Interview by Kevin Janssen
Kevin Janssen got the chance to sit down with Juno award winning guitarist Jesse Cook during his stop in Easton.
KJ: So you've been touring for a while now, how has that been going?
JC: Well, I don't go out and do 6 months or something, I just tour a little bit all the time. I have kids now and you know, in the old days I was happy to go out on the road for months and months, but with a family, I go out for a few weeks, go home even for a couple days or a couple weeks, then I go out again. So I never really stop, but I never really go and say goodbye. I think some pop bands will kiss their families goodbye and say I'll see you in a year, that's not us. This leg of the tour, the eastern United States, has been two weeks. Before that we did two weeks of Ontario, Canada. And then we'll be home for a couple weeks, and then we'll go out and do Texas, the Midwest, then go home for a while, then we do Qatar, then we go home for a while, then we do the western United States, that sort of thing. That's how we keep it all going.
KJ: What has been your favorite place to play at so far?
JC: It's funny, I get asked that question frequently. You know, I don't know if there is a specifically favorite place. Obviously, I've shot a few of my DVDs at the Montreal Jazz Festival and I've recorded live CDs there. Part of that is because there's a really great audience there, they tend to go really crazy; they love music. It's also partly that the Montreal Jazz Festival has a huge infrastructure and they have DVD crews ready on hand to shoot DVDs if you're interested. Otherwise, I just like playing anywhere where there's an appreciative audience, where people are ready to really get into what you're doing. I think there's nothing worse than people just sort of being happy with the concert, you want them to really have some sort of visceral experience. Wherever that is, I'm happy to be.
KJ: You've been to the State Theatre before, right?
JC: Yeah, I've been here twice before, so this'll be my third time.
KJ: Have you had a great audience?
JC: Yeah, a very good audience. For somebody like me, I'm a little bit off the beaten path. I'm not a pop singer or something, I play instrumental world beat music, so to show up in a relatively small city like this and be able to play a big theatre like this is miraculous as far as I'm concerned (laughs). I have to kind of keep my expectations realistic. I'm a guitarist. I'm playing music that is really a little strange (laughs). The fact that there is actually an audience there for strange music is fantastic. Anywhere where people like what we do.
KJ: You mention that you really aren't a huge pop singer?
JC: No, no… not like Lady Gaga (laughs).
KJ: (Laughs) Yet you've clearly been very successful, has that affected the way you perform or your style of music at all?
JC: Well, no, in terms of writing music, I've always just tried to do whatever makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I try not to second guess what people are going to like because I think that's a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day you have to chase your own muse and hopefully there will be some people in the public who get what you are trying to do and will relate to it and that's the best I can hope for. I would say yes, considering how strange my music is I would consider the success really fantastic but that isn't to say that I'm a huge, huge success because that would be a gross exaggeration. What's nice is I can live comfortably and go to the corner store and people don't come up to me and recognize me for the most part. Once in a blue moon, you know. I was on the phone with FedEx today trying to sort out a package and the woman on the phone said, "Are you Jesse Cook the singer, the jazz singer?" and well… I'm a guitarist, world music, but yeah, close enough (laughs). She's like, 'my fiancée and I met at your concert and now it's a year later, we're gonna get married!? I was like, wow, what do you figure the odds? Most people really have no idea who I am, and that's great because I can live a normal life but still go out and play music and play in theatres and actually have an audience there when we arrive, which means I don't have to drive a cab for a living. So that's a good thing.
KJ: I've listened to Gravity a lot, I actually picked that up when I was about twelve?
JC: Oh, okay!
KJ: And listening to The Rumba Foundation, there's definitely a very notable variety in what you do and how you do it. Could you sort of describe the pathway that you've gone in music and how you've explored different territories?
JC: I think for the first two records, I was firmly entrenched in what I would consider Rumba Flamenco, which is that kind of Gipsy Kings sound. Flamenco music is music of southern Spain- Spain now, really- but originally it comes from Andalucía, southern Spain. Rumba is one of many forms, but if you go to southern France, there's a small community of ex-pat Spanish gypsies who I guess left Spain during the Spanish Civil War and that's where the Gipsy Kings come from and Manitas de Plata and that whole group of musicians. And that's where I learned this kind of music; my dad happened to retire to Arles, where the Gipsy Kings came from. So the first two records you can really hear that sound, it's a really big part of those two records. And then after that there was a point where I just wanted to try something new, I wanted to explore new territories and try and come up with a sound I hadn't heard before. So I started experimenting on Nomad. I went to Egypt, I went to Cairo, I recorded with some fantastic musicians there. I went to London to record with a group called Afro Celt Sound System and then I went to Madrid to record with Montse Cortes and recorded with Flora Purim, a Brazilian jazz singer. So it was like a really eclectic mix of musicians from all over the world. And then the record after that, that would be Frontiers, was influenced by my wife and I living in Seville for a while. And then this record, the idea was I was going to take rumba flamenco and mix it with Cuban music. And then somewhere along the lines I ended up in Columbia and Columbian music ended up kind of taking over the project. It was one of those things, it was an unexpected surprise but it was a beautiful one and I realized, well, I don't have to cling to that idea that this is going to be the Cuban project, maybe we'll just make it the Latin American project. And it was really great. I went down and worked with a group called Los Giateros de San Jacinto, they won a Latin Grammy back in 2007, and they play traditional gaita music. I called them up and said, "You want to do a project?" and they said, "Sure." So I went down, it was fantastic. Originally we were just going to do two songs, and then when I got down there, it was just so fun and things were going so well we just kept opening up other sessions and saying well let's try this song and why don't you play on that song and see what it sounds like. Before I knew it, it had really taken over the whole album.
KJ: You mention the fusion of Cuban and Columbian music with Rumba and I even noticed Bombay Diner on your most recent album which had some Bollywood influence.
JC: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
KJ: Do you have any ideas of more fusions you're really excited about or maybe even more like Bombay Diner, anything along those lines?
JC: Well, the next record actually, I'm trying to decide between doing a Bollywood record because I'm a closet Bollywood fan, I love that stuff, and a doing a Brazilian record. I used to play percussion in a Brazilian samba school just for fun, a little side project. Every year there's more and more samba schools cropping up in Toronto where I live, so I keep meeting these amazing Brazilian musicians and thinking, wow, we should do a project together. It's just a matter of finding the right time to do it. And finding the right song and the right melodies and making it all gel. Right now I just haven't decided what the next record is going to be. Lately I've been so focused on actually making videos of our lives on the road and just trying to make a document of the weird existence that we lead as musicians on the road. One day you're playing in front of a castle in the Middle East and the next day you're schlepping your gear up the stairs to some club in Ireland. It's an amazing thing; first of all you get to see parts of the world that I had never expected I'd get to see, parts of Asia I just never thought I'd get to. But also you get to do it while doing this thing that you love like music, you know? I don't have to… I don't know, I mean, how many people do accounting for a hobby? (Laughs). I'm really lucky, we all are. The guys in the band, we're lucky we get to do this thing that we really love. We'd do it anyway even if we couldn't make a living doing it.
KJ: That's amazing, all the travel and seeing all that… contrarily, what is one of the hardest things you've experienced as a musician?
JC: I don't know, it's hard to really feel like we're hard done by. My sister is a lawyer and when she has a hard day on the job, somebody's life really gets messed up. If she shows up and she's unprepared, she didn't have enough sleep or whatever, somebody really could have their life not be good for a while and she'll walk away feeling like she's let this person down. I think that's a huge amount of responsibility. With me, you know, I make music. It's just… playing notes (laughs). It's hard to feel like there's a bad side of it. Yeah, we have crazy long travel days and sometimes you don't get enough sleep- well, often, most of the time you don't get enough sleep. The flip side of that is we don't do a lot of really hard work. You're sitting in plane or you're sitting on a bus or you're sitting in a theatre… it's not so bad. It's hard to feel hard done by.
KJ: I think it was an interview I saw on your website where you said that you don't feel entirely responsible for all of the music of The Rumba Foundation because you had all of these other musicians come in… how did all of that come together?
JC: Usually I start by writing everything at home, so I write all the arrangements and I record as many of the parts I can. I did the accordion parts on this keyboard- it's like a kazoo attached to a keyboard, I think they call that a melodophone or something. I do whatever I can just to try and get the whole arrangement sketched out and have something I can listen to and relate to. Everything was written and then I take it to the guys in my band or I'll go and work with Los Gaiteros, bring in different guests and just start throwing out the parts that I recorded badly and get people who really know what they're doing to come in. I had written out all sorts of parts for them to play but the secret, I think, to being a good producer, is knowing when to let go. The reason I'm in Columbia is to let these guys can do what they do and they didn't play anything remotely similar to what I had written for them. They did their own thing and it was great. The project as a whole was a lot better for it.
KJ: Do you have anything that you would want to say specifically to new listeners about your music to really help them understand and feel it the first time they hear it?
JC: That's a difficult question. I think sometimes people will see my face on a poster or something and they'll assume it's solo classical guitar, and it is really about as far away from solo classical guitar as it could possibly get. Most of what we do is improvised, the guys in the band are huge part of the project, they're not just backing me up. Chris Church on the violin is amazing, Chendy Leon, our percussionist, is from Cuba. We used to have a drum set player and a percussionist and Chendy joined the band and could do both parts better than two separate people. Dennis is really funky and Nick is a great flamenco player, more of a traditional flamenco player than I am. We try to get people up on their feet. Every night by the end, everybody's dancing. It's not a sit-down, look through your upper glasses kind of a show. I never know how to answer that, I just think whatever; listen to it on Youtube or something, if you like it, come on down, if you don't, that's okay too. Music is subjective.
KJ: You mentioned improvising a lot, is that huge factor of performing for you?
JC: For sure, it's a big factor. It's that as a performer, I'm always dealing with that question of whether or not I should do the same solo as is on the record because people want to hear that. They know the record, they like the record, and now they want to hear it live… versus giving them an experience that is more really like where the record came from because the solos on the record are mostly improvised, so why not hear a truly improvised experience, go to a concert and see something new? So I try to kind of walk that line and do a balance of both, some parts that are totally improvised and other parts that are close enough to the original that people will be happy.
KJ: My last question… do you have any advice that you would give an aspiring musician?
JC: Ah, yeah, I do actually. I usually tell musicians, you know, "chase your dreams." Life is too short. All through my twenties, I was a composer. I had lots of music education and I just assumed that being in the public eye was much too difficult, the public is really fickle, and it's never going to happen, it's a pipe dream, don't even think about it. And I thought, okay, I'll be a behind the scene guy. I'll be a record producer and a composer and I did scores for dance and theatre and TV, whatever I could get. And then one day, a friend of mine said, "You know, you really should record your guitar playing." And I was like, oh no, no, I can't do that. He said, "You should do it." And I thought, well, you know what, if I turn thirty and I haven't done this, I'll spend the rest of my life wondering, what if? So I did it, really just on a lark. And when I finally actually aimed my life at exactly what I wanted to do, things just became a lot easier. Suddenly, doors opened up that were closed and I realized that the best thing you can do is do what you really, really love to do because you're going to be completely motivated. You're going to love what you do and people are going to feel that. And that's my story.
KJ: That's wonderful, thank you for your time!