Chasing Amy

Amy Cook lets the light in

Chasing Amy
Photo by Jana Birchum

Amy Cook seats herself on the basement floor of the not-yet-open Hotel Havana in San Antonio. The room is painted white and minty blue-green, with disembodied lamp bases strung wall to wall. Dressed in a fire-red jumpsuit, a catlike tilt to her sky blue eyes, Cook drapes slender arms over crossed legs. Any other musician with an album scheduled for imminent release would be in the frenzy of preparation. Amy Cook is cool, calm, and has collected herself by doing something unrelated musically.

Above her, on three floors overlooking this more peaceful section of the River Walk, the Havana buzzes. At the center of this hive of activity is attorney-turned-hotelier Liz Lambert, Cook's lover and the remarkable visionary behind Austin's San José and Saint Cecilia boutique hotels, as well as Marfa's Thunderbird. This latest addition comes with its own honeyed cachet, built on Navarro Street in the late 1800s as a European-style residential hotel. In Lambert's capable reimagining, the ambience is pre-Castro Havana in the Alamo City with a touch of Hemingway cool.

Cook went to work as a painter for Lambert in Marfa around 2005, at the Thunderbird. She later swathed the walls of the Saint Cecilia bar in a rich jewel blue, achieved using Venetian plaster. At the Hotel Havana, amid minibar refrigerators in tropical colors and cigar-friendly balconies, the singer refurbishes the beautifully crafted lamps. Dangling above her, they're in the grayish primer stage. Soon, they'll be glossy black. Amy Cook gestures sweepingly.

"Welcome to Lampland!"

It's the perfect greeting from someone whose new recording is titled Let the Light In.

California Girl

Her official biography offers little about Amy Cook's life before age 25. It's not that she's cryptic; now 35, she boasts roughly 15 years in the business and is still exploring the bounds of her talent. It's a gratifying journey for both the local musician and her passionate fan base, one increasingly accompanied by the press, which delights in hyphenated descriptives. "Indie pop singer-songwriter" comes closest to the slippery realms where Cook's music resides.

"It's weird, like nothing happened to me before then," notes Cook about the absence of her history with a faint smile.

She grew up in the Bay Area's Silicon Valley, learning to play guitar in the fourth grade for the church choir she sang in. She dabbled in songwriting then and kept it up throughout high school, moving to open mics when she started college in Los Angeles. At 22, she recorded her first disc.

Who were your parents and what did they do?

"I'm adopted."

The question becomes the elephant in the room. Cook herds it graciously, frankly, philosophically.

"My dad worked at IBM, and my mother was a homemaker."

The Cooks had no other children.

"I know my birth mother though," she volunteers, "and have a sister."

Do you have a relationship with your birth mother?

"If I'd had a different relationship with my adopted parents, it could have been fine, but we came from totally different planets. It may be that way [in biological families], but it's complicated when you're adopted because you don't know that."

Another pachyderm lumbers on the sidelines.

Did you always know you were gay?

She nods, the smile that so easily slides across her angular face tugging at one corner of her pink mouth.

"I had a girlfriend when I was in high school," she offers.

Rainbows weren't where her religious adoptive parents planned their daughter's search for gold in life, yet those looking for evidence of psychic scarring or a lost soul in her music will have to keep moving along. Cook is well-balanced with the status quo, though she's aware of the emotional effort involved.

"David Garza sent me a message the other day: 'When I ask you to come up onstage, come up onstage! Don't be the kid sitting on the side of the pool!'

"That's who I've been. That's the kid that is me.

"A lot of it is Liz. She's not going to let me be the kid on the side of the pool. It's taking me a long time to let go of that – that I'm not good enough."

A clatter outside the room of hanging lamps is accompanied by the voices of workers who fill every room in the hotel. Cook rises and tiptoes to the door, shutting the noise out as she playfully presses a slim index finger to her lips.

"Let's close the door. Lampland should be more private."

Sky Observations

"I lived in L.A. for 12 years, and I really liked it. But I just kinda thought I wanted to live somewhere else. Maybe it was the traffic."

Cook returns from the door and sinks back down again to the concrete floor, crossing her ankles and leaning back on her hands.

"It seemed like a grind, and I couldn't figure out who I was as a songwriter. When you're in L.A., people tell you what you should do and how it's gonna work for you. After so many years, I wanted to go somewhere quiet so I could figure out what songs I wanted to do and who I was. But I don't think that was L.A.'s fault."

That's a first for the City of Angels, long damned and condemned as evil incarnate, the siren's call responsible for more misfortunes than fortunes. For Cook, those years in Los Angeles were the proving ground, trying her wings at such places as Hotel Cafe before heading to Texas. By some standards, she was becoming successful, especially if you count the touchy-feely soundtracks on shows like Dawson's Creek and Felicity. Even with her song "Million Holes in Heaven" on critically acclaimed series The L Word, advancement was relative.

"I couldn't get people out to shows," she admits.

A trip here for the Austin City Limits Music Festival got to her. She arrived in town and called Liz Lambert at the behest of friends. The two arranged to meet at the San José, but Lambert was running late.

"So I went to the Continental Club first. It was Tuesday night."

Cook displays a fill-in-the-blank grin.

"Toni Price. Hippie hour. Pot-smoking out back and people being so nice. It was my first introduction to Austin music, and it was fucking awesome. I loved it right away."

She and Lambert met up later that night. Cook's day job attracted the attention of the hotelier notorious for her hands-on approach. Cook learned the Venetian plaster method from an L.A. pro.

"A couple months later Liz called me and said: 'I need a painter. Do you want to come work [in Marfa] at the Thunderbird?' I was like, 'All riiiiight!' She got me there, and I never left. Went back to L.A. and got my stuff.

Liz Lambert and Amy Cook
Liz Lambert and Amy Cook (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"In Marfa, I stopped thinking about what I was going to write and just wrote. It felt like I was doing it just for me – I didn't care what was going to happen with the songs. It was so liberating, like doing this," she says, waving at Lampland.

"I can paint lights, and I can go on tour. In L.A., I felt pressured to be successful, but being happy is not about those things. Like when you're traveling and finally going home, and you get to the gate at the airport with all the other people going home to Texas. Moving here just felt right."

The Escovedo Factor

Two years later, the Austinite released The Sky Observer's Guide, songs of starry introspection and wry observations. Its exquisite packaging included art by Amy Adler, Joni Mitchell's curator, and grabbed the attention of Out magazine, which counted Cook among its Top 100 of 2008. The recording made a flashy calling card and suggested there was a great deal more to come.

"I wasn't consciously trying to do anything different, but I wrote a lot of the songs on that record in alternate tunings," she says. "I had Brad Rice playing guitar and when he went off with Keith Urban, I felt really lost with the songs. I realized a lot of them didn't work with just me and guitar. When I went on tour, they weren't translating. It was kind of boring. I liked the record, the atmosphere, but I think I wrote it all in one place where my voice fit, and I hadn't figured out how to use my voice. I didn't know I could sing, and Alejandro showed me how to sing.

"We'd been on tour, singing songs – 'Laaaaaaaa!'" trills Cook operatically.

"And he'd be like, 'Yeah!' One night, after I'd opened and he was about to go on, he said, 'I'm gonna sing "All the Young Dudes," and you're going to sing the second verse.' And I was like, 'What?' There are a lot of words there, and they're not easy to learn! I looked them up on my iPhone and wrote lyrics on my arm. He could have told me the lyrics, but he wanted me to rise to the occasion.

"So, I got up there, sang the first and second line, then panicked, looking at my arm. All the blood rushed to my head – standing in front of hundreds of people and I'm not singing! It was like being a kid and peeing in class! But I pulled it off, I did something funny, did a little dance, and everyone laughed, and it was fine.

"The next night, he made me do it again."

The making of Let the Light In, produced by Escovedo – his first for someone else – ushered in a new era of creativity for Cook, who wrote the songs over a three-year period. It was a time spent learning the discipline of writing every day and discovering that some songs deliver themselves fully formed in 20 minutes while others require cultivation and gestation.

"Once you start doing something every day, it gets easier. I was afraid for a long time that I would give a lot of time to something and not be good at it. When it got easier to write, it was easier to give more time to it.

"I was playing with people I really loved, but Alejandro said, 'We're going to play with different people on the record.' He knew what he wanted and what we were going to do. We did a lot of preproduction where he'd say, 'This is how the song is going to start, where it's going to build.' He really pushed for as much feeling as possible in the songs."

Some of that feeling came from those who worked on it with her – Escovedo and his six-string crony David Pulkingham; Austin's latest name resident Ben Kweller as her co-writer on "Let's Go Down to the River," with the luminous Patty Griffin and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson singing harmony; Stephen Barber's elegant arrangements of the Tosca String Quartet bassist backed by Bobby Daniel and drummer Sammy Kestenholtz with David Boyle on keyboards. Boyle also lent his recording and mixing talents to the album, mastered by Dave McNair. Much of Light's sparkle comes from the diamond edge Escovedo puts on Cook's sharpened songwriting.

The compelling "Moonrise" is already heard on KUT, but "Saltwater," "Hotel Lights," and "Let's Go Down to the River" are likely favorites. The titular track and sly "I Wanna Be Your Marianne" further map new turf.

"I like writing story songs and had just watched [The Rolling Stones] Rock and Roll Circus and listened to T. Rex. Marianne could be anybody."

Cook smiles, using a similar disclaimer about the song "Mescaline," which she admits ultimately did inspire that one. Except Marianne's the name of one of rock & roll's redeemed goddesses, a moniker immortalized in countless song titles by artists from the Who to Leonard Cohen to Tori Amos. And the song sounds like Escovedo dug into it, the visceral combination of artist and producer that makes real studio magic. Isn't that what a songwriter wants?

Cook nods in agreement and rises, walking to the door and opening it. The musty surroundings of the larger basement area contrast with Lampland's compact tranquility.

"Want to go upstairs?"

Spaces in Between

Perched on the top step outside of the Hotel Havana, Amy Cook tamps a Natural American Spirit cigarette from its blue pack and lights it. The cirrus smoke floats into the cloudless sky, drifting one way then twisting another. Tattooed on the inside of her right arm is the word "bird."

"It's an ex-girlfriend's nickname; we're still good friends," she explains then giggles. "We call it 'lesbian Scrabble,' because she had my initials, 'ANC,' tattooed on the inside of her arm. For her new girlfriend, all she did was add a letter at the beginning and at the end. It was perfect."

Looming is the release of Let the Light In and a tour with the Heartless Bastards. Also in the cards is Amy Cook: The Spaces in Between, a documentary directed by Todd Robinson. While it's not Cook's current look or repertoire, the film is symbolic of her ongoing progress.

"As a singer and a songwriter, but mostly as a person, I've grown into my skin since then," she muses. "I've been lucky enough to find some great teachers and cohorts in Austin I've learned so much from. And I also have a girlfriend who's really inspiring to be around. She makes you believe anything is possible. That you can do what you set your mind to, and you should have a good time doing it."

On cue, Lambert appears behind her holding a menu – anyone want to order lunch? Her hair is short, sandy blonde, tousled like a well-loved stuffed animal. Cook looks up with a winsome smile, shaking her shoulder-length locks no. Lambert leans down and kisses the top of her head.


Amy Cook Let(s) the Light In at the Hotel San José CD release, Thursday, April 8, 6pm.


E-mailing Amy

Who do you love? It's a question about music Amy Cook bounced around in conversation, then elaborated on by e-mail afterward. In her own e.e. cummings style (Cook's a longtime fan of his poetry), and unedited, this was her reply:

when i get asked who i really love musically i get overwhelmed and i go blank.

here are some really important ones. i love music and every kind of music so a lot is left out,

like stevie wonder, and shuggie otis and replacements and david axelrod and miles davis and the gun club and

the kinks and mazzy star and patti smith, talking heads, nirvana, etc. ... kenny rogers first edition! ... i could go on forever though, so here are very faves and i'm sure i'm forgetting somebody so important.

simon and garfunkel

big star

jeff buckley

t rex

pretenders

dylan

rolling stones

david garza

the escovedo

patty griffin

neil young

sam phillips

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Amy Cook, Let the Light In, Alejandro Escovedo, Liz Lambert, David Garza

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