For years now, Ian Cooke has been loved by many here in Denver, not only for his exotic and captivating musical style that has reached new heights on his latest release, The Fall I Fell, but for his bright smile and warm nature. With influences that range from Tosca Tango Orchestra, Rufus Wainright, to Tori Amos, Gershwin and the Shins, the spotlight on The Fall shines on his Latin tinged vocals and the singing, wailing of Rebecca, his cello.
Within the beating heart of each song, the rhythms of unrequited love pulse in extraordinary and bittersweet ways. And although the lyrics open up to some painful times in Ian’s life, the songs are anything but bitter or dark, an instead, play out with glorious harmonies and orchestration.
Ian is one of 29 other musicians performing at the A Moveable Feast music festival, so we took this opportunity to do an interview, which is long overdue.
Kaffeine Buzz: Music can be a cathartic experience for both the songwriter and the listener. How has writing and performing the songs from The Fall I Fell allowed you to process that part of your life?
Ian Cooke: Writing these songs has kept me sane. I don’t know how else I would process my problems. There’s nothing like turning what ails you into art. Performing is a different kind of therapy than writing. It feels good, but sometimes it’s really hard to pour my heart out to complete strangers – or worse yet, to friends who know of the situations I’m singing about.
KB: Did you at any time feel fearful about being too honest, or was it more freeing?
IC: This was my way of proclaiming my love for someone. Yes, I was scared, but also confident that I needed to say these things, and that this was the right way to do it. Although I want the person I am addressing in the songs to understand everything in my head, I definitely held back a lot of details that were just too personal. When I sit down to write lyrics, I start with the most clear and basic statements on the subject and then flesh out the details, which usually get turned into metaphors. These songs are about a specific relationship, but I want listeners to be able to apply them to their own circumstances.
KB: Do you ever reach back into your younger years, for any experiences you went through as a child or young man, to inspire your songwriting?
IC: Most of the songs I write are about what’s going on in my life currently, but there is one new song I am writing about an encounter I had with a bully in middle school. Another one I’m working on is about a cassowary who wishes she could fly. Flying is something I was pretty obsessed with as a kid. I guess I still am. If I lost my hearing, I would spend my time learning about aeronautics and try to build a pedal powered helicopter.
KB: Your music has a modern indie rock/pop touch to it, but also feels retro, beckoning back to the 20s with almost a ragtime feel. Do you ever listen to music from that era, or were these melodies just bouncing around in your head?
IC: There are elements from almost any genre that I love. I can’t say I’m a 20s or ragtime connoisseur – I don’t have many recordings from those eras, but I’m sure I’m influenced to some degree by everything I’ve ever heard. I do like the singers Edith Piaf and Nina Simone a fair bit.
KB: Where did the whimsical touches on “All Of Us” come from?
IC: I imagined a sort of burlesque/cabaret setting for “All of Us” with a line of feathered glittery ladies linked at their elbows kicking their legs to the beat. I would have liked to carry the sound out entirely with a sassy, shameless horn section, but I really wanted to push my voice and the cello to play all the roles on this album.
KB: How did you decide to use the same melody line for “The Rot” to wrap up the album, which matched the album’s opener, “Music”?
IC: The end of “The Rot” is kind of a coda or recap of the album. I like the idea of themes appearing and reappearing like they do in movies and musicals. Themes from both “Music” and “Trouble Process Report” come back on “The Rot,” and “Vasoon” is referred to again lyrically. Since The Fall I Fell is a concept album, I wanted to be sure the songs were tied to each other.
KB: Where did you record the album? The echoing effects on songs like “Birds of a Feather” make it sound as if it was recorded in a church. Was that intentional?
IC: Robert Ferbrache recorded the vocals and mastered the album at Absinthe Studio. He and Ian O. and I jointly decided what effects would fit on certain parts of certain songs. The different effects came from using different microphones and computer programs. Bob is a magician with sound. For “Birds,” I did ask him to make it sound like I was singing in a cathedral, and he pulled up a reverb effect on his computer and also did some hand-sound shaping within the program.
KB: Do you still go back to the piano for inspiration, aside from having a piano part within one of your songs?
IC: About half of the music I write is on the piano. Often, a song will start with a chord progression on the piano and is transferred to cello later. Because piano was my first instrument, it is easier for me to write and sing melodies while playing a progression on it rather than the cello. There are actually seven songs on the album that have piano or keyboard-related instruments on them, but most of those parts are just decorative add-ons among many layers, so they’re not very spotlighted.
KB: The CD package is amazing and unusual. How did you come up with the concept? Who did the artwork?
IC: I thought to myself, if I can present this album in an interesting package that people have never seen before, they’ll be more likely to listen to it. I have loved origami since I was a wee lad, so I sat down with a CD and an 11 x 17 inch sheet of paper and started folding. In origami there are certain sets of creases that create basic forms called bases. Usually, each base is named after the best-known model for which it is used. I ended up with a variation on what is called the balloon base.
My friend Mike Moran did the artwork. I collected some leaves and bark from my parents’ back yard, and Mike scanned them into his computer and built the tree in Photoshop. Using materials from a craft store, I made a moth, which Mike also scanned and placed on the tree. I wear it as a cravat sometimes when I perform. I adopted the moth as my mascot for this album because it represents rebirth or change. Getting these songs out of my system has allowed me to end one era of my life and start a new one.
KB: I understand you have duel citizenship and have traveled back to Australia. How do you go about booking shows in that country and what is the experience like with their audiences in comparison to American audiences?
IC: The main reason for going to Australia was our biggest family reunion that has happened since before I was born. I figured I’d try to book some shows while I was there, so about a month or two before I left, I contacted roughly 30 small venues in the cities I was going to. I sent them links to my myspace page and asked for any openings they might have during the time I was to be there. From those 30, I managed to get five shows booked, one of which fell through. The main concern from most places was that I didn’t have any draw. Australia has a great music scene, but it’s very self-contained and difficult to break into unless you live there. The audiences were small but really great. Everyone listened and I made a lot of friends. Americans can be that way as well, but I think anywhere you go, there will be bars where even though live music is happening, people just want to get wasted and talk loudly over it.
KB: What are you plans for the near/distant future – more touring?
IC: For now, I’m just writing a lot and playing out locally, but I definitely want to tour. I’m not sure when, but plans are being made to get on the road with Paper Bird and Laura Goldhamer. Also, I’ve been flirting tour possibilities at Bela Karoli and Joshua Novak. Really, I’d like to tour by myself, but I know there’s safety and allure in numbers. I think it’s attractive to venues if you can offer a whole lineup for a night, and when you know and love the bands you’re playing with, you can count on a good show.
The line up for A Moveable Feast has definitely grown from their earlier production this year, and although there will definitely be some drinking taking place, when Ian plays here in Denver, all eyes and ears are on him. See him perform Saturday, September 22 in the 10pm slot at the Walnut Room in Denver.
Ian is also performing this Friday, September 21 at 4pm at Radio 1190 during Local Shakedown and that night at Club 156 in Boulder, along with Strangers Die Every Day & Lisa Papineau. And on September 28, he’ll be part of the musical line up for Denver Art Museum’s monthly “Untitled” event held the last Friday of every month.