Phil Cook has been repairing bathroom tile in his Durham home when I call and interrupt his work to ask about his upcoming visit to Asheville.
It’s satisfying work for Cook, who has been on a winter break and is just a couple weeks away from launching a North American tour for his debut solo album, Southland Mission. The record has received plenty of attention from listeners and reviewers already familiar with Cook, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist known for his own bands, Megafaun and The Shouting Matches, as well as for his work with the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, among many others.
The music of bands like the Blind Boys and The Staples Singers called to Cook as a youngster, and he eventually moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina to be somehow closer to it. Cook recorded Southland Mission at Echo Mountain Studios about two years ago and says he’s looking forward to coming back to the mountains, a place he’s been familiar with for a long time.
Matt and Mark at Harvest Records in West Asheville are longtime buddies, Cook says, adding that he’s seen his fair share of the Double Crown, The Wedge and the bottom of a Doc Chey’s noodle bowl.
“My wife and I have been coming to Asheville for a long time. It’s kind of our special vacation spot,” Cook says. “The mountains are really special.”
Cook’s affinity for Asheville is worth noting, because a sense of place – namely the South – infuses Southland Mission, with its bluesy, gospel, roosty vibe.
“There was one thing Pops Staples always said, and that was ‘We’re going to sing music with a message. We’re singing message music,’ and that stuck with me,” Cooks says, “because anything sung from the heart is going to reach the heart. When you watch anyone doing any kind of art, you believe them, you surrender your discerning, critical eye, when you recognize that purity. In a music room, you can tell when an authentic moment is happening because everybody gets on board when you’re truly singing from the heart,” Cook says.
“I’m always trying to go for those moments, because that’s what music has always done for me and because music is one of the few things we have that will wake us up out of our selfish, fucking, idiotic selves.”
So, I ask, do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
“That’s a huge questions, and I’m accepting to live in that question. It’s really important because it keeps me going on my quest. If you have a certainty, there’s a period and an end of discussion. Keeping something open is a lot harder to do. I really have a hard time with anyone who doesn’t have any questions,” Cook says.
“Secondary to that is that I grew up going to church, a fairly liberal church, and I’m thankful for that. It gave me a chance to sing and perform with others. I’ve always been a seeker and have always been looking at what’s going on below the surface of things. I love looking at things and panning out,” he says.
“With gospel music, it inherently has people who mean what they say, and it consistently mirrored the popular music of the time. So I gravitate toward that. Gospel music has been shown me what music can do to a group of people, and what place joy has in music. We live now in a time where loneliness is what people look for, and they look for music to validate feelings of aloneness, but I prefer something different.”
Phil Cook and the Guitarheels, with The Dead Tongues, play The Mothlight on Haywood Road in West Asheville tonight, Thursday, Jan. 21. The doors open at 8:30 p.m. and the show starts at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.
That was a fantastic show, and I love the communal clap along and uplifting vibe of the evening. As an atheist/agnostic, I miss singing with others, and I think Phil is really on to something here. Great article — thanks!