? What helped you to do it?
- My limitations and abilities needed to be tested, as well as rediscovering ideas and tastes I had suppressed over the years. Chris Corner helped me find confidence in my abilities and acquire a technical confidence that enabled me to experiment more with my songs and ideas. Then working with the new band of musicians helped me flesh out my vision in new ways.
- What’s the best atmosphere for you to write music in?
- Daytime, positive mind, the entire place to myself, and as much time as I need to finish an idea. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes it takes 15 years!
- Apart from album releases, what are your plans for the future?
- I am keen to produce other artists. I have co produced other bands along the way, but I am currently working with an Italian artist called ‘MARTI’ for his third album, which is my first full production job. We are about halfway through at the moment, it has become another passion and drive for me, and something I am very keen to do more of in the future. Music videos and acting are other things I also enjoy, so I keep myself busy both creatively and professionally.